The following is a trip report, of sorts, and a lot of musing on my part. I didn’t realise how useful it was that I recorded times and distances until later, when it struck me that these would make future logistical decisions a little easier. I learned a lot about organising trips this weekend! (The report switches from present continuous to past tense, depending on the time I was writing, and I decided that changing it would just be an unnecessary waste of time. So I’ve left it in its flawed state.)
The thing about travelling alone is that it heightens the senses, at least for me. I am usually oblivious to the world around me, but going solo means I can’t afford this luxury. This is the first time I am travelling “alone” for CI (although Nalinda, the translator from the Sarvodaya programme, will be joining me about three quarters of the way through) and I admit that I am slightly nervously alert. Although trepidation is the word I would use to describe my feelings about the journey right now, I’m also excited for the test run of journeys I will take more often once my arts programme begins in earnest.
The light is strange; yes, I have never set out on a trip at 3.30 in the afternoon but it’s more than that. The best way I can describe it is that the light is old – the light from a decade ago has been transposed on to the landscape. It covers everything with a strange yellow mantle of nostalgia. It also makes me feel like I’m travelling through both space and time. We reached the city limits by 4. By 4.30 we have passed through rubber estates. The landscape shifts and morphs every ten minutes. Now that suddenly I want to see a supermarket to pick up some snacks there are none to be seen, but they’ll pop up again at the next town. A lot of low houses with modest gardens, paddy fields and coconut groves have shifted in and out of my line of vision. The light makes them look especially beautiful, and I feel a sense of great contentment. It’s like going on holiday, except there is no holiday sandwiched between the van rides up and down. My job this weekend is just to tail the Sarvodaya people and hand over a blank BOQ plus architectural drawings of the community centre so we can finally start work on it. Reasonably unstressful. So far, I’m enjoying the journey.
6pm and we are in Kurunegala. I enjoy watching how village becomes town. I also look up to see some great snapshots whiz past me; a monk with his umbrella walking along a niyara (the raised ridge of soil between each small square patch of paddy field that farmers walk along as they tend to the fields) and a motor-cyclist drinking Milo at the entrance of a wayside shop.
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In Kurunegala I also stopped by a Cargills to pick up some snacks; I consciously stuck to buying the cheapest types of things (it doesn’t necessarily mean worse – Sri Lankan snacks will always be cheaper than imported, and are usually pretty tasty, but it’s just that usually I have a nasty habit of going for the foreign chocolates!) and I was pleasantly surprised to have a bill of 3 dollars for a small package mixed nuts and gram, a small package of roasted chickpeas, a packet of manioc chips, two small slabs of chocolate and two small packages of biscuits – one sweet and one savoury. It made me thoughtful – it IS actually very easy to live cheaply yet live well – my predilection for imported goods makes this fact less than obvious, however.
For the next two hours I re-read Artemis Fowl with the aid of my book-light, and I was very glad I brought two books. The second one will keep me occupied and awake in the journey back. At 8pm we picked up Nalinda from Dambulla. And then the rest of the journey consisted of just hurtling further and further into the night.
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This trip is teaching me that I have been taking so much for granted; I thought once you confirm with a guest house that you will be staying the night and that you want dinner, then that is that. At 10pm I called the Hotel SVS Inn Vavuniya to tell them we were almost there, only to discover the owner had (apparently) tried to call earlier, couldn’t get through because (apparently) my phone had no signal, and decided to give our rooms to someone else. Fortunately there were other rooms, but there was no dinner. We picked up food from a nearby saiver kade, and I was unpleasantly surprised at the poor quality of my egg roti. I also discovered that I was the sole female guest at the Hotel SVS Inn Vavuniya that night, which did not do wonders for my sleep, despite all doors being locked and bolted.
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I woke up at 6.30, only to receive a call from Nalinda five minutes later – Ananda, the person in charge of running the food technology workshop was going to be late, so I could have slept in. I DID nap for another half an hour, but the SVS Inn makes me uncomfortable, so it wasn’t that great a nap. We had breakfast in full view of the many monkeys that frequent the place – there was a cute little baby monkey, but seeing the monkeys swarm over the roofs I was unpleasantly reminded of monstrous rats with food-greed in their eyes. We ended up waiting for Ananda for so long that I realised I could have slept another hour, and while I wished we had, I did feel sorry for Ananda – after carrying out a similar programme in the south of the island the day before, he had been travelling all night to carry out the food tech programme in the north. He had it much worse than we did. When he finally arrived, at 9am, the people we were supposed to pick up from Kakkaiyankulam had been waiting for more than an hour, and we were eager to reach them as soon as possible. But things really do have a domino effect – when one thing goes wrong, a whole host of other things follow suit. We completely missed the turn-off to Kakkaiyankulam, almost reaching Chiraddikulam 1.5 hours away before we fully realised our mistake. You would need to see the landscape to realise how this kind of a mistake could be possible. Everything looks almost exactly alike, all dry scrubland interspersed with paddy fields, army camps, checkpoints, and signposts that do not accurately translate the Tamil place-names into Sinhala and English (I only know this because although my speaking Tamil is atrocious, I can read the script with relative ease for someone who never uses it). The only reason I remember one of the many other turn-offs earlier was because we missed it on the July trip (further testament to the landmark-less-ness of the area – CI members have been travelling to Chiraddikulam intermittently for a year!).
I now have all relevant facts and figures for Not Going Astray, woven into the fabric of this tale. The thing that struck me most disagreeably was that when we stopped to ask for directions from small army posts along the way, was that no one had the slightest clue where Kakkaiyankulam was, even though it couldn’t have been more than an hour away. The worst was actually while we were travelling along, and had just missed the turn-off. We got to one army camp, and two officers, armed with several duffel bags and a tin trunk, wanted to travel to the second camp further ahead. When we told them that we were travelling to Kakkaiyankulam, they told us it was further ahead, even though it was some 5km behind us. Then we met people who didn’t know what we were talking about, as well as some close to Chiraddikulam (68km away from Vavuniya) who were convinced it was 7km in a completely different direction. I was filled with incredulity – how do you serve in the army, in a country that has been at war for nearly thirty years, and not train yourself to be alert and aware of your surroundings? This is exactly the environment in which the war was fought, and I shudder to think how many lives may have been lost because they didn’t know where the closest [insert important location here] was. I remember thinking, most uncharitably – if this is the calibre of the people who served, no wonder the war took thirty years. The person who finally salvaged my opinion of the Sri Lanka Army is Major Nilupul (who I suspect would be much more than just a Major by now if it had not been for internal politics). We had decided that since we were so close, to go the rest of the way to Chiraddikulam, drop Ananda off to start the food tech workshop, and then Nalinda and I would travel back to pick up the Kakkaiyankulam residents still waiting patiently for us. I called Major Nilupul, who I should have called much earlier, and he told us to come back to his camp (which is where the two officers with lots of baggage had been dropped off) where he would have someone stationed to show us the way to Kakkaiyankulam. I was surprised that he said it with so much definitiveness, instead of “Oh let’s see what we can do, which probably won’t be much.” So we travelled 27km from Chiraddikulam to the 22nd Div. Bn. Gemunu Watch (or something similar), picked up the officer there, and went to Kakkaiyankulam. Here are the facts I have gathered about Officer Ranawaka – he talks an awful lot, he is very proud of his job of collecting facts about the communities from his field people – he doesn’t go out into the field himself – he is from Matale, and did I mention that the facts that he gathers might be largely inaccurate? According to his notes, the people of Kakkaiyankulam moved largely to Mannar (or was it Puttalam?!) during the war, but the people of Kakkaiyankulam, when they had finally clambered into the van and submitted themselves to his questioning – mostly to show off his knowledge, I believe, which naturally backfired – said that no, only ten families had moved to that area. The rest had gone elsewhere. I’m wondering how many of these inaccuracies make their way into very official government reports. Probably a hell of a lot. Anyhow, we collected the six Muslim girls doing the food technology workshop without further mishaps, and set off again into the dust and the heat.
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The food technology workshop was actually much simpler than I was imagining – which is probably a good thing for these villagers! They were taught how to make a drink, a sweet, a savoury paste to be used in curries, and a jam of tamarind, and types of basic packing with discarded yogurt cups and glass bottles. It was supposed to bring the villagers together, but I think they would have to have many more workshops like these in order to come together. Efforts to help the villagers communicate were haphazard, and when not monitored the villagers would simply ignore request to help the other community and fail to interact. I didn’t want to interfere, because I wasn’t the one running this, but I think part of the problem is that Ananda’s goal was to teach methods of food technology, and if the villagers communicated that was a plus, while CI is much more adamant that communication takes place. Ah, well. The various tamarind concoctions tasted quite good, but other aspects of the workshop were less inspiring, especially when the Muslims came up to me later and said they thought it was going to be a sewing workshop – the ones who were actually interested in a food technology workshop were not here! More miscommunication, this time on the part of the principal of the school at Kakkaiyankulam – I did tell him that it was food technology, but he appears to have failed to pass on the message. In fact, it was almost impossible to get anyone from Kakkaiyankulam to come for the workshop at all, until Ameena from CI (also Muslim) told him that they would be throwing away a good opportunity. Unfortunately, he only told me the day I was arriving that 15 could come, so I had to politely tell him that since he left it so late, there was no way we could organise a van. But instead of taking this to heart and being more punctual next time, I have a funny feeling it didn’t affect him at all. Well, you live and learn – the trick is figuring out a way to make these things as important to them as it is to us, but as yet I’m not sure how.
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The drive back was mostly uneventful – but it gave me lots of food for thought. I realised that I have been assuming that even if villagers are reluctant, they might be somewhat acquiescent, but I’m learning I must be on the lookout for some very conscious and determined digging in of heels. I’m only hoping that the children might be more open to mingling than the 18-25 age group!