Originally published on Perambara.org.
11 years ago, Trincomalee was paradise. I have memories of aquamarine beaches, walking out to sea for miles on shallow sandbanks, spending a morning at Pigeon Island climbing rocks and looking at coral. The only thing that marred our trip was the coral thief we stumbled upon there, who was sternly reprimanded by one of our party for the damage he was doing to the reef. He listened not-so-guiltily to the lecture and scrammed with his hacking knives, leaving the broken coral behind. Even as an innocent 13 year old, I knew he would probably be back for it later.
At 24, I look at Trincomalee with different eyes: not only because I have changed, but because it has too – possibly even more than me. I have lived through the same war, but experienced it predominantly through the news and from a distance . Trinco, on the other hand, has had the war fought at its doorstep and in its back yard. And these waves of violence were only to be followed by another: the tsunami, brought in by the sea that had always been an ally in the past – a source of survival and income for the townsfolk; an omnipresent companion, glinting along the coast. In 2004, that friend turned foe.
Multiple betrayals – by its country and by nature – and Trinco is still surviving. In Nilaveli and in Trinco town, the old and battered co-exists with the new. Occasional pockets of tsunami housing – all white and identical – clash with half broken, half charred houses which still dot the sides of the roads. Trinco bears its battle scars almost unconsciously – I watch the townspeople go about their day and would never know they have been through hard times if not for these crumbling reminders. I wonder at the horrors they must have seen, how many times they have had to start over minus belongings, homes, family members.
As we drive around Trinco town, our big jeeps are still something of a curiosity. Independent tourists – both local and foreign – have started to trickle in, but for now the more common sight is the bus: busload upon busload of local visitors coming in for the day. The hordes gathering at Nilaveli, even in the bad weather of monsoon season, were mindboggling. There was a miniature fair going on outside the hotel for those who perhaps could not afford lodging and food there. Stalls with trinkets and coloured lights and food and water were crowded with people in spite of the rain. Children shrieked as they dodged huge mud puddles and shirtless boys roughhoused with one another on their way to the sea. On the beach, a group of young monks neatly folded their brilliant orange sivuras on the sand in preparation for an afternoon swim in the churning water.
Away from the celebratory atmosphere of the beach, zig-zagging in and out of Trinco’s many smaller bays, there is still an inescapable military presence. The soldiers that man the checkpoints dotting every few yards of road are friendly but cautious: when we stopped our vehicles on the side of the road to take photographs we were politely but firmly told to be on our way. As if to affirm their place and rank in the area, images of the government’s election propaganda cover walls, hang as road-side banners, flap against street lamps and are even painted onto rocky islands protruding from the water. Posters in support of the President’s rival make an occasional appearance as well, but are no where near as abundant.
Bypassing all of this, we end up in Koddiyar Bay, where on the beach, the fishing community are hauling in their noon-time catch. It is a relaxed time of day – men sit around on beached boats, enjoying a bit of sun with their conversation. Crows caw in the sky, hoping to steal a bite and even herds of cattle stretch out on the sand and look out to sea. My family and I walk around with our cameras, terribly out of place, and are regarded with bemused smiles. The villagers are not unfriendly but most keep their distance. One man however beckons to us, eager for a photo opportunity, and introduces us to his karavila or salted fish which are laid out on jute drying in the sun. He talks to us in halting Sinhalese while his companions shout things out to him in Tamil, periodically bursting into laughter. I have no doubt we were the butt of the joke.
Rural but idyllic, this place has an air of lazy timelessness but the fact is, times are changing. Oddly, Trinco seems at once attached and remote from the dynamic political landscape of the country: Drive a little way down the beach at Koddiyar Bay and it ends abruptly in an army camp cutting visitors off with fences of razor wire. So, easy as it is to get caught up with Trinco’s charm, reminders of a larger, more complex and decidedly more disturbing picture are never far off.
The journey away from Nilaveli and away from Trinco is full of muddy potholes and it is impossible not to get jostled from side to side. As much as I know it is a stretch to make the parallel, the road ahead for not only Trinco but Sri Lanka as a whole will be much the same – bumpy, muddy and not just a little uncomfortable. I hope that it will not be another 11 years before I return to Trinco and though I can’t say how long it will take, I hope that I will one day be able to call it Paradise once again.