The first day at work, we were handing over a mine field that had just been cleared. I couldn’t help thinking that I would be learning my job backwards! Lots of time for that, I was told as we were starting work on a new mine field in just a couple of days. I walked through the entire area that the team I was joining had painstakingly cleared, inch by inch, in the past few months. The ground looked so innocuous. So inviting. I saw a forlorn school building in the middle of the mine field. Twenty mines were recovered from around it, the team leader informed me. Finally the area was clear. The war in this area had gotten over sometime back. But these silent killers had ensured that peace was held at bay. It was set to change now. The school would be used to house students once again. The ground will be used to play football.
Sunday, 31 August 2008
Sometime next afternoon I started the drive east to head for my team location, near Batticaloa. The route would take me right across the country. A good way to start seeing a new country, I felt. The roads were not the broadest, but they were in good condition. In India anything painted on the road is usually graffiti or someone’s unfortunate pet dog. In Sri Lanka road markings actually tell drivers what to do. Like don’t cross this line, don’t halt here etc. And if the drivers don’t listen, the police actually think it worth their while to stop them and impose a hefty fine. As a result the roads didn’t seem as narrow as they would have back home.
At first sight the country reminds you of Kerala. The resemblance is striking. Then you drive through some amazing open spaces – vast plains, totally uninhabited and the resemblance ends. My route took me through some important historic towns, namely, Dambulla and Polonnaruwa. We took a short detour to go past the Sigiriya monolith, a UNESCO world heritage site. I will write more about these places when I actually have the time to visit them, in stead of just driving through! As we reached nearer to base, we crossed an elephant reserve, and actually saw wild elephants in the ..er wild!
The guy at immigration check in Trichy airport wasn’t very impressed with my answers. I didn’t blame him. It did look a little fishy. To fly from Pune to Chennai, and then take the night train to Trichy, get off at an ungodly hour (1-30 AM!) and then catch the early morning flight out to Colombo. Did seem a bit like I was trying to sneak out of the country! To make matters worse I had my guilty look on. I don’t know why I do that sometimes when faced with an authority figure. So I wasn’t too surprised when I was ushered to an inner office and presented to the Immigration officer, the big man I was told. I went through the spiel of how my NGO was trying to save on costs by buying the cheapest tickets and how all tickets from other airports were sold out and how I just had to be in Colombo today for an important meeting. By now I had donned my own interpretation of an ‘authority figure avatar’ and he seemed to buy it. I was deemed legit. I was off to Sri Lanka!
It doesn’t take you very long in Colombo to realise what a dumbwit you are. A country is at war in your backyard and you realise it only after you have landed there. Till then it was a vague memory of some news clipping. Then as you go through check post after check post, manned by soldiers who seem to know what they are doing, you realise that there is something afoot. The front line is too far for you to hear any battle noises. However, the demeanour of the security agencies suggests that they are not fooled by the distance. Colombo takes the threat seriously. (That didn’t stop a parcel bomb going off near the heart of the city a couple of days later, injuring more than 40 people.)
I was ushered into a room that had jaw marks all over the carpet. I added to it, as mine dropped down too at the awesome sight, my first, of the amazing Indian Ocean! I realised later that the management uses the view to good effect. I never once complained about the musty smell, the lack of drinking water, the mosquitoes or the door lock that never worked! I thought that the hotel was right on the beach when I was startled by a strange noise that didn’t quite belong here. I peered around and realised that the terrace just below me was concealing a railway track that runs right on the edge of the ocean – it was time for the 12-30 local! Now this was one train journey I had to take.
You can be excited about a long meeting in the Ministry for Nation Building only if you have been bumming around for a year. I had been. I enjoyed the meeting. And a few others that were thrown in. In between and later, I stole long walks to explore Colombo. Twice I was gestured off the road and made to wait with fellow pedestrians as some important cavalcade passed by. I was impressed by the soldier’s watchful eyes, looking out for whatever a potential suicide bomber is likely to do, as he held on to his M-16 purposefully. I passed an English pub and remembered my vow. Then I passed a Bavarian pub and nearly forgot my vow. I had visions of a drunk and disorderly me arguing with one of those purposeful soldiers. I bought myself a root beer and went back to my room to call it an early day.