What does ‘the East’ bring to vision? Beaches, I’m guessing – white sand beaches, crystal blue water and palmyrah for miles.
For a large part, that is what the East coast is. Clear across the country but sometimes, it feels like you’ve crossed into another world – not only are the towns smaller and the roads quieter but the sparse beauty of the Eastern landscape helps one to feel…free. Perhaps it’s the absence of the clutter of the West and a terribly long drive that makes it seem like you’ve run away only to end up at one of the most beautiful places on Earth. But, as usual, faces and places easily slip off the standard tourist radar.
Driving south from Ampara is a montage of some of the most diverse vegetation on a single highway. Barring rainforest, the road unfolds to scenes of the sea, lagoon, paddy field, scrub forest and open plains. You could be sailing along a stretch of dry jungle and break through the last of the trees into glass-like views of the many small lakes that dot the side of the Colombo-Batticaloa highway.
If there was an unreal scene, it would have to be the stretch of highway that acts as the border between the Periya Kalapu and the ocean in Akkaraipattu; a single road through water, glassy lagoon on one side and blue ocean waves on the other. It would have been a perfect panorama had the driver decided not to speed past, like he was not witnessing the most awe-inspiring marriage of elements.
The day’s events were set for the small town of Pottuvil – relatively quiet and lined with a profusion of kadeys, with the occasional garish monument at the roundabout [come to think of it, the East is generously littered with such – they stand out particularly because the towns are so small, making you think whether money is going where it’s supposed to be in this country.]
I have a habit of finding my location on Google Maps and zooming-scrolling to find the nearest large body of water. This practice has spurred many of my quick wanderings and has not failed me yet. Maps indicated a blue spot in the vicinity so I walked, in the scorching sun that nurtures profusions of palmyrah, past a small mosque as its azan began to ring out and turned down a lonely road to this.
Plastered with lotus leaves and radiant in the morning sun was an unnamed lake. The only sound for the time I stood there was the breeze, the footsteps of the little girl walking home and the noise of bicycle on sandy road. It was blissful.
Further inland from the coast is a town that the state has, in its residents’ words, forgotten. We found that to be incredibly sad in a way that I can’t explain. Lahugala sits right next to the national park of the same name yet the village itself is hardly known. The landscape of dry plains and rock, graced by the single white cow, surrounds it in an air of disconnection. Children run about mothers who look incredibly young – rightfully so; it turns out that Lahugala has the highest rate of child marriages in the country. One young girl I speak to, her child is already 2 and she is 21. Younger than me yet older and wiser in the path life has taken her.
Lunchtime on our trips usually consist of finding a decent-looking bath kadey or eating house and making do. This time, we kept driving for a while and after a while, as I began to read the signboards, noticed we were heading somewhere particular. The vehicle turned off the main road to a little path and stopped at a backpacker’s lodge-type property, 100 metres down the road was the Arugam Bay beach.
I didn’t eat lunch that day but fed on the sea blues and the wholeness of the ocean. Maybe we had arrived at the perfect midday hour but the sea was remarkably crystal, fringed with the white sand that started off soft and then plummeted down a small hillock into the waves. What a feeling; unfortunately, it was relatively crowded and I emphatically prefer my beaches quiet. Maybe next time, alright? I’ll be back.
We continued further south to Panama. While for most it’s another eastern beach town, the place’s history is what draws me to it most. People of all races in this country have faced persecution or threat over the last few millennia; Tamils, Muslims, Sinhala too have all been vulnerable at some point, thought the ego of some deigns them to act otherwise. Nevertheless, Panama was the refuge for all these people, fleeing their hometowns in fear, and this has created a diverse society where inter-cultural tolerance is exemplary, thanks to generations of inter-marrying and understanding. For this, Panama is wonderful.
On the road back, we slow down – calmly grazing on shrub beside the roads is a pair of elephants, mother and calf, basking in the sunshine. They pay no heed as we bound off the vehicle and draw close to photograph them, the silence interrupted only by the army man at a guard post along the wire fence, telling us to be quiet. We already knew that, thanks.
The lady in Urani, who grows her own papaya and served us a plate of the most delicious fruit. The old uncle in Deegavapi who giggled realising he’d forgotten to button his shirt in his hurry to meet us. The little girls who were plucking nondescript berries off a bush and convincingly told me they were safe to eat.
Seemingly your usual town but, sitting pretty in the town centre is the Ampara Lake. I caught my first glimpse of it after wandering through a small kids’ park on the edge. Past lonely swings and see-saws to where the sun hits the water. Recalculating the route took me to the open road, which grants a more expansive view of the full majesty of the lake; deep shades in the evening dark, light ripples running across the surface, stillness.
My previously-mentioned fascination with water bodies must be why I seem to take to Batticaloa immediately – circling a lagoon and lined with the sea, perfect. Midday and the lagoon is a mirror, the cotton candy clouds reflected in its glassy surface.
Standing under the shade of a large tree in a small village, we hear the tinkle of a bell.
Cycling past is an old ice-cream vendor, regifoam icebox filled with treats sitting on the backseat. Dessert is fruit or chocolate popsicle-things – quite unlike any ice cream you’ve had before, this is a treat of an interestingly different kind.
We pick a teatime spot that happens to be next to a kovil therefore observe as a stream of believers rush into the premises as the chants start to ring out, their feet narrowly missing the work of art that is the kolam outside.
Chasing the sun as it starts to drop over the mainland, first slivers of the golden hour cutting across the lagoon and bicycles taking people home after a long day.
Our backyard view for the day was the final moments of the giant star as it went to sleep over the lagoon, leaving smears of pink and orange in the sky and on the surface of the water, stains of its glory even as it fell. Batticaloa is the home of the singing fish, source of the whispers that rush across the still lagoon even in the thick dusk that is settling in.
I wake and run, again, to light on water, as if I’ve never seen the sun over the sea before. Kallady is a beach made for me; quiet, bounded by a thick growth of trees in places, such that it’s sometimes hidden from the main road. The sun lazily breaks over the horizon, leaving its tell-tale pink and orange ghosts along the water as it does.
Watching my colleague on the beach is such a treat. I know I get excited whenever I’m by the sea but he, having grown up in the hill country, becomes a child the moment his feet hit sea sand. No care in the world, he lets go in the way one should when presented with the million opportunities that is a single strip of ocean.
Just a few steps inwards, lining the road that leads off to the beach, is – grim as this word may be – a wasteland. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami left this part of the East coast battered; Mother Nature joining in the fight when this part of the country was already undergoing terror at the hands of man.
Skeletons of homes, floors cracked and walls absent, lament by the roadside; half their concrete gone, baring the red bricks below the surface. People left them, never to come back, afraid. Those who did remain are still locked in a state of mourning, or denial. They’ve rebuilt their homes and used their new fences to encircle the ruins of the first house that was, so now as they watch life pass by from their new verandahs, the old home still feels like it was worth something.
We’re invited to the home of a feisty female journalist who calls us in for bajji and saruwath – all terribly bad for you but terribly good on a long drive. We sit in her backyard near chicken coops and goats as she tells us stories of her home.
Kantale is a town inwards from Trincomalee, which lends its name to the tank that one passes on the road to the white beaches.
I was sitting in the grass outside a meeting when this adorable one walks up to me, promptly says hello and starts on a long story of his day in school. His friends join, and between the three of them it’s the most amusing conversation I’ve had in a long time.
Through paddy fields, burning as the children set the dry and wild plants alight, the air thick with heat. The Kantale tank, built to support and nourish, destroyed this town when its bund cracked under the pressure of the water build up and the area was completely flooded.
For miles, Kantale is empty land bought over years ago by a sugar factory that has long been abandoned. Think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – the Wonka factory’s scale of production and the sudden closure. Only in this version, the factory doesn’t kick back to life and the workers don’t have jobs again – thousands were laid off and the death of the industry has dimmed the life of the town.
The sunset hour is near. Through the sparse jungle that is the sugar factory’s land and in vast plains that lay empty, we pass nameless small lakes. Its face clouded over, the sun leaves its trails along the water, breathing life and purpose into the trees that otherwise go unnoticed, waiting daily for christening from the light.
We’re late for our appointment and driving down a dark lane to someone’s home in the middle of the night, you’d think they’d be a little less than receiving. Not here; it was dark and this house is one in the smaller villages that are buried deep in the sugar factory land but the people are as warm as the feast they had spread for us. Manioc and katta sambol served on squares of banana leaves and tea poured into coconut shells, with a piece of juggery for everyone to munch. All this with the biggest smiles on their faces. Their home is small, made of clay and lit with two fluorescent bulbs but in spirit, they have more than any of us.
Every traveller will recommend this but it’s because it is absolutely worth waking up at 5.30 am for – sunrise from Swami Rock, over the Dutch Bay. The winding road through Fort Frederick brought us to the long road of stalls, lined overhead with flags, meant for pilgrims to the Thirukoneswaram Kovil at the top of the rock. There is no one else here, just us and the old lady sweeping the temple steps; even the swami’s not here yet. We’re quiet as we walk around the temple grounds, balancing precariously on the red-and-white fence to assess the full gravity of a jump from Lovers’ Leap. Wandering up further and I’m at the Tree. This tree is so full of hope, it’s branches have to be propped up by sticks so they don’t touch the ground, destroying all the wooden baby cradles tied to them as part of a vow in prayer for fertility.
The colour around us changes, from that alone we can tell we’re about to witness something magnificent. I’m leaning on that striped fence again, watching as a single orange orb that is the initial morning sun slowly ascend, its light thrown in a halo around it by the smattering of clouds across its faces, as it rises to bathe the bay in a gold only the sun is capable of casting. Colours morph from pale yellow to bright orange to a magical shade of red-yellow-orange that tinges everything in what can only be called magic.
Bells begin to ring from inside the kovil and footsteps arrive in the holy grounds; believers are here with trays of fruit and flowers in offering, children running ahead to explore by themselves. The crowd is a mix of faithful pilgrims, tourists and children brought to Trincomalee on a school trip. The smaller stalls are opening now and the vendors reach out with samples of dodol and thal hakuru for passer-bys to try.
It surprises me how no one is awake when the sun rises – we’re on the East coast, where the view of the spectacle is stellar, yet the only ones awake and walking along the Nilaveli beach as light dawns are the hotel dog and I.
Nilaveli lives up to its name – in the blinding midday sun, the ocean looks an inviting blue and the sand the closest to a white sand beach I’ve seen in this country. Though littered with hotels, the length of this vast strip means that you’ll always find yourself surrounded in silence, which works for me.
This side of Trinco and the East is what people see first glance – unspoiled beaches, left abandoned during the last three decades, now beckoning to be stepped on. Of course, most places in this area of the country have a darker hidden history and colleagues tell me that some of the ‘worst of all this’ happened close to here; he in referring to the countless enforced disappearances and arrests that still haunt people of this area as they continue to search for missing loved ones.
Despite everything they have seen and suffered, people here seem to have the biggest hearts. Some of the smallest kadeys have the warmest customer service. You wouldn’t look twice at them unless you were down to the last option but their food is first class. Hot parathas and roti, served with a side of parippu, pol sambol and other curries that don’t taste the same when you make them at home.
Coming back to my habit of Google-mapping large bodies of water, we drive after work along the road that winds upwards from Kuchchaveli, chancing on landscapes of lakes, the ocean and lagoons unnamed that are still in their lack of human surroundings, completely breathtaking in the peace that sits in their waters.
The drive back from Trinco cuts through Kantale so one final stop, for the town’s famed curd and honey, is in order. Stalls line the roads selling the delicious fare and the shopkeeper rips the paper covering off the clay pot and you can stick your spoon right in. Perfect fuel for a long ride. Parting views don’t disappoint, and the sweeping expanse of the Kantale tank shimmering under the late afternoon light are wonderfully calming before the road cuts through the sparse Eastern plain once again.