Failing Jaffna : A Short Trip up the A9 and Back Again
Vavuniya Travel Blog› entry 255 of 268 › view all entries
Although it's only a one kilometre haul, the trudge to the bus stand in Anuradhapura this morning is damn hot and dang sweaty and so darned unamusing. I sweat and frown my way past the still snoozing buses and the grinning rickshaw drivers hoping to make good of this fact. The most they get is a shake of the head and a nice view of my well-worn heels. The things I will endure to keep trade from this international community! Not out of spite. Just financial expediency. I sweat and frown my way past dogs still dosing in the grass, many a bakery with fresh warm treasures behind glass and goats in search of yet more repast. I sweat and frown my way past the continuous flow of political fly posters that currently plague every surface of Sri Lanka like a rainbow bloom of mould.
I sit and write this in Galle on the 8th April. Election day. Ballet boxes closed three hours ago. Results expected around midnight.* For now, just more posters. And more and more and more. I'm not kidding you! The entire surface of the nation is covered with layer upon tide line layer of these posters. Whole strata of sly smiles pressed one on top of the other. Phoney photo-fossilised oily repository grins.
All these posters seem to communicate, I agree with my friend Niels, is that there is no such thing as a thin politician in Sri Lanka. Symbols and slogans are even daubed large in white paint along road surfaces, pavements and across building facades. It’ll take more than one monsoon to wash this muck away. Black buckets of paint thrown over opposition effigies. It's electoral environmental pollution. Political vandalism on a mass sanctioned scale.
Almost anywhere you care to look right now these posters are placed torn and shredded, re-pasted and again decimated in the blink of an eye. Within hours of going up it seems. Just meaningless overlapping shreds of unintelligible faces.
I throw my backpack down upon arrival at the bus stand and sit myself on the curb stone besides the bus to Vavuniya and stare, fatigued, near catatonic, in the glare of the morning sun. A hope that its rays will soon dry my t-shirt, turned damp and dark green by such torrents of sweat. As ever when travelling one is not allowed a quiet, calming recovery moment alone for long. A girl, quite dishevelled in appearance, smiling and giggling plonks herself down besides me.
She makes flighty gestures with her hands and communicates only with squeals and light laughter and the sucking and kissing of her teeth. Occasionally she breaks into surprisingly sweet wordless song and hum. In her late twenties I suppose. Slightly matted raven black hair, bright eyes dimmed by uncertainties and teeth stained a disconcerting vampish blood red from a betel chewing habit. It’s clear she had potential to be a prettier thing but something in life, some event, some person beyond her power to control fractured her at some moment in time leaving her infantile of mind and - the thick, repeated lateral scars on the undersides of her forearms reveal - self-abusing or suicidal or both.
She smiles and laughs coquettishly, shuffles closer in her ragged black skirt and takes hold of my arm (the end of her index finger missing I note) before harvesting sweat from it and smearing this all over her face and laughing once more. Impish. Strange. But I’m unmoved. Un-phased. I’ve met many travellers, particularly in India, with a horror of unsolicited human contact, but it rarely bothers me. I’ve happily dragged limb-gripping limpet urchins down the ghats of Varanasi many a time. (Just avoid the masseurs). She’s harmless. And if it is so, sometimes in travel you should just let things happen to you. Now leaning over and sniff-sniffing my shoulder before kiss-kissing it twice.
The teenage Sri Lankan lads behind us are now laughing loudly at this Odd Couple. This early morning spectacle. The crazy girl (probably a regular source of local amusement) and her indifferent red headed foreign friend. One of them calls over ’Hey friend! I think you are married!’ he crooks and crosses two fingers together in union, ’You have found nice Sri Lankan girl! Ha ha ha!’ Asshole. I smart at their lask of respect for her, not me.
Yes, today I wish to make the journey all the way north to the Jaffna peninsula. Travel here should not be a problem I’m hoping as following the assassination of Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the separatist Tamil militia the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) about a year ago Sri Lanka’s thirty year civil war was supposedly ended.
Things get a little less certain at Vavuniya bus station where the conductor on the first bus to Jaffna I step onto first says ’no seats, no seats’ laughing and then ’Jaffna no, not possible for you, absolutely not possible. They send you back’. He continues laughing. Though this echoes what my guesthouse in Anuradhapura had thought, I’m not gonna give up at the first sign of a grin and laughter. I canvas a few more police officers but they don’t seem to have a clue what I’m on about and direct me to the ticket office ( ‘Is it okay for me to travel to Jaffna?’) who point out the next waiting bus which I take as a ’go ahead’ sign. Stepping up this time, no questions, no problems and a ticket for 238 Rupees (£1.
We head out of Vavuniya. Past the high walled UN and UNICEF compounds. Past the important sounding ‘Inter-Agencies Logistics Hub’ with its stencilled silhouette of a Kalashnikov placed in a red circle with a red line striking through it. No guns please. These are not welcome by the befuddling multitudes of organisations that have swarmed post-Tsunami and now post-LTTE to the north and north easterly regions of Sri Lanka.
I don’t know if it’s a sign that we’re moving back into predominantly Hindu territory but the roaming cow population seems all of a sudden resurgent. They slowly amble across the main road that will take me to Jaffna, the A9, without a care in the world. Bovine right of way law. The bus brought to a complete halt by these cud chewing pedestrians three times. Then again for our conductor to hop down, jump out of his sandals, remove his black and white pork pie hat, chuck a few pennies at a shrine, daub a tikka mark on his forehead, jump back into his sandals and hat and onto the bus.
Passing through the small junction town of Thandikulam the smooth new road evaporates and the A9 reverts to its true current form. That of a threadbare beleaguered tatty ribbon of tarmac. From decades of war and ill maintenance (this being the highway to, from and of conflict) this oft-severed umbilical chord that runs all the way to Jaffna is on its last legs. Frequent signs of ’A9 Rehabilitation Project’ speak of a better, smoother, more suspension-friendly future. So the paper poster politicians’ smiles say. But not yet. For now there’s hardly room for one bus or lorry to sit flush on it at one time. Like grey pastry dough rolled to long, dry and thin, the tarmac cracks, crumbles and flakes away at the edges returning to rust-orange dust-to-dust and earth and it’s on to this that the buses tilt and careen as they honk and pass one another.
An armada of cows observes our passage impassively from the roadside. (Look out for those mines chaps!) The bright blue flash of a kingfisher as it flies momentarily alongside the bus. Sparrows and crows watch and chatter upon overhead cables and lengths of barbed wire. ( ’D’ya think they’ll let ’im, do ya?’) Piles of concrete sleepers and short stretches of steel railway track runners run sporadically alongside the road. Hints of future infrastructure. ’Troops ahead. Drive Slow’ a triangular sign implores. I recall Ajay Lama the jeep taxi driver from Gangtok, Sikkim, India who would at such bidding have simply floored the accelerator ’Vrrrrooooooom!’.
But suddenly, arriving at the border town of Omantai (i.e. the border of ’Tigerland’) everything comes to a halt. A large red and white metal barrier stretches across the A9, which beyond this point seems to run into dust, completely defeated. The bus pulls over to one side. A large parking zone. This a sizeable Sri Lankan Army check point. About half of the bus’s male population shuffles off the bus down into the dust. And then a young soldier spots me, standing inside (fingers crossed) with my wind-whipped red hair at attention-seeking attention and motions me down too. (’Uh-oh.’) Bags too, he motions. (’Uh-oh.’) He frowns, rifle held diagonally across his thin chest. ’You have pass?’ (’Uh-oh!’) ’Sorry, no I don’t.
Private Junior soon returns with smiling, affable Sergeant Senior who asks ’Hello sir.
Sergeant Senior returns and proffers my passport. ’You have all your luggages?’ Nodding I do, he motions to let my ex-bus get back underway. ’What about my ticket? Do I get a refund?’ ’The balance?’ He communicates this request in Sinhala to the conductor who hangs, inquisitive, out of the door of the slow moving vehicle.
Stood right at the front of the rammed bus again, the driver keeps wafting me back as I block his view of the mirror. ‘What you actually use those things?’ I exclaim in my mind. The usual odd array of plastic paraphernalia is stuck and strewn about the windscreen. A chain of once bright, now dust-covered artificial flowers draped from one side to the other. They ring around a gold lettered sign that reads ‘WEL COME’. A rubber eagle bobs about, suspended by strings through its wings from the rear view mirror. A plastic display case is affixed to the top of the windscreen and contains seven assorted gilt-edged deities of mixed Hindu and Buddhist (and occasionally Christian) origin. These pantheistic plastic monstrosities are to be found in every single bus in Sri Lanka it seems and, if you’re real lucky, they still work with rings of super-tacky LED lights flickering off and on and radiating around the unlikely gatherings of Gods. Buddhas, Lakshmis, Saraswatis, Krishnas and yes, everyone’s favourite, elephant-headed Ganesha one of whose double-edged roles is to both remove and place obstacles from or within the path of travellers. I think we know what the tubby little b*st*rd did for me today!
We pass more bashful ‘A9 Rehabilitation Project’ signs as we track back along the cracked pastry tarmac. Soldiers and policemen frequently step off and onto the running board as we pass along. Clinging on. I lose count of how many species, what a rich profusion and diversity of beautiful butterfly life flutters into view only to get splonked** on the Lanka Ashok Leyland radiator grille of our bus as we career back to town. So many one would begin to tearfully marvel at the craftsmanship of Mother Nature were the moment not over before it began. A male peacock in full feather, drags his tapestry train of silk and jewels behind him as he pecks along the roadside. Such a beautiful sight. I don’t think I’ve seen one in the wild since I was ten years old in the grounds of Johnny Lower’s mansion in my home village when the class were invited to collect the seasons moulted feather treasures. A peacock is one of those creatures, so spectacular in form, colour and composition that it has the power to inspire me to stop, just for an instant, to understand for just one moment why it is that some people might well and do believe that some higher power of design and benevolency resides behind the creation of such miracles. But then I just return to my own private marvelling at Nature’s random richness and majesty and remind myself how lucky I am to live (unbroken), for a time, in a world where chance has strewn such wonders in my way.
And in the fanning of a peacock’s feather we’re back in Vavuniya. Having failed Jaffna. So I guess it’s time for Plan B. Yes, there was one all along. Believe it or not. But it means sweating and frowning and heaving my bag and ass onto yet another bus. My fourth of the day! There are so many conflicting tide marks of dried salty sweat rings on my hole-drilled olive green t-shirt that I too now look like a combatant in camouflage fatigues! Battered (beaten) but returned from Tigerland. This soldier’s heading about 90 kilometres east to the coastal town of Trincomalee.
And it’s there you leave me, with the sea on both sides and the sun on the slide and debating (shall we say arguing) with a laundrette who’s trying to foreigner-f**k me for nine times the going rate on my washing when Philomena ( who I don’t yet know but gladly do now) steps in to help (six times only) and then invites me for a tea where I meet her sister Margaret ( ’The English they call me Margaret Thatcher you know hee-hee!’) and her adopted granddaughter Stephi who’s named after Stephen (like me) her father and who at 13 is destined to be even more staggeringly attractive than her mother, Philomena’s eldest daughter, who died four months after Stephi was born and there’s the grandmother too ( ‘Thi-vah-naii-poulet’ I try in vain to pronounce her name) who’s been widowed a while and mothered seven sons two of which were lost to the LTTE though at 87 is still ‘very independent’ and ‘how do you say, likes to keep on her feet’ and then I’m invited to dinner too and it’s ’How do you do?’ to her next eldest treasure Brigitte who at the age of 34 thinking ’I’m younger no more’ has decided it’s time to get hitched and I’m worried just a bit that they may be fishing with kindness for this particular British bachelor but it’s okay for I feigned a girlfriend at first say ’cos at 31 if not yet married you’re either single (a total freak) or must at least have a partner (only half a freak) to keep these Asian ladies happy and with faith that the world order’s not quite yet collapsing... which nevertheless it might be... depending on your vote... but that all, as they say, is another story.
For another day.
* I finished writing this piece at 22.22pm by which time incumbent and somewhat controversial president Mahinda Rajapaksa would have been made fairly certainly aware of the majority victory of his United People's Freedom Alliance. This he would later claim now giving him a public 'mandate' which previously he was not necessarily in possession of, and despite a record low voter turnout of 50-52%. Controversies over polling station fraud in the upland districts have also led to 31 catchment areas' votes being annulled and a re-vote to occur on the 20th. So technically, at the time of writing, Sri Lanka has no government.
When asked for their response to this result the goats here in Galle expressed neither interest or disinterest, surprise or no at these announcements and continued to chew the president’s face off regardless.
** ‘Splonked’ - Yes Lucy and Neals, since this word hiccupped its way from my lips into our conversation the other day I’ve grown quite fond of it. It’s etymology nobody knows, though it’s clearly a fusion of to be ‘splattered’ or ‘bonked’ (the latter in a painful on-the-head rather than a sexual manner one presumes). My best friend and I enjoy such words magicing themselves into existence to be coined anew. freshly minted linguistic loonyness. We dubbed them ‘coinerisms’ in the hope that that very word itself would prove to be one too.
[Officially with this entry I have taken one more step down the satanic path to techno-travel purgatory having logged on to a coffee shop Wi-Fi at Kuala Lumpur LCCT airport to upload this. It's NOT my fault! I was stood up by my pal Louis who I was to have lunch with and what else was a guy to do! As this is live and exclusive and up to the minute (though about events 2 weeks ago) Rini, Simsim, Fran THANKYOU THANKYOU THANKYOU THANKYOU for all your help and supportive advice - holding this shaky little bucket of travel-bolts together as he careens like a little satellite out of control towards your country without a clue what he's doing... gotta go get me that flight to Jakarta now! Vroooooooom!... see you soon! x]