Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Scribbled on the walls (of a transit camp)

Is my face a palimpsest
Of all that my eyes have seen
The heart endured

Or is it an iron mask
That shows more than it covers
Shouting silently

Is it an honest smile
That touch my eyes
Or will I smile again
Only when its time to die

I ask for forgiveness
But there is no one to forgive
I hope to forget
But nothing remains to forget

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Lucky Rides, Book Readings and Serendipity

So I am sprawled lazily on the cushions in this shack on a remote beach in an area still recovering from the effects of decades of conflict. I ignore the supremely fit and purposeful surfers around me; the only physical activity for me is the act of reaching the beer mug to my lips. Even that is carried out with less frequency than usual. I could get used to this, but of course nothing is going to allow me to. Tomorrow I need to be back at work and that poses a small problem. I have to get to the north and I don't have a ride. I am not too worried though as a lot of people from Batti are down here for the long weekend. I can get a ride to Batti and then pick up my car from there. "Know of anyone headed to Batti?", I ask no one in particular. My friend sitting next to me nods, turns around, and pats the woman sleeping behind her. Now what are the odds of finding a person right there who was not only going to Batti but onwards to Vavuniya (where I wanted to go!), and who had a place in her car for me? It gets better. What are the odds of this person being your batch mate from a Master's program that you did two years back?! It was a joint masters that seven universities in Europe conducted and what are the odds that both of you did it from the same University?! I had missed meeting her as I had moved out from Groningen to Uppsala for my second semester just when she moved there from Dublin after her first! Only to meet in this remote south-east corner of Sri Lanka!

Guess even the most desperate gambler won't be betting on these odds.

So I get a ride with these two women right up to Vavuniya the next day. In the car the women do a strange thing. Something which I realise they have been doing together for sometime now. They read to each other! My new friend, the one who had studied with me, starts reading first. The book is Shantaram - and the part they start with is where he describes Leopold's in Bombay. One of my favourite places in Colaba. What are the odds is almost becoming a cliche now! For a dutch woman to meet someone who has been to Leopold's just when she is reading about it in the book is surprising to say the least!

I was being read to after a very very long time - and even if I had felt that it was slightly corny when she started to read - by the end of the trip I was hooked! Every time she would put the book down to look out and enjoy the view - I would have to resist the urge to ask 'what happens next?'! The writings of a foreigner's perspective of your country read to you by another foreigner was a truly unique experience for me. The wonder and amazement of the writer at things that you take for granted was so well echoed by the reader. I don't know if I will enjoy reading the book myself so much now!

A touch of serendipity, I guess, is never too far on the Isle of Serendib...

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Top 10 Near Misses (In no particular order...)

(…and am not listing the things that missed me!)

1. I have been to Paris twice and have never been to the Louvre. No Mona Lisa. (Though I did spend a grateful few minutes in the Louvre Loo – travel tip- it’s for free! But I guess it doesn’t count.)
2. I have traveled (pure pleasure – not on business) to Kenya but have neither seen the big game – no safaris; nor eaten them- no Carnivore!
3. I have lived in Ethiopia and not been to Bahir Dar or Gondar. I won’t say this again – cos it makes me want to kill me.
4. I have lived in The Netherlands and never seen a tulip. In The Netherlands, that is. But I guess the season had something to do with that.
5. I have never seen the Kashmir Valley. A glimpse across the Pir Gali pass doesn’t qualify.
6. I once had a chance to say something to a person; I should have said it. I almost did. A moment lost is a lifetime lost. The candles that lit up the night will never be so bright.
7. I have been to Granada and not entered the Alhambra! Am breaking an oath here – had promised my fellow backpackers never to mention this to anyone!
8. A villager casually pointed out a partially visible landmine to me. It was less than a meter away from where my precious right foot had just landed. And he got a much needed laugh, when he saw the expression on my face!
9. It was late night and I was driving through the desert. Far away from anywhere. My wife and my infant daughter were with me in the car. Suddenly, I saw a man lying by the roadside. It happened too fast. I passed him. I could have stopped to help. I didn’t.
10. I once missed a flight that crashed. It was destiny. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to reach no. 10! ;-)

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Of Red Dots, Black Strips and White Streaks...

Imagine an extra terrestrial being, observing the earth from somewhere far above, on a clear Saturday morning. If she had good eyesight she may have spotted this emerald green, tear drop shaped island hanging tentatively to the Indian peninsula. If she was also blessed with an ultra sensitive sense of smell she wouldn't miss the fact that she was hardly sniffing any vile CO2. Ah! Fresh! While at it, if she had screwed her eyes and focused on the eastern edge of the teardrop, she would have made out a thin black strip running along the coast, hugging the ocean and gently shimmering in the sun. She may also have picked up this little red dot on that strip that seemed to dash and stop as it inched slowly southwards. What she couldn't have known was that lodged uncomfortably, albeit voluntarily, inside this sporadically moving red dot was a miniscule and extremely rueful entity. The cause of this rue was the knowledge that at this very moment this entity could have been comfortably inside a fast moving white streak located somewhere much further to the south on the shimmering black strip. But alas, this miniscule and rueful entity had inside him, in no mean amount, a senseless and intangible quality called a sense of adventure. It usually resulted in the uncomfortable lodging of the entity in question in the most questionable places.

The red dot of course was one of the many that crisscrossed the emerald island at this same excruciating pace. What is popularly called a bus.

The white streak of course would have been my car, which rested peacefully back home.

Two reasons for that. I had just read somewhere that Sri Lanka accounts for much less than 0.01% of the total carbon dioxide emissions and I didn’t want to make any changes in the figures. Secondly, using the local transport in a foreign country is an exotic experience after all. So I ignored some good natured advice and took the early morning bus from Batticaloa to Pothuwil.

The reason for the sporadic movement of the bus is quite simple. Security checks. The entire bus gets off and files through a check post for baggage and personal screening. This happened twentytimes in the 150 km stretch that I traveled. I took 6 and a half hours for the trip. Finally when I got off at Pothuwil I should have been in a really bad mood - but i was at Arugam Bay! Yipee! One needs to take a tuk tuk from Pothuwil to avoid a short 3 km trek to the beach. I paid Rs 100 for the trip - but you could get a ride for Rs 40 if you knew better.

Heading south the tuk tuk crossed the new bridge, built after the tsunami, and immediately dropped me off on the beach road. I turned left and hit the beach. This stretch of beach is the main hub of activity for the tourists, surfers and fisher folk alike. The beach is a charming mix of laid back leisure and frenetic fishing activities. This is considered a surfers haven – especially suited for beginners. The season starts picking up after April and lasts till about November depending on the monsoons. I was there during the low season so I pretty much had the place to myself. There were still a few accommodation options and restaurants that were functional. I spent my time there taking long walks, watching the fishermen reel in their catch, see the sun set and the moon rise and of course beer, arrack and some lazy conversation. I had decided to come here at the last moment - when I had realised that I had a long weekend staring at me. I hadn't counted on the bus trip to take double the scheduled time. So it was with some dread that I looked at the return trip. Luck was with me, however, as I bumped into some NGO types headed back to Batticaloa. Not bad at all, I thought, ensconced comfortably with a German blonde and a French brunette inside a white streak. Couldn’t help feeling that I was being watched – maybe by some extra terrestrial being who was peering down and smiling knowingly…