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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sri Lanka: Isle of Serendipity?

The teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean is often known as the Isle of Serendipity. But today, this name is ironically, for Sri Lanka, synonymous with the ongoing civil war with the Tamil Tigers. It is a pity as this island has lots to offer to travelers: historical sites, stunning idyllic beaches, warm and hospitable people and much more.

The gem of Sri Lanka has to be its ancient city of Polonuwera. According to historical records, after the southern Indian Cholas stormed the city of Anuradhapura in 933 AD, they established a new capital in Polonuwera. Surrounding the city of Polonuwera is the huge manmade reservoir of Parakrama Samudra and till today, the inhabitants of Polonuwera still get their water from the reservoir. It must have been a real feat to construct such a colossal reservoir in those days.

Upon entering the archaeological site, we first arrived at the Royal Palace of Parakramabahu. . The residence is surrounded by two high walls, which form a gallery. Although a large part of the palace is gone, we could still see numerous wooden beams and stone staircases. It is not hard to visualize the splendor of this palace in its heydays when it is said to have over one thousand rooms.

Scattered around the Royal Palace are numerous temples, and many of these temples have been carefully restored in the last century. The numerous giant Buddha statues and the intricate architecture of these temples attest to the faith and the ingenuity of the early settlers.

If Polonuwera is captivating, then Kandy is alluring. Situated in the heart of the country, Kandy seduces and lures visitors with its cool temperature and its scenic landscape. Frequently used as a hill resort by the British in the last century to escape the simmering tropical heat, it has seen its population grows from a few thousand to over 100,000.

Today Kandy is designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List and a visit to Kandy would not be complete without a visit to the Temple of the Tooth. The Temple of the Tooth, which houses the precious tooth relic of Buddha is a small two-storey building that dates back to the 18th century. The Buddha's left tooth is enclosed in seven golden caskets in the shape of Dagobas.

An hour drive from Kandy brought us to one of the most intriguing places in Sri Lanka - the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. Reputed to be the only one in the world, the orphanage houses over 100 baby elephants, who have lost their parents to the ongoing civil war and the mercenary poachers. The highlight for us was the feeding time at noon. The keepers would bring pails of milk and feed the elephants using milk bottles, giant milk bottles of course. Being babies, they would be quite mischievous, using their trunks to disturb their keepers or using their trunks to snatch the bottles from their keepers.

After meal, it was their bathing time. The elephants were herded to a nearby river where they had a jolly good time frolicking in the water and spraying water at each other playfully.

Traveling along the coastline, we spotted numerous coconut trees joined by two parallel coconut fiber ropes. Balancing tenaciously on them are the toddy tappers, who collect the slightly sour, milky opaque palm sap. This sap is then being distilled to make coconut liquor!

Another interesting sight lies in a non-descript building in Kogsoda. When we stepped into the compound, we discovered thousand of baby turtles. This is the Kogsoda Turtle Hatchery, a project by a group of conservationists to save the dwindling turtle population. To prevent the locals from consuming the turtle eggs, the hatchery came up with the ingenious idea of paying 1 rupee for every turtle egg that the local brings in. After incubating and hatching the eggs, the young sea turtles are kept for up to 3 days before being released into the sea.

Just as lovely as Kogsoda is Negombro, with its scenic Negombro Lagoon. Situated within close proximity to Bandairainaike International Airport, this town supports 65,000 inhabitants who make their living from tourism and fishing.

That day, I set out for a stroll along Negombro Beach. I reckoned that the pounding of the waves and the aroma of the ocean would rejuvenate my mind. I have been to many impoverished countries before but nothing could prepare me for what I am to encounter next.

Nestled amongst the five-star resorts of Negombro, lies a fishing village haunted by poverty and eluded by development. One moment, I was meandering through the chaotic array of houses, the next moment, he was beckoning me to his abode.

To describe the interior as spartan is an understatement. Except for a tattered mattress and a damaged rack, there was absolutely nothing in that room. Whatever little clothing they have, was stuffed in plastic bags and was scattered over the room. It was dark and dank and the only light that filtered in came from the solitary doorway. The room was much smaller than my bedroom and yet it housed seven people! They borrowed a wooden stool from their neighbours and insisted that I sat on it while they sat on the floor and surrounded me.

I felt a bit awkward by the attention that they lavished on me. They apologised profusely for not being able to offer anything to me other than a cup of red tea.

Dad, with his weather-beaten face worked as a fishing assistant on board a trawler and was the sole breadwinner for the family. He was barely able to make ends meet with his meagre income. During the past few days, the wind had been too strong for the trawler to move out. No fishing meant no income and they had not had any food for the last 48 hours.

Mom, who looked much older than her 35 years of age, is a mother of 3 children and a grandmother of 2. Years of hardships and sufferings had left their indelible marks on her face.

Managing a smile despitethe adversities"Only 2 of my children are left", she lamented with a tinge of sadness. "We lost our only son when he was abducted by the Tigers (Tamil Tigers) 5 years ago. They are so heartless; they take away my only son. He is such a poor thing, only 11 years old. We never get to see him again, we don't even know whether he is still alive".

"That war, that terrible war forces us to move down to Negombro. We lost everything, our house, our land, our son...," her voice quavering with emotions. "We come here with nothing, nothing but the shirts we wear, and till today, we still have nothing", she sighed in resignation. "When we first arrived at this village, the other villagers did not welcome us at all. We slept in the open and begged for food for months before we toiled to make this little place."

I glanced around this dark dingy hut; the thought of spending a night here made me feel queasy. Yet she seemed incredibly proud of this dwelling that they have slogged to build.

Her eldest daughter, at 18, is a mother of two - a 3-year old daughter and a newborn baby. "This poor boy has to go hungry most of the times, as my daughter doesn't produce enough milk," she lamented.

Her younger sister who is mentally handicapped had been staring blankly at me all this while. She is heavily dependent on her mother to look after her. I began to ponder: maybe being mentally handicapped is a blessing in disguise, at least she does not have to cope with the harsh reality that her family is facing.

Her emancipated frame, exacerbated by years of malnutrition and hardship, protruded dismally against her oversized T-shirt. I was appalled at her condition and could not help staring at her. Apparently, she was uncomfortable and began to shift around awkwardly.

It is amazing how they could still manage to carry a smile on their faces in spite of all these adversities that had befallen on them. I could not help asking them how they managed to remain optimistic in the face of all these misfortunes."

Actually we are very lucky to be alive. Many of our friends in the north have been killed by this war. Everything in our lives is fated. Our bad karma is due to the sins in our previous lives so we try to atone for our sins in this lifetime so that our next lives will be a better one."

Suddenly all my problems in my life seemed so trivial. A family whose survival is at stake can remain optimistic and be at peace with themselves. Their words, their lives touched and invigorated me deeply.

They taught me an invaluable lesson, a lesson on human perseverance and courage. They showed me their indomitable human spirit, a spirit so strong that can surmount any obstacle.



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