Travel – Sri Lanka: Rebirth and bitter memories

2014-08-22 18:45

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Sri Lanka is recovering from the twin effects of a tsunami and a civil war. On a recent visit, Firdose Moonda found a country that somehow keeps getting back up on its feet

Beauty and broken hearts may not share a space as snugly anywhere other than at the train tracks that run from Colombo to Galle.

On one side, the Indian Ocean sparkles in the sunlight; on the other lie the graves of some of the people whose lives it took almost 10 years ago.

It was Boxing Day morning in 2004 when the ground beneath the Indian Ocean shattered and sent 9m-high waves crashing on to the tracks.

The water flooded a train, trapping the passengers and those who had climbed aboard, erroneously thinking they would be safe. Most drowned, some were crushed when the carriages smashed against the adjacent houses and trees, and others were swept away.

Of the approximately 2?000 people who perished that day, only 900 bodies were recovered. Many of them rest less than 10m away from their killer, among a mishmash of structures that suffered a similar fate but at least have a future.

There is a lot of rebuilding going on in Sri Lanka and it is not confined to this route. The country is in the process of recovery from twin tragedies: a 25-year civil war and the 2004 tsunami. The revival is well under way.

The Sri Lankan economy, which is fuelled mainly by exports of tea and imports of tourists, is growing at more than 7% a year and evidence of that is most obvious in its capital city, Colombo?–?construction central.

One of its main arteries, sensibly called Galle Road because that is where it leads, will soon be lined with major international hotels.

ITC, Hyatt Regency, Shangri-La, Mövenpick and Sheraton are all due to open in the next year, while the grand old lady of the strip, the Galle Face Hotel, with its terrace overlooking the sea, is being refurbished.

The new developments serve the dual purpose of attracting visitors to the island and enticing the prodigal sons and daughters to come back home and take part in the rebirth.

Many of them would have left the country as children when their parents fled the civil war. Today they are seen as the golden eggs.

Thilini Punzi is one of them. She was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in Bahrain, studied in Australia – where she met and married an Italian man – and then worked in England. She has now moved back to Sri Lanka – with porcelain teacup accent, Victoria Beckham wardrobe and her husband – and opened a gourmet pizza restaurant.

Their establishment is barely nine months old but may one day grow into an entity like Sugar 41, a new up-market establishment with a house band.

Mzansi, a South African jazz-fusion group originally from Ekurhuleni, have performed at the venue for the past seven months. The group’s lead singer, Kgomotso Xolisa Mamaila, has been in Sri Lanka for a year and this is her third stint in the country since she first arrived on request from the South African embassy in 2010 to generate a World Cup vibe.

Why does she keep returning? “You know home, hey?...?it’s difficult to find work,” she says.

Her experience of the very same Colombo, where overcrowded buses with seats reserved for the clergy are the ordinary person’s best way of getting around and average household incomes sit at just R3?700 a month, is a sign that, like South Africa, divisions in Sri Lanka are shifting from ethnic to economic.

The conflict might have been about culture, but the future will be about class.

Although Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority fought a bloody war that eventually caused the deaths of almost 100?000 people, the country’s ethnic groups have long preferred peace. Nowhere is that more evident than down the coast in Galle.

To get there from Colombo, you can either take the new highway built with Japanese investment, or use the rail network. The former

will get you there in less than two hours, the latter will take about 45 minutes longer, but will teach you a thing or two.

The railway line runs along the coast – the ocean is so close that if you are in cattle class, you will be tempted to reach through the open windows and wet your fingertips. On the other side, a mixture of houses, informal dwellings and burial grounds dot the scenery.

Lest we forget.

Even in that space, people do not go about their business in a state of constant mourning, as you might expect. There is a sense of hope.

One of the principles of Buddhism is reincarnation, and many people feel the dead are still among them in some form, which gives them comfort.

With that in mind, you will reach Galle and the weight of the big smoke will lift. This is a seaside town and its dominant feature is the Unesco World Heritage Site, the Galle Fort.

It has stood since 1584, when the Portuguese constructed it after an attack from the Sinhalese king. It was rebuilt by the Dutch, who seized it in 1640. The British took over in 1796 but failed to add too many decorative touches. These days, it belongs to the people of Sri Lanka, all of them.

There are several Buddhist temples within its walls; as well as the Meeran Jumma Mosque, which is considered the heart of Galle’s Muslim community; and the Dutch Reformed Church, the oldest Protestant place of worship in Sri Lanka. There is also a magistrates’ court and doctors’ rooms.

The first library in south Asia can be found here, as well as the national maritime museum and a breadfruit tree, which is considered to be one of the oldest in the country.

All of this exists in a space of less than half a square kilometre. Robben Island is 10 times as big.

Travel further north and you will hit Kandy, the hill country, the tea estates and finally Jaffna, where the war waged at its worst. Jaffna was the last place to be taken from the Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankan army.

So yes, there are still some broken hearts in Sri Lanka, but there is much more beauty.

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