Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Bus rides through mine fields

Enjoying coconuts on the train
We chugged out of Colombo on one of Sri Lanka's British colonial era trains. The track wound its way North through bright green rice paddies and coconut plantations. The leg space was generous as Asian transportation options go. We were serenaded by vocal toddlers and lulled into semi-consciousness by the potent nasal onslaught of cow shit and locomotive exhaust.

After a few hot, humid hours we arrived at the next destination of our sabbatical: the unpronounceable city of Anuradhapura. A tuk-tuk driver ferried us through the unremarkable town to our guest house for the night. The old couple who owned the place explained that the famous temple complex in the old town had extraordinarily high entry fees for foreign tourists (on the order of ~$30 per person vs. ~$1 per person for locals). Instead we elected to take his suggestion to support the local economy and hired the same tuk-tuk driver to smuggle us into the various sites. 

Drea experiments with surf yoga
Our valiant driver took us through the various secret routes to avoid the ever-watchful gaze of the tourist police and park attendants. Once inside we were blown away by the scale of the temple complex. Anuradhapura is one of the less-talked-about stops on Sri Lanka's cultural tourism circuit but the Buddhist stupas, statues and carvings there rival anything in Asia. Make sure to check it out if you get the chance to visit. 

The next morning we caught a bus to the Northern tip of Sri Lanka, a city called Jaffna. Jaffna was the center of the long-running civil war and the home base of the Tamil Tigers. 

The war ended violently a few years ago in the midst of some complex geopolitical posturing. After quietly supporting the Sri Lankan government for years, the US withdrew its support just as they were mounting their last major offensive against the rebels. Obama is quite unpopular in Sri Lanka because he also tried to sway the EU and other international parties to push for a diplomatic resolution with the Tamil Tigers due to (well-grounded) concerns about human rights violations perpetrated by government troops. Luckily for the government, China stepped in to take up the slack. India sat back, worried about its huge Tamil population getting upset over any action.
Elephants are the national animal

China actually has a long history of international support for Sri Lanka. When we arrived in Colombo we both wrongly assumed that Sri Lanka and India must be close allies. Their actual relationship is far more complex, and far less friendly, than we thought. The straight is fraught with tension and constant political bickering. China supported Sri Lanka for centuries as a strategic trade hub and came to the rescue with funding and military supplies when Colombo decided to wipe the Tigers off the map. Many Sri Lankans saw this as the only viable solution because of the singularly failure-ridden track record of peace negotiations. They saw Obama and the US as trying to subvert a final resolution to their civil war by claiming to support peace when their actual (secret) goal was protracted conflict that benefited US weapons manufacturers. 

And you thought the Eiffel Tower was big
Our experience of Jaffna was surprisingly mundane. We had to stop at a few military checkpoints. Burnt out, bullet-ridden shells of ancient trucks occasionally marred the landscape. "CAUTION, LAND MINES" signs were common. But the city of Jaffna was a slow-paced, laid back place. There wasn't a lot to see but the town was in good repair and the infrastructure was better than in many other parts of the country. We visited the sights that did exist: a remote island with wild horses, an ancient colonial dutch fort built out of coral, a colorful cemetery overlooking the coastline where the 2004 Tsunami hit hardest. But we were quickly ready to move on.

That next move turned out to be the longest bus ride of our lives. The crowded vehicle bumped along from Jaffna to the beach town of Trincomalee on the Northeast coast. Mind-numbing Indian pop music blared through the speakers at volumes they weren't designed to handle. We quickly muted it out by listening to our default road trip soundtrack: The Heist. Road construction slowed our pace to a crawl. The driver's constant extended bathroom breaks hinted that we weren't the only ones suffering from Sri Lankan indigestion. The mix of dust and heat was enough to break the strongest soul. Objectively the drive took about eleven hours. Subjectively it took exactly four and a half months.

Eliot takes up a new profession
Lucky for us our next two designations, Trinco and Arugam Bay farther south, were the most laid-back beach towns we had visited yet. We spent the next few weeks swimming, snorkeling, and sipping on fresh king coconuts. We caught up a little on our writing. Drea surfed the best wave of her life and experimented with surf yoga. We watched Wimbledon and chilled out to the constant background hum of reggae. Arugam Bay oozed soul. Local tailors made us ~$10 custom bikinis/board shorts from high quality local textile. Resident chefs whipped up delicious local rice and curries. We relaxed and were able to let loose after our rather harried tour of the North. Hell, we even had some fun nights of Jenga along with Sri Lankan beer on tap, the first good beer on tap we had had since leaving California!

Eventually we realized we were at serious risk of succumbing to the East Coast's chill vibe completely and missing the rest of the country. It was time for our next adventure: the mist shrouded peaks of Sri Lanka's famous tea country...

Co-posted on

So THAT's how you wear a sarong!

Gettin' jiggy with it at the temple


Yum 2!

Hindu temple in Jaffna (we didn't bother going in but it was cool to look at anyway)

Tsunami cemetery at Point Pedro, in the norther-most area of Sri Lanka

The unfortunately named Tsunami hotel @ Arugam Bay

A day at the office...

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