In the time that it took me to drive to the New Delhi airport from my home in the mountains to catch my flight to Colombo, I could have driven across Sri Lanka from north to south. There couldn’t have been a better introduction to the island by my Sinhalese chauffeur cum Man Friday, S.E. Sylvestor.
For nearly 30 years, Sri Lanka was caught in the throes of a brutal civil war. From Jaffna in the north to Trincomalee in the east, the country was ravaged by all the disaster wars bring. “Nobody went towards Jaffna or came here at all, in all these years; now see these happy tourists!” laughs Sylvestor as we drive along the beautiful blue coastline of Trincomalee on the east. What a shame, I think as I take in the view, that indeed no one stopped to admire the crystal white sands of Nilaveli or the distinct shades of blue waters that came to kiss them all the time. After LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran’s signing of the peace treaty, and his death in 2004, the war came to an end. But only 10 years later, when the country bore some semblance to normal life, came the tsunami that shook its foundations all over again.
Other than its three major cash crops — tea, rubber and coconut — the biggest economy of Sri Lanka is tourism. So understandably, it’s not a low cost country by any means. With most products being imported, heavy taxes and duties are paid for pretty much everything and by everyone, even the locals.
Tourism on the top
The enterprising people, however, have made sure that tourism is at the top of its game, with the small but power-packed destination drawing more and more tourists to its Buddhist sites, beaches, national parks and historic spots. Even the army runs a popular chain of hotels that was created to rehabilitate service men who were part of the long civil war, and which hence serves a dual purpose.
We stop for kiri pani, fresh yoghurt with coconut treacle, a roadside delicacy only less popular than the omnipresent thambili, the king coconut. Food has been a highlight on this journey, and I don’t know how I will start my mornings without egg hoppers once I leave, but until then, I’m enjoying the island’s bounties from mangosteen to rambutan, and the delectable Sri Lankan ‘rice and curry’ spreads.
After another leisurely lunch on the road, we zip down the beautiful coastal road from Yala to Galle, where Sylvestor points out the remains of some of the tsunami-struck buildings. “I fortunately escaped it, but what I saw in its aftermath shook me,” he adds. I wouldn’t have noticed the ruins, had he not shown them to me, because most have already been rebuilt. For a war-torn country that also faced a huge natural disaster, Sri Lanka has bounced back quite impressively.
My final stop on the way back to Colombo before finishing the journey is the small Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project at Bentota. Being the end of the trip, I am a bit slothful and don’t want to leave the comfort of the airconditioned car and the Lankan radio channel I have come to love for its generous dose of 70s pop.
Sylvestor however, insists that it is worth a visit and I step into the world of little friends from the ocean. Walking through a maze of turtles at various stages from hatchlings to adults, green turtles to olive ridleys, I’m most taken by a blind albino, and an olive ridley born without a fin, paddling happily with the rest.
Stringent laws on environmental protection have helped Sri Lanka drastically reduce its deforestation and promote conservation. Private efforts like these wherein turtle eggs are bought from fisherman to be incubated and released later into the sea have also been making the difference.
Most people I have come across on this trip are much like the people at the conservancy; each one is eager to rebuild the nation, and has metamorphosed into a building block. No one has been told how to fit into this building process; yet each one seems to know his or her role as they move ahead together.
A tiny green turtle hatchling clings to my fingers as I prepare to leave. I am glad it will return home where it belongs.
Born and brought up in the Himalayas, the writer is an adventurer who derives great joy from napping under the mountain sun.
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