Earlier this week, I was able to tick off something that I’ve wanted to do since I started travelling to places in Sri Lanka over the last year and that was to visit the four extreme corners of the island.
It didn’t occur to me on my first few trips, but when a friend made the genius idea of visiting Dondra, my itchy feet [and OCPD, admittedly] knew I had to head to all.
What was most interesting to me wasn’t the actual point per se – it’s all blue seas, after all – but the stories of the areas immediately surrounding these markers. It was a pattern that persisted around the island.
I remember the first time I tried to visit Point Pedro. Driving through the centre of the peninsula, we were breaking upon the northern shore when the concrete and iron of the Palaly camp and airport came into view. Three military men came forward to the vehicle and driver slowly rolled down his window.
‘Where are you trying to go?’
‘Point Pedro sir, we’re on a visit.’
‘You can’t go there, this is an HSZ, please drive back.’
‘Is there another route?’
[I found out later that there was, they were just too antsy to tell us.]
So we did, unsure of how to proceed, and settled with dipping our feet at Jambukolapatuna. On the drive back to the Jaffna town, we passed acres of land in Valikamam that my colleagues pointed out were all empty but occupied by the forces – the area before the northernmost shore a ghost town of deserted houses, with more camps embedded deep in the woods.
When I finally did get around to visiting the top, a little under a year later with friends, it was two entirely different sights that greeted us when we turned a corner to the point. The sky is clear, cloudless. The army camp is still there, a few kilometres away. The ocean is a million shades of blue. The warmth soaks into your skin.
As we look to hop down to the beach, we notice that there’s a clear path by what looks like a dense overgrowth of vines.
These vines encase the shell of a home, roof, windows and doors gone, cracks running down the floor like a fault line and plaster crumbling off the walls. The limestone coat rubs off on our hands, we notice the light blue tinge of paint from a previous era. The stories this held, the lives it protected, the force that destroyed it and the years it has seen.
All while the ocean roars outside and waves rush to lap at ones toes.
Kalpitiya is an unassuming strip that hangs out onto the sea, separated from the island by a vast and still lagoon. Even before arrival, one has heard the thrills of dolphin watching, kitesurfing and the luxury of relaxation that this escape offers.
But the town – village? – you’re met with is a far cry from that world. Lining the beach is a row of fishermen’s huts, boats parked along the shore. The main street itself is an assortment of tiny shops, a gas station and little else. The houses beyond the main road get smaller.
The old man taking us to the fish market says how difficult it has become for him and his family, along with several other small families, to support themselves in the fishing industry. The seasonal nature of the trade and the pure unpredictability of what the days hold means hungry stomachs once in a while.
‘What about the wind turbines and the tourism happening in this area?’
‘They don’t want us to work in those places miss. Those are for big people no, we do our fishing and cultivating as we always did.’
He cycles to work a fair distance every day and back, earning something small to feed his mid-sized family, while his son and son-in-law, still able-bodied, brought in what they could on their humble boats every morning and hope that the market was kind to them.
When I visited Dondra for the first time, I was completely blown away at seeing a place that I’d dreamed of after stumbling onto in on Google a few months back. Open-mouthed as we descended closer to the water of the cove near the lighthouse, the blue sea rushing in and out of this tiny bay. The southernmost shore a calm blanket of a million blues.
A few months later, we were traversing those same roads with different friends, when we noticed a certain statement plastered on t-shirts, cars, tuks, buses and shops everywhere from Matara downward along the southern coast. And the worst part was that, unlike most silly slogans on tshirts, this was a sentiment that people of the area seemed to identify with. What I’d heard from friends scandalised by the words of their neighbours and the ugly outpouring of this hatred on social media on the daily made a lot of us wonder – is this hatred inherent or is it something people have learned?
This is definitely not restricted to just this part of the country but social research shows that it is prevalent here. That people in this region still worship those unworthy of their loyalty. And this blinds them to the concerns of others, to the wounds of those suffering a lot worse than them.
The last stop. The road here leads through empty lands, some of the last few markers of life on the main road being petti kadeys and kind people willing to point you in the right direction. We were warned that elephants frequent the lonely road to the shore. Dry shrub rustles in the breeze and the sun burns down hard. We come across a few tuks, lying in wait for tired walkers, who agree to take us to the coast a few kilometres down.
I knew what to expect on arriving at Sangamankanda. A small lighthouse sitting demurely on a scenic beach close to a popular surfing point. My friends weren’t, and were a little bummed that we’d come such a long way for a batta lighthouse. We learned later that the lighthouse looks like this because it was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami. A stark reminder that not only did this coast see a side of the war more long-lasting yet hidden from the battleground closer to the north but it also bore the brunt of the wave that devastated many parts of the island.
The road back becomes clearer, the hopeless sign heralding a development of a village with foreign funds is a false promise, considering how there is nothing down the road it points to. What fell was never brought to stand up again.
Each one of these four places has a dark story behind the beautiful edge – prevailing land occupation by the military, the absence of rebuilding after a natural disaster, the struggles of hardworking communities that still fall short of their needs, the raised tendency for pseudo-nationalist racism and hatred based on the words of a few power-hungry individuals.
Two worlds on one shore.
I’m not going to harangue about how ‘travel changes you’ and you must travel without a second thought about cash or commitment and the usual feel-good fiction. I will say that it does make you that much more empathetic to your fellow countrymen and keeps you updated on the issues unravelling in this country in a way news and media can’t. And it’s a type of empathy that we all desperately need to cultivate; daily we get increasingly insensitive and close-minded to the fact that there are people across our homeland whose experiences are vastly different from ours in a way that we can’t even begin to understand.
Growing up living close to Colombo, schooling and working in the capital, I’m glad that my first travels last year popped the Western Province bubble that I knew. God knows that as we go further inward from these points and cross the nation, issues mushroom up like a spreading disease. And the least we can do in the face of all this is to be good human beings.