Sunday, March 21, 2010

See Fernando

If you want to go where they chain up the sun
See Fernando

The driver Ziyan connected me with in Colombo, Harold, turned out to be a mild yet excitable guy. He'd been a guide working for a local company, Heritage Expeditions, for several years and had been formally trained and approved by the Sri Lankan Tourist Board.
Harold had a few days off and was in possession of the company car, so he agreed to drive me for the rest of the week. Harold was an endless source of knowledge, able to talk history, politics, and shed light on all of the little details of things I'd seen in the streets and markets.

Harvesting rice

From the start, Harold understood that my main destination was Jaffna, the northern city where the civil war with the Tamil Tigers had recently ended and life was supposedly returning to normal.
Due to his employment at the Expedition company, Harold was well versed in the main tourist route within Sri Lanka, but in his entire life he had never been to Jaffna. This would be a great opportunity for him as well.
After a day of exploring some of the key temples in Yapahuwa and Anuradhapura, my brain was sufficiently stuffed with Buddhist history. It was time to head north.

Ruwanweliseya Dagoba
Buddhist bathing pools (no longer in use)

Stabilized, motorized, insecure or fableized

The LTTE conceded defeat in their 30 year civil war back in May of last year. Presidential elections were subsequently held without any significant issues, and Parliamentary elections are scheduled for April 8, two weeks after I left Sri Lanka.
The war ended with the capture of several key LTTE strongholds and the subsequent assassination of the LTTE's founder and leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. As a man I met in Kandy later said, however, "the leadership is gone, but the weapons remain. We must just wait and see whether the organization will regroup or whether they have given up."
One road heads north through the Sri Lankan jungles to Jaffna, the A9. As we passed through the city of Vauvniya, the military presence outstripped any I'd ever seen before, even in the occupied territories in Israel. Soldiers were posted all throughout every city in Sri Lanka, automatic weapons hanging on shoulders in virtually every neighborhood. As we reached Vauvniya, small bunkers started appearing along the side of the road. Each bunker was a mound of earth capped by a tin roof which was supported by a pile of sand bags. Soldiers' eyes were visible inside virtually each bunker, watching out for anyone who might be carrying dubious cargo.

Empty bunker


Police check points were routine in Sri Lanka, though we rarely were stopped at any of them. Most cars were ushered through, while trucks got a more thorough screening. Rather than stopping each vehicle, everyone drove through, but stopped if an officer blew a whistle. I asked Harold what would happen if someone didn't hear the whistle and kept going.
"Oh, they'd shoot first and ask questions later."

Despite decades of war, the roads were quite passable, and many had recently been rebuilt. There were long stretches of crumbled and destroyed roads, as well as long stretches under construction.

Heading north on A9

As we passed through Vauvniya, the bunkers increased until they were appearing about every minute or two. We passed the Sri Lanka Air Force base, where double-layered razor wire fences separated us from huge fields full of bunkers and soldiers running through drills.
North of Vauvniya we passed a huge refugee camp. Similarly barricaded from the rest of the world, the internally displaced camp was tucked behind a college, giving the appearance that it was a highly secured campus, but the countless tents stretching off into the distance and the makeshift toilets around the perimeter told the real story.
The Sri Lankan government has been telling the world that with the onset of peace, the internally-displaced persons (IDPs) have been returning to their homes, and rebuilding after the war. Pressure is coming from western governments to ensure that is the case, but the razor wire fences showed that many thousands are still held captive, unable to do anything but subsist on food and water brought into the camps.
In Omanta, we got the whistle as we passed a military check point. Harold grabbed his Tourist Board ID and I pulled out my passport. A soldier spoke to Harold in Sinhalese while another came to my door (the window didn't roll down) and asked me questions in English.
"Where are you going?"
"North, we'd like to see the northern cities."
"What is your nationality?"
"United States."
"Oh, I am so very sorry."
Sorry? I've been embarrassed about my nationality from time to time, but had never gotten a response like that before.
"Let me see your passport. Americans can not travel to Jaffna right now."
Harold produced an article I had printed out from the government-owned Sri Lankan Observer, which claimed that hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists had visited Jaffna in the preceding months.
The soldier closed my door, called to some other soldiers, and some higher ranking men approached the car. Harold got out and left with them into the adjacent bunker.
I could see Harold calmly answering some questions while the remaining soldiers smiled at me through the window.
When Harold returned, he pointed the car south as he recounted what the soldiers told him: foreigners were not allowed to travel north of Omanta by A9 as of a few weeks ago without permission of the Ministry of Defense.
Harold was pissed.
"I have never seen Jaffna. The soldiers say it is safe, but we need permission. What can we do?"
Harold pulled over and started rifling through his glove box. He had the number of the Ministry of Tourism and could get the number of the Ministry of Defense. In the meantime he told me to call the US Embassy.
I'd never phoned my own Embassy before. They weren't helpful.
"We're generally not encouraging Americans to visit Sri Lanka right now, and we are not encouraging people to travel on A9 because the road may be full of landmines."
The landmine threat was clearly a fabrication, as this is the one road that goes north, and carries thousands of trucks daily.
Harold finally reached the Ministry of Defense and handed me the phone. I asked how I could obtain permission to go to Jaffna.
"You'll need to facsim your requests and papers to General Fernando." She gave me a fax number.
"OK, Harold, we need to find a fax machine and we're set."

Harold in the sweat box

We returned Vauvniya and entered a communication point, a tiny sweatbox draped in wires and crammed with tiny phone booths. I got a piece of paper and did my best to handwrite a formal request to visit Jaffna.
As a representative of the largest travel agency in the world, surely if the government was declaring Sri Lanka to be free for tourism, they wouldn't want to restrict my travels, right? And with Sunday Observer articles telling the world that people were free to visit, I surely wasn't going to be the only disappointed guest.
The papers were placed in an old, yellowed fax machine and sent to General Fernando, Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense. And then it was time for lunch.
Harold and I hopped into a small restaurant and grabbed some rice and curry. On the way out, Harold joined a crowd gathered around a Bajaj motorcycle and a man on a microphone. A lottery. Harold bought a ticket and won 20 rupees in his first scratch.
"Maybe today is our lucky day!"

Harold's winning lottery ticket

Tired of talking, talked out
Ticked off or toughed up


We returned to the sweatbox and no return fax had been received. I phoned the Ministry of Defense.
"Yes, I am a foreign tourist looking for permission to visit Jaffna."
All I could hear were the motorcycles and trucks outside, the chatter of others on phones inside. And faintly a woman's voice on the phone."
"Hello? Hello? Tikka tikka..." Click.
I called back.
"Hello? Hello? Tikka tikka..." Click.
Again and again, finally the woman understood me and connected me to others, who transferred me to others, who hung up. Dozens of calls later, I finally spoke with someone helpful.
"I will review your papers and send them to the right person. Call again in a half hour."
Harold and I spent the next half hour talking with folks hanging around the communication point. Theories about why we weren't traveling easily to the north seemed to focus on the refugee camps: with Western pressure to close the camps and let everyone rebuild their homes, they don't want foreigners and especially foreign media to show the world that the camps are still in place and how many thousands of residents occupy them.
Back into the sweatbox. I crammed into one of the phone booths and used an earplug I had left in my camera bag to block out the racket outside. Drenched in sweat in the suffocating coffin, I went through another dozen hang-ups and transfers before I finally spoke with the Defense General himself. After some discussion, he gave his final answer:
"Foreign tourists are allowed to go to Jaffna, but you must fly. We do not want you on the A9 road, which may have land mines. You are welcome to return to Colombo and book a flight."
"I already tried that: Expo Air and Aero Lanka are both forbidden to fly to Jaffna right now."
"You can use HeliTours to charter a helicopter."
"Do you have any idea what that costs? Look, I know the road is safe: countless people travel it every day because it is the only route between north and south."

Fernando ignored my point. "Foreigners are not allowed on that road. It is for the best."
No amount of debate was going to sway him, and it was apparent that the article published by the Sunday Observer was simply fabricated propaganda. Hundreds of thousands of tourists were most certainly not traveling by helicopter to Jaffna.

Forget about what you ain't got

I was a little let down, but not nearly as much as Harold. I hadn't hung my hopes on that one destination and was enjoying everything I'd seen in Sri Lanka. Plus, I still had weeks of travel ahead, full of new destinations, maybe just not ones that had recently emerged out of war. Harold, however, finally had an opportunity to see something completely new in his country and the opportunity disappeared as quickly as it came.
While I wasn't able to see the city that I wanted to see, I was able to see a bit of what Sri Lanka did not want me to see: that there are still refugee camps in the north. That tourism to Jaffna does not exist as it is described by the government's newspapers.
As we headed back south that afternoon, deciding the next city to spend a night in, we did come across some sights to make up for the loss. First, a large wild peacock cruised across the road in front of us. And later, as dusk was approaching, Harold slammed on the brakes.
"Look, out in the bushes! There!" Harold exclaimed in a hushed voice.
Just a few hundred feet away, in the brush along the side of the road, two wild elephants were munching on the shrubbery. We got out of the car, and approached them, keeping a somewhat safe distance considering the short amount of time it would take for an elephant to charge and squish a running human.
The scene was serene and wholly unexpected. If we weren't going to be able to see bombed-out colonial buildings that evening, wild elephants would suffice.

Wild elephant near the road

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