Sri Lanka. One of my top 5 places to visit (as well as newly discovered Iceland, Bali, San Francisco and the jury’s still out on the other one… I can tell you a few places which aren't).
(My welcome sign at the Airport - You can see why this would've made me laugh by reading this post here: My nemesis...)
I’ve been working from our Sri Lanka office for this past week and, despite the ‘two day’ days (due to the time difference I’ve averaged 8am – 2am) I did manage some down time.
This is much to the disbelief of my friends who often just see the beaches and sights on Facebook (one day I might punish them with daily updates of just me, hot and sweaty in an office, getting bitten by mosquitoes and on the constant lookout for cockroaches), but if you spend your weekdays working 18 hours, trust me, you want to get out of Colombo after a while.
The last time I was here was 3 years ago. This was about 6 months after the LTTE war and not much had changed by then except a few less guns and an ice cream shop. This time, I couldn’t believe my eyes, particularly as everything was still clean and tidy from the CHOGM 2013 visit. A little bit like how we tidied up Oxford Street and put flags everywhere during the London 2012 Olympics, like we do that sort of thing all the time.
They have pavement. Actual pavement. With 'blind-man bumps' and everything. Pedestrian crossings and traffic lights that are ignored, but they’re there now at least.
They have zebra crossings; again mostly ignored. There’s a Shangri-La hotel being built, and numerous others have popped up. Back in the day you were limited to two or three places that were ‘nice’ to eat (one of which gave my better half food poisoning when he joined me on a trip), but really, I was spoilt this time with cafes, bars and even a TGI Fridays - This, by the way, isn’t my idea of a nice restaurant, but you can see how the Western world is taking influence– I found this highly disturbing and it saddens me to think that Sri Lanka might lose its character in the process.
(Colombo train station now. With a digital clock!)
(And a digital departures board! This, by the way, probably isn't accurate, but still... It's digital).
(The Sky Lounge at the Kingsbury Hotel on Galle Road. Yes, you read that right... Sky Lounge).
(A motorway. Who'd have thunk it. During 100kms we saw about three cars using this, but my friend told me he hoped there'd soon be more. I told him to be careful what he wished for).
But the biggest and by far the best difference is that the people aren’t afraid any more.
Imagine the threat of suicide bombers, power cuts and air strikes, and being security checked every time you go to the train station, shopping centre or super market to buy some milk or bread. A member of our team in the Sri Lankan office lost his father to a suicide bomber on a bus a few years ago… He told me that bombs would go off every month or so. On the morning of his dad’s murder, he said goodbye to him at the bus station. Each going their separate directions to catch different buses, as usual. You couldn’t predict it, you couldn’t not carry on with your lives, and I’m guessing that it just became the way things were at the time.
I’ve already written a post about Sri Lanka, which was from when I used to travel here before. One consistency is the people. They are the friendliest I’ve met in all of the Asian countries I’ve visited. They will do anything to help you, and if you can get over the constant bartering, offers of a tuk tuk ride when you really just want to walk, and the stares, even now, especially in the rural areas (I’m sure I looked like some sort of white witch whore in my shorts above the knee when I visited some of the local villages), then you’ll see that they welcome you with open arms.
I met a guy called Samantha (yes, that’s a guy’s name) at Unawatuna beach on Sunday. He was a friend of a friend I used to work with, and he started telling me about the tsunami. It may sound a bit morbid, but I’m fascinated by how people react in certain situations and I think it’s important to not forget what happened that day.
Before the wave struck, Sam was telling off his son for his bike having flat tyres. His son, however, was more interested in playing on one of the hotel guests’ Nintendo games that they’d got for Christmas a couple of days earlier. Like so many of the other survivors, it was just a case of being in the right place at the right time. If Sam’s son had been fixing his bike, he’d have been doing it metres from the beach. Fortunately, all of Sam’s family survived.
Sam tells me that he was walking down the road a little way from his house and saw some tuk tuk drivers shouting, “Run! Lots of water!” and, like a lot of people I’ve spoken to, didn’t know what this meant or what was happening. The term “tsunami” wasn’t widely used back then. Sam tells me that, ironically now, there’s been a beachfront café called Tsunami, in one of the other towns that’s run by a Japanese fellow, for years. If we heard that word now, I’m sure we’d all run a mile for the nearest high place and stay there.
I won’t go into too much detail here, as it isn’t really my story to tell, but Sam explained how his family was safe, and how he even managed to rescue 12 people from neighbouring hotels (a feat that earned him a medal from Westminster, due to one of those people being a Guernsey Minister).
It’s easy, whilst someone is telling you a story like this by the way, as you sit on the beach front, people around you sunbathing, playing volley ball and enjoying some afternoon drinks, to cast your eye at the sea and wonder what on earth must’ve been going through everybody’s minds when it happened and how you’d react if it happened right then.
Sam tells me that it wasn’t a big wave in Unawatuna. Just very fast, rising water. And, sadly, so many people walked out into the sea when it retreated before the second wave hit elsewhere.
During the following days, Sam helped with the rescue missions and “clean up of the bodies”. He tells is just like that. How the monitors (these are crocodile-like things, which roam the streets sometimes, that aren’t dangerous unless you start it first) and also how the local stray dogs, start taking bites out of the people who haven’t survived, so he and the other locals bury the bodies to stop this from happening. “They were human beings who needed to be buried”, Sam says simply. A week or so after, a knock came at his door, and the local police as well as some officers from Scotland Yard were there to question why he hadn’t left the bodies where they were. I’m not sure whether this is for my benefit (being English), but he tells me that the Scotland Yard team was very sympathetic in explaining to the local police why he would’ve done this. They then, with Sam directing them to where the bodies had been buried, exhumed the bodies and sent them for one more burial in Colombo.
During this story, Sam throws in a few one-liners to lighten the mood. This sounds strange to my innocent, western ears, but the people here often do this when talking about dire matters, which I think is a testament to how they deal with certain situations that life throws at them.
He tells me how one of the advertising boards, which usually stand 30 feet high at the side of the roads, was out at sea claiming, “Please come again!” (A story which he checked with my friend in Sinhalese first, before telling it to me in English, just in case it didn’t translate with the right tone).
He also said how funny it was, during the god-awful exhumation, that when he’d told the British charity workers to put tiger balm “up their noses” to hide the smell (meaning just by their nostrils) that they’d taken him literally and put a whole slather of it up both nostrils, causing about 20 minutes of them crying in pain. This obviously isn't Sam being disrespectful to the situation he was in at the time, but you've got to give the guy a break after all the horrific things he must've witnessed.
All in all, Sam explains how it all seems like so long ago now and that he doesn’t think about it too often anymore, but instead just has a moment from time-to-time. I guess that’s what happens when you need to move on and continue living 20 feet away from what could easily have broken most of us for the rest of our lives.
So this is getting pretty heavy, isn’t it? I’m moving on to child poverty, maternal death and one of the most worthy experiences of my life so far, next. Be prepared…
My company is a fairly small one, which makes us bloody chaotic at times, but really flexible. A few years ago, my bosses decided to put some of our profits to one side and start a charity to help Sri Lankan children, who can’t afford the tools, to get an education. We’ve had an office here for about 11 years, and they wanted to give something back to the country that has given them so much.
(Some of the students we sponsor).
Schooling is free here, but actual schools are few and far between, meaning that often the children can’t afford to get to school or cannot afford the tools to do so. For instance, not being able to buy two school uniforms (that they need because Sri Lanka is very humid and very dirty), which means that they cannot wash and dry their only uniform in time for the next day and therefore can’t go to school.
We basically make very simple changes, which make (forgive me for sounding like a Red Cross advert) some huge differences to a child’s life.
You'd never find a Sri Lankan child complaining about their situation, but the reason that they want to study so much is because it really is their only ticket to a better life.
The reason I wanted to come to Sri Lanka so much this time, despite no longer managing the team here (and don’t even get me started on China) was to visit some of these children. I met a girl, who lives in the jungle, and travels 23kms to school, which includes an hour trek through the jungle, and two hours by bus. She leaves at 5am each morning. She’s nine years old and painfully shy when she’s talking to me, but I manage to break out of her that she wants to be a teacher when she’s older and that her favourite lesson is Sinhalese (where they learn about religion and the history of the culture).
Her mother died in a river accident a few years ago, and she lives with her father who does odd jobs to make a living. Other than that, they drink water from the nearby spring and eat vegetables that they grow themselves. He’ll make just a few pounds a month. Literally. At most, £12 a month. I spent this on a lipstick in Duty Free before I left.
We travelled to her house to give her a solar-powered torch because she cannot study at nighttime because, like so many, her house doesn’t have any electricity. Her face (and sorry for leaving in this pun which wrote itself, but it’s probably time for some light heartedness) literally lit up when we presented the torch, which to us seemed like such a simple thing to give someone.
To get to and from her house from Colombo, it took me and my colleague 12 hours by public bus, that same trek through the jungle, and a 1 hour terror ride in a Tuk Tuk from a local who was helping us to play a game of “chase the bus” because we missed our last one out of the nearest village.
If it hadn’t been for that local, I definitely wouldn’t be sitting in Colombo airport today as I’d have missed my flight home.
After we left, I text my boss to tell him that we must buy this girl a bike… He replied quickly, “just do it, we’ll sort the money later.” I'd already told the girl that we were going to do this for her (having no doubt that my boss would agree) and she looked at us in disbelief. I asked her what her favourite colour was, and, without even connecting the two, she very timidly said, ‘red’. I told her that we’d try and get her a red bike (I’m told that bikes only really come in blue or green here, but I’ll paint the thing myself if I have to) and left her with some colouring pencils so that she could draw me a picture of it once she gets it. My boss and I agreed to split the cost between us, saying that it would be by far the best thing we’ll do all day, this week, possibly ever.
So after that experience yesterday, and with Sri Lanka often being the place where I come back a slightly different person to who I was when I arrived (that’s one for another time), this trip has certainly been an experience. When I got back to the office later, I put the below picture up on Facebook with a brief summary of the girl’s story and, not that this is the way I judge this sort of thing, but, it’s had 110 ‘likes’ in about 6 hours and still going.
Many of my friends commented that I was like an angel to her and what an amazing thing it was that I’d done (which was very kind of them), but this actually made me feel awkward as all I really did was rock up with a light and talk to a child who has no idea how different her life is to mine.
The problem with experiencing something that gives you perspective is that it disappears again so quickly, often when we get annoyed by something that really is trivial in the grand scheme of things and we forget how lucky we really are.
I’m making a silent promise to that girl, and the other 99 students we have so far, to try and keep a little bit of it with me always.