Category Archives: Sri Lanka

The accident

Driving lesson

As a journalist one finds scopes and stories everywhere one goes. So far during my stay here I have had an endless fountain of ideas and inspiration for stories and possible articles. I think the ultimate test of my journalistic abilities came on the 6th of September after being in an accident with a three-wheeler.
During the hours we drove from hospital to hospital, my crushed foot pounding with pain and squeezing poor Nick’s hand, all I could thinking about (out loud and to myself) was that this mishap was going to provide me with ample fuel for a good story. I mean if in a state of emergency the matter that was foremost in my mind is the great story I would get out of it, well doesn’t that say something!

But firstly back to the beginning. While at Cinnamon Grand recently (one of the lovely 5 star hotels Colombo) I was flipping through a tourist magazine called Explore Sri Lanka when I came across an article on Lanka Challenge 2009. I was immediately gripped by the novelty of this venture which was a 10 day tuk-tuk challenge/race across Sri Lanka which was being held the following week. I remember thinking that it sounded like a great idea, lots of fun and something I would love to cover.

A few days later, 6pm on Saturday evening to be precise, having completely forgotten the article, I received a call from an unknown number. On answering I was informed by a delighted caller (who had been trying to obtain my number all day) that he was calling on behalf of the Ministry of Tourism. What he wanted to know was if I had heard about the Challenge and if I was interested in covering a leg of the event. I told him I would be very happy to do so. The next question was would I be ready to leave Colombo at 5.00am the next morning to join the participants in Negombo. Again I replied in the affirmative. So that is how, at 5.00am on Sunday the 6th of August I was underway amid torrential rain, to Negombo to join the start of the Challenge.

The start

We arrived at 6.30am, where we breakfasted with the participants, a bunch of about 52 young foreigners from all over the world who had come to Sri Lanka to partake in the 10 day event. After breakfast the challenge began.
The 25 trishaws all left the hotel amid the cheers and shouts of spectators and off they went with only their road map of Sri Lanka and their team mates to find their way to Sigiriya.

I was taken in a nicely air conditioned jeep to that days destination by a lovely Sri Lankan gentleman who was one of the organizers of the event. We passed a number of the rickshaws on our travels, many of whom were presented with numerous obstacles on the first leg of the event.

After everyone arrived and we had had lunch I was taken by one of the organizers and a mechanic for a lesson in driving a tuk tuk. Thankfully the road was one of those obscure dirt tracks which had little to no traffic at all, so I wasn’t in anyone’s way with my constant stalling.

It was like learning to drive all over again. But after a while I got the hang of it. Once I had gotten to grips with getting the two stroke engine to start, gently easing the tuk-tuk into first, then second and being adventures even third gear, I managed to gently bump my two passengers and myself down the dusty red road. With Sigiriya rock in the background, and a beautiful evening sun gently warming us, it was picture perfect. Who would have thought the evening would end far from perfect!

Sigiriya rock

I will skip over the details of the accident, as it is not something I dwell on with much pleasure. All I will say is that in travelling from where we had dinner back to where I was staying the three-wheeler took a corner too sharp, hit a bump and fell to the right. My subconscious reflex was to put my unfortunate right foot out, which is exactly where the tuk tuk fell, imprinting itself on my foot.

It was a rather surreal experience which I remember in sporadic burst, but not in its entirety. What I do remember is my being the only one injured and my having to continually ensure my two rather unnerved fellow passengers that everything would be ok, while at the same time trying to keep my foot elevated and bracing myself against the pain.

Let me skettch a picture for you. Imagine after three hours, fatigued from traversing from hospital to hospital three foreigners are coming down the hallway of a government teaching hospital. The time is approximately 5.00am on Monday morning. The trio is made up of two guys and one girl. One guy is of medium build half Irish half Kenyan, dark skinned with a head of dreadlocks and a cheeky smile that is currently hidden behind a mask of fatigue. The second guy is a tall good looking South African with blond hair, he is wearing three quarter length trousers, a pink wifebeater and a rather concerned look. In one hand he is carrying a shoe and a woman’s handbag is draped over his other arm. Oh I almost forgot both guys are barefoot due to the hastiness of their departure. Now for the girl; she is Irish, of small stature, with dark hair and she is wearing glasses.

When we meet our trio the girl is being pushed in a wheelchair, a shoe on one foot, the other is raised and the subject of a rather unpleasant looking wound. These three weary and rather odd looking trio are in search of a capable doctor to look at the unfortunate girl’s foot.

Once found the doctor decides that an x-ray is in order, so off they set down yet more hospital corridors which are inhabited by numerous members of the canine and feline family. On being left alone in the x-ray room the girl in question takes a look around and is immediately transported to medieval times when old fashioned x-ray machines were located in small cramped rooms with rickety looking sinks surrounded by chipped tiles. She shakes her head to clear it but the image remains and she realises that she is still in the present. Despite the medieval looking machine the x-ray comes out just fine and it turns out there were no broken bones. A sigh of relief is expressed by all three foreingers.

The next image I will present to you is of a female dormitory lined with hospital beds which are peopled by sleeping forms. Luckily for our girl there is a free bed which is covered by a single dark grey sheet. Later our hero in pink admitted to his, let’s say shock to keep it mild, of the establishment the trio had found themselves in. For the time being however, our two boys were asked to vacate the female only ward and leave our Irish lass alone, which they reluctantly do, after ensuring she was given a pillow to rest her weary head on.

We shall leave our heroine to a few hours rest before meeting her again. This time, the setting unchanged, she is surrounded by seven or eight doctors who are all peering with interest at the gaping wound on her foot. In the background are the remainder of the trio, still barefoot, anxiously looking on as the medical men prod and discuss in an unknown tongue the fate of our Irish girl’s right foot. They seem to come to a unanimous agreement and slowly disperse, leaving only four capable medical experts around the bedside, who notebooks in hand, diligently take notes.

Later on in the day our fatigued but brave girl is approached by two well rounded nurses who are carrying a sheet similar to that covering her bed. They draw the curtains around her sleeping quarters closed and tell her to take of her clothes. The exhausted girl diligently complies under the scrutiny of her two robust companions. The grey sheet is placed around her and she lifted onto a gurney. After being wheeled a few meters the gurney with our heroine atop is pushed against the wall and the charming nurses disappear leaving our Irish lass to the curious gaze scrutiny of those passing. However, the show is short lived as the gurney is once more put in motion this time all the way to the operating room, where a general anaesthetic is administered, allowing our girl with a short period of much needed respite.

On waking she finds herself in a room with a kindly looking doctor hovering over her ready to ask her a serious of questions on whose successful completion our girl receives a winning smile and is shortly thereafter returned to the capable hands of her portly nurses. By degrees a type of understanding is established between our girl and her wardens, who manage to communicate on the most rudimentary of topics.

After sleeping her anaesthesia off our dark haired heroin is visited by her two companions, who by now have purchased much needed footwear. After ensuring she will be well looked after and promising to call the next day, the two foreigners depart, leaving our girl to the mercy of the full-bodied but kindly nurses.

Following two nights in her grey sheeted bed and two surgeries, unable to contact anyone, and with nothing but her handbag and a copy of Wuthering Heights which a kindly gentleman had given her to read, our heroine is finally discharged and is taken back to Colombo to her host family who are anxiously awaiting her return.

Thus ended the first experience of our girl to hospital! I shall not dwell on her slow recovery, but it is safe to say that after much rest and another brief sojourn in hospital her foot is on the mend. The doctors have mentioned that she will regrettably have a lasting aide memoire of her stay in the beautiful country our heroine is currently residing in. But at least she is on the mend and will soon be back on her feet again, running around, chasing stories and as enthusiastic and dedicated as ever.

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Sri Lanka vs Pakistan

Up and coming cricketer

I have had a very interesting, eventful and eclectic two weeks; first the Hikkaduwa beach festival, then the Kandy Perahera, after that a cricket match and finally a trip to the north to the former LTTE zone, to take part in and report from the Feast of our Lady of Madhu.

On Wednesday afternoon I got a call from a Sri Lankan friend who had a spare VIP ticket to the T-20 Pakistan vs Sri Lanka cricket match at the R. Premadasa Stadium in Colombo. Seeing I had never been to a cricket match and as it is so popular here I decided to go along.

Since I have been here I have watched numerous test matches, usually the Ashes, with Richard (a fellow volunteer), but the live game was much better, despite Sri Lanka’s poor performance and the fact that they lost the match.
We were sitting right behind the Pakistani cricket team. VIP seating is all very well, but you miss out on the atmosphere and excitement that is part of sitting with the real hard core supporters.

All in all it was a novel experience. The stadium is positioned in the middle of the slums, seriously dodgy looking. I’m glad we went there by car as I would never have been induced to walk through the slums alone and after dark.

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Festival of our Lady of Madhu

Service at the Madhu Festival

The shrine of Our Lady of Madhu is one of the biggest and most hallowed Christian shrines in Sri Lanka. It was built 400 years ago and is a centre of pilgrimage for Christians and people of all religions from all over the island. The biggest annual Feast day is held around the 15th of August, the day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The shrine houses the statue of Our Lady of Madhu which has acquired a reputation for miracles over the years.

Due to the escalation of violence during the civil war in Sri Lanka the priests of Madhu removed the statue to safety. During the war thousands of refugees took shelter in the area around the shrine as it was regarded as a “demilitarized zone”.

The last time the festival was held under the Sri Lankan government and in safety was in 1983. For 27 years the festival was frequented by only a small number of people as pilgrims had to gain access and cross the border into the LTTE controlled area in order to attend.

Temple at the festival

This year about 500,000 people of all religions; Christians, Buddhists, Hindu’s and Muslims attended the festival; a colossal number of people. For many it was an opportunity to bring their family and children to a festival that for numerous people holds very sweet memories.

Because the war ended so recently the government only had two and a half months time in which to get the church and surrounding area ready for the festival. The amenities and facilities were very basic but no one seemed to mind as rich and poor mingled together, happy that they could once again visit this sacred place in peace.

Men waiting to bathe at the festival

Most people arrived on Thursday night or early on Friday morning setting up camped in the area surrounding the shrine. The grounds were packed with tents and heaving with people. There were designated areas for bathing; one for men and an enclosed quarter for the women. The men’s section was lined with concrete tanks. Hundreds of men and boys stood around the tanks with buckets waiting for them to fill up. When they were full the guard on duty blew a whistle and simultaneously the men all began to fill their buckets and slosh water over themselves. There was an atmosphere of festivity and fun in the ritual and it was hilarious to watch. In the enclosed women’s section the procedure was the same, however somewhat less boisterous and rowdy.

Local people had set up food and drink stalls which were spread out throughout the area to ensure the huge number of people had plenty to eat and drink during the festival.

There was a mass on Friday night at 6pm and another bigger one on Saturday morning which began at 5.30am. The evening mass was quiet beautiful; the shrine was lit up and wreaths of flowers decorated the altar. It was pitch black outside with only the lights from the shrine illuminating the faces of the worshipers  Thousands of people stood outside on the grass to hear the service which was sung in both Tamil and Sinhalese. It lasted for two and a half hours after which there was a perahera or procession of nuns and priests around and through the congregation.

I am not religious at all but I had the strangest sensation as I listened to the service; it was so peaceful and the singing was so beautiful and moving, it was an awe inspiring experience.

Worshipper at the morning service

After three hours of sleep in the monastery we were staying in, we were up for the Saturday morning mass which was equally lovely. As the first rays of sun lit up the shrine the enormous crowd were welcomed by the presiding bishops. The congregation was made up of almost 500,000 people. Our privileged media position in front of the shrine provided us with an amazing view of both the church and the immense multitude. At the end of the Eucharist service the statue of Our Lady of Madhu was taken in a procession around the congregation. For a lot of people this was a very emotional moment and many tears were shed.

In the sea of brown faces I was the sole white woman present. I only saw one other white guy who was also with the media. I felt conspicuous everywhere I went, everyone was looking at me. I thought I was used to it from living in Colombo but this was even more intense. My face almost hurt from smiling at so many people, who were merely curious to see a white person at the festival.

The group of 17 print and broadcast journalist – all male – that I traveled  really looked after me, particularly in the big crowds. They ensured that I was surrounded on all sides as we made our way through the enormous throngs of people; my own personal body guards!

Like on the last media trip I went on, the Sri Lankan journalists really appreciated me taking part in the excursions and were quite chuffed with my enthusiastic involvement with everything.

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Trip to the north

Military checkpoint in the north

On the same afternoon both Richard and Michael told me that the Sunday Island editor had asked them if they were interested in going on a media trip to the north. For some bizarre reason that I cannot fathom they both declined.

When I heard that there was a trip up north I went straight up to the editor and asked him about it, as it has been a wish of mine to go to the north since I arrived. Apparently he was concerned about my feminine abilities to ‘rough it out’. I assured him that I had no problem ‘roughing it out’ and was very interested in going. He agreed to try and get me on the trip.

24 hours later after numerous calls, several forwarded documents and a number of promises I received ministry and military clearance to go to the north. The government are not allowing many foreign journalists to the north and former LTTE zones as reporters had written negative reports on the government, in particular in relation to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. I had to give my word not to write anything negative about the government to send home or abroad.

So Thursday night I got on a bus, 17 guys and myself, from Colombo to Madhu. We arrived at 6.30am in the morning after passing through hundreds of checkpoints along the way which only increased in number once we entered the LTTE and former war zone.

Security at the festival

We stayed in a place about 30 minutes away from Madhu, where the religious festival was being held, called Don Bocso. It is a Christian centre run by the church which was set up by the missionaries of an Italian priest, Don Bosco.
Around 160 boys lived and went to school in the centre. 60 of these boys are orphaned Tamils, between 12 and 17 from the IDP camps. I was talking to one of the priests at the centre and he was telling me that the boys from the IDP camps are sent there by the courts. They are expecting another 300 boys to come once their new building is completed. The boys from the camps take a long time to settle in and adjust to the secure and warm environment. After years of living in the camps and in the middle of a war with the constant possibility of being abducted by the Tamils to become child soldiers, they have been traumatised and deeply scared. Their stories are horrific and very traumatic.

Some of the boys could speak a bit of English and a number of them came up to talk to me, curious to know where I came from. They were very polite and friendly. The centre has a school for the boys and the older ones can attend the technological centre or learn a trade so that they learn a skill and have an opportunity to find work on leaving. There was also a newly established bakery where some of the boys worked, making delicious homemade bread which they distribute in the surrounding area. The smell of freshly baked bread was mouth-watering and wafted through the centre all day long.

During the festival, as accommodation in the area was so scarce, the centre was putting up many people.The guys all slept in one big room but being female they ran around to get a room ready for me. My room had a bathroom attached and a shower which consisted of a large bucket of water and a small bucket for sloshing the water over yourself; a novel way of showering.

In the north the population is primarily made up of Tamils the majority of whom are Hindu’s and the minority Christians. Most of them cannot speak Sinhalese, never mind English. They are kind people, but you can see the effect of the long years of war in their faces, in their slightly guarded and weary demeanours.

It is strange how Sinhalese and Tamils, despite living in the same country and being of the same nationality, cannot speak each other’s language.

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It’s a small world!

It was quite funny the other day I wrote a news piece in response to a letter about an incident where people were handing out free cigarettes outside a restaurant in Colombo. It is illegal to advertise anything to do with tobacco and cigarettes in Sri Lanka, so the men were arrested.

I wrote the article, gave it to the news editor who approved it and it was put in the next day’s paper. Two days later I got a call in the office from the tobacco authority commenting on my article which they thought presented them in a bad light. I responded that I was just doing my job and that I had written the article in response to a letter from an authority. I told them that if they wanted to comment or give their side of things we would be more than willing to publish it but we weren’t going to change what we had said already They said they couldn’t say anything as they weren’t allowed to.

So that was that until on Friday night I was at a party. There were three girls there who I got chatting to. They asked me what I was doing and I told them I was working for The Island. Jokingly I said that they obviously all read the paper. One of the girls said that actually she had read something about tobacco in it the other day. I told her that I had written the article and she recognized my name. It turns out she wasn’t the one who called me but she works for the people who did and was aware of the article.

It’s a small world and totally random that I should have met her of all people at a party!

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Kandy Perahera

Pre procession

On a cultural and religious note, the Kandy Perahera, the biggest Buddhist festival in Sri Lanka and one of the biggest in Asia, was a spectacular event. The Perahera takes place every July/August and lasts for 10 days culminating at the full moon; poya day.

The newspaper had provided us with seats in the temple with a great view of the event. Richard, Michael and I left Colombo at 8am on Wednesday morning to make the three hour bus journey to Kandy. We arrived around midday and already the city was full of people waiting for the evening’s event. Many people without pre booked seats had been there since 8.00am in order to ensure a good view of the Perahera.

The pavements were packed full of waiting families and people sitting on the ground on plastic sheets. I don’t know how they did it, all the hours of waiting. Despite having seats we ended up sitting and waiting for five hour for the procession to begin.

Procession

Finally the wait was over and the Perahera finally began. It lasted three hours. Richard was almost beside himself with agitation at the end.

The procession consisted of whip crackers, fire jugglers, stilt walkers, drummers, Kandyian and numerous other traditional dancers, elaborately adorned elephants, prisoners and their guards carrying flags, and a casket atop a triage of elephants carrying Buddha’s tooth. It was quite a procession!

The Temple of the Tooth is the biggest and most important temple in Sri Lanka and is the one which the Kandy Perahera originates from. All temples have a relic of Buddha’s, or at least claim to. The Kandy Temple is said to have Buddha’s tooth, although no one really knows if it is there as the Portuguese claim to have taken it and burnt it during their colonization of Sri Lanka. However Buddhists say that the Portuguese were fooled and took a false tooth, the real one being hidden somewhere safe. Either way the temple claims to house Buddha’s tooth. For many Buddhist’s the Kandy Perahera is the religious highlight of their year and thousands flock to watch it. There are many smaller Perahera’s throughout the year originating from different temples around the country but none as big as the Kandyian one.

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Travels to the south

Participants of the BasicNeeds programme

Where to begin, there is so much to tell. I spent the weekend in the South, in a place called Hambantote, which is on the southern tip of the island and extremely different to Colombo and the Western Provence.

The heat was something else, even the Sri Lankan’s I was travelling with where complaining of the heat. The humidity was 90 per cent, which is unbelievably high and even the breeze was hot.

I travelled with a bunch of other journalists from various other Sri Lankan papers and radio and television stations.

It was a media field trip with an NGO called Basic Needs, an organization which was founded by a British man Chris Underhill and brought to Sri Lanka in 2000. The aim of the organization is to help mentally ill people and their families to combat the illness and reintegrate themselves back into the community.

For years there has been a social stigma attached to all mental illnesses. These people were not accepted in the community and were ostracised. Many families hid these people away which only added to the stigma surrounding them.

With the help of Basic Needs this negative view of the mentally ill is being reduced and the people are getting help.

A number of years ago Sri Lanka had the highest rate of suicide in the world. This was due to a number of factors such as poverty, economic disadvantages and unemployment. Now with the help of programs like Basic Needs, all this is changing. Sri Lanka still ranks quite high, number nine, on the worlds suicide scale, but at least it is no longer the highest.

Can't remember the name of this beautiful flower

Life in the south is very different from the rest of the country. A doctor at a clinic we visited told me that many women become depressed because of the lives they lead. They are always at home cooking, cleaning, looking after their husbands and children and they have no personal lives. This lack of contact often leads to depression and the women come to the clinics to talk.

What I found particularly difficult over the weekend was the constant references to people being mentally retarded. In English it is not at all politically correct to use these terms. But people here are not concerned about that. I will have to get used to it, as I can’t constantly keep getting offended and worked up about how they put things.

I spoke to one lady during the weekend, through an interpreter, who told me her experience of the tsunami. She lived near to the coastal hotel where we were staying, with her family and she described the disaster which she remembered in so much detail and accuracy. She explained how the 40 foot wave swept over her and her children who were in a car, while she clung onto the car from the outside. Her children survived unharmed but her niece who was staying with them at the time was never found. Her own daughter, who was 18 at the time was severely traumatized and refused to go near the sea for a long time after.

Two very charming little boys at one of the temples

We visited numerous Buddhist temples over the weekend; they are the hub of many communities and a place where people feel safe and free to go to.

Everything was conducted in Sinhalese, so I constantly had to have someone interpreting for me, which was very tiring, but also a very good experience as a journalist.

Hardly any of the people we met could speak English and being white I was the cause off much interest. In particular the children were very curious. Initially they peeked shyly from behind their mothers however, they quickly got over their shyness and were following me around tugging at my cardigan.

After tea and an interesting dessert wrapped in a leaf I had to go to the bathroom. We were in a very rural and poor area and the bathroom, which I was shown to by three lovely women and a little girl (none of whom could speak a word of English) was a shack behind the temple with a hole in the ground. I proceeded to go the toilet, nearly wishing I hadn’t asked, but the women were so friendly I felt obliged to go. The entire time I was in the shack the three women and the little girl waited patiently outside the door for me to finish, after which they threw a bucket of water onto the earth floor. Next time, despite the charming company, I shall refrain from using the bathroom in very rural areas!

The bus journey through the countryside was extremely pleasant and as I mentioned before very different from the Western Province. Most of the landscape was very barren and dry with salt marshes peppering the coast.
Inland was a bit greener with sporadic stretches of fertile fields. We drove along one small river, rather dirty in my opinion, where numerous people were bathing in the river, washing themselves. Women were washing clothes, and children were paddling in the water. It was a hub of activity.

It was a fascinating trip, ammunition for a lot of writing.

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