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15 March , 2008

“Backpacking” is a curious term for someone who spends a good part of their day lying prone on her back. It becomes perhaps even more irrelevant when that same person possesses one rather clever wheelie rucksack, courtesy of her thoughtful brother, who needs to ask for help in carrying it at almost every station. Still, I prefer to think of “backpacking” as a state of travel, or in my case, perhaps more of a state of mind.. Sri Lanka has grown on me over the 10 odd days I have been here.
Despite a wonderful arrival in Colombo, staying at a delightful old colonial bungalow, restored tastefully since the 1930s, where the food was divine, lotus buds sprouted out of every glass jar and the rains torrented  over the frangipani trees, events took a rather unplanned course for the first few days…
The elections 
Having studiously cancelled plans to Iran and Kashmir because of elections in both of those countries, I decided to come to Sri Lanka just 40 hours before I actually landed. Vaguely aware of the political situation here, knowing there had been elections only 2 years ago, I had not considered the impending election just 2 days after I arrived. Stiff-lipped Irony.  Elections in this part of the world are fraught with tension, to say the very least. There was nothing for it but to get out of the capital early in the morning of elections so that I could be safely tucked in some quaint guesthouse before 4pm, the time the election boxes closed and curfew would be imposed (thousands died in the violence surrounding 2002 elections).
So a magnificent, bumpy train ride down the coast for a few hours took me to Galle, apparently declared a World Heritage Site due to some rather old ramparts, but I must confess the beauty was lost on me. Wandering about the dead town, looking for a place to stay that was not hot, humid and sticky led me to listen to my gut instinct shouting “Get out now, whilst there is still time”. I don’t know if there was any trouble in Galle, owing to a complete lack of Englishg newspapers and reliable sources, but I felt an ominous stirring. So, one over-priced taxi later, with a driver nervously speeding to avoid the impending curfew, I found myself, stranded, in Mirissa.
This beach, on Sri Lanka’s south coast, is described by the Loney Planet (I confess, I confess) as “sleepy”…Read on and make up your own minds…
15.15 SKJ lands in Mirissa. Scrambling from one mundane guesthouse to the next, and then back again, not one room is available. It seems half of Sri Lanka has headed here to avoid election fever. Not to mention half of Manchester.
15.25 Still searching for a room. Hostility apparent. “Where you from, madam?” SKJ, aware that the sun has darkened her skin not inconsiderably over the past couple of months, and also expecting India to be more popular than Britain, pulls Indian nationality out of her bag of guises, and finds forceful stares and unwelcoming remarks headed bang, in her direction. The guesthouses all read “Only for foreigners”.  Jostling men. Heat sapping reserves. Back beginning to snap – note that not one person would help with my wheelie rucksack across the high bridge at Colombo station, even though I asked the station-master, and I was wearing my neck collar just in case anyone thought I was lazy…
15.30 One man comes out – “Madam, I have room, you looking?”. Well, what the hell else was I supposed to do? Half an hour till the irons come out in force, I take it. A hot, airless bungalow. Actually two bungalows, but I can see no-one in the other one. Open, exposed, away from other tourists, I feel very unsafe. Plus have to walk through long grass to get there. Snakes fill my sweating brain. Put bags down in room. Hear the liltings of the oud in the next door bungalow – SKJ approaches and asks, in hesitant Greek if they come from the Hellenic Republic.. an Israeli couple, apparently just released from the military bedlam, bark back out of sharpened teeth – “No, Israel”. Sorry, guys, just asking…
15.35 Affecting a casual nonchalance, SKJ wanders to next guesthouse, the only one left unasked. One vacant room. But not for a Sri Lankan. SKJ protests that she is Indian. They will not give her the room. Why not? Maybe woman alone, maybe Indian woman alone, maybe…  Suddenly, man from her bungalow appears at this terse exchange. Starts shouting at SKJ. Tells her to take her things and go if she does not trust him. He yelps that he is a big, fine man. If she no like, SKJ can leave.
15.38 SKJ, sweating like a pig, back aching like in labour, exhausted like a miner, neck soaked in collar which seems to bother no-one here. Tells him half in tears that she has to stay, why is he taking it personally, she just does not feel good staying there alone. Then, she makes one unforeseen fatal error – she asks him if he has a phone. A new volley of slanging starts, since the Guesthouse Goon considers it a personal affront to ask him for something he does not have. “Why you need phone, you no trust me?” Quite frankly, no. “No, I need to call my husband”, understood psycho?
15.41 Someone should know where she is. SKJ slips off at speed across the road to use the phone. A violent, menacing air hangs over the hamlet.  A blackness is beginning to descend like coal dust, but the happy smiling tourists frolick on the golden beach as though wars only happen if Spielberg commands. Local Mirissa people start to gather like angry storm clouds, wanting to burst, blot like acne waiting to erupt. SKJ can only see warts boiling on frog’s back.
15.48 Small internet shop is caked in VCDs of 1980s Clint Eastwood films. Requests to make a phone call. The little bare-chested boy says to be quick. SKJ gets through to boyfriend. “Call me back now, bad situation”. He calls back immediately, sensing panic in her voice. It all bursts out of her, one crazed torrent. His voice orders her to stay calm, do not reveal yourself to be scared, get onto the beach with other tourists (useless info for readers: Hikkadua, south coast tourist hotspot was protected by army tanks at both ends of beach during high season of war). He will call a friend in Hikkadua to try to find me – no use, I plead, this is madness, cannot leave Mirissa today..”
15.52 Stones come flying at the glass front to the phone. The young boy hurtles himself flat against the wall and pulls down the iron shutters “Get away from the window, get down”. A mob is merrily playing fisticuffs. The sound of a motorbike backfiring freaks me out. I think it is guns. Damn, military are screeching in. It is a gun. Some loud shouts. Men clear off. Jeeps drive off.
16.10 All clear , SKJ gets back to the beach. The water is angry too, throwing 2m waves onto the shore. Warrior waves. Mad dogs and Englishmen would not hover near this water (Lonely Planet recommends the calm still waters of this peaceful beach), but plenty of Englishwomen lie bust down in the sand, rows and rows of them. Torremolinos must be jealous, a new and younger rival. I wouldn’t worry if I was a Spanish resort town. Tapas still taste better than palm oil fried fishlets. I stick my face down in the sand like the proverbial ostrich.
The Next Day…
06.30 SKJ woken up by a volley of gunfire lasting 20 minutes. Then they stop – I think they are just  starting to celebrate victory – Iraqi style, and then the firecrackers begin.
08.30 Breakfast. 19 year old Gap year people discuss how they have been “caught” in gun fire for hours. Any mild protest that in fact it is noisy fireworks results in sulky stares – they need to tell their mates about the kind of danger they encounter whilst “traveling”. Backpacking, it seems, is a fraught, fearful affair…
Some time later, I leave “sleepy Mirissa” for the further coastal town of Tangalle. Rocky Point is the kind of place where time never moves and the waves crash fiercely on the rocks below. No safe swimming here either, but relaxed afternoons of reading and swinging in hammocks. Fun people, but hot hot nights. Discovered that if you lather yourself in Baby Powder (God Bless Johnsons and Johnsons), your armpits, groin and knees don’t stick together in the night, so one can pass the night with some little pretence of sleep under the nylon mossie net, with a whirring fan some three metres away (in case the geckos need it more than the sleeping guests). 
Anyway, it was a relaxing few days with some fun people, bathing in the rockpool which I treated as my private Jacuzzi (the 2m waves made good bubbles) for a few days, and then headed for the hills. EllaElla  – Sri Lankan hill country. Cool, sleeping with blankets, warming cups of Ceylon tea and coffee. Fabulous long walks amongst tea plantations and waterfalls. Rock temples dot the hillsides. By now, though, I have learnt it is a mistake to say I am Indian. Visibly not “English”, I have adopted a new persona from that same bag of disguises. Half Indian, Half Greek. Living in London. Ah, this is a fabulous fortune. No one here has ever met a Greek. There are a few English people from Bayswater though who all live next to the Orthodox problem. They have no idea. Especially, if I throw in a few truisms about Santorini, the Olympics, Greek coffee and ouzo. Fabulous. I also have a husband, so that is supposed to make life easier. Still get love letters from the hotel owners of almost every place I stay. If not an actual letter, then I am greeted with flowers outside my door and on my table. I guess I should be flattered. Actually, it is a bit of a pain. The last love letter has made me decide to leave Ella, my little hill paradise, for the remote beach of Arugam Bay, on the south east coast. There is cute little Danish place apparently, so I think I will be fine there… Well, time to log off the Lanka log for now..a  little different from the Delhi Diary, the food for starters is limited to rice and curry, and seafood in varying degrees of tasty along the coast.  As for fashion, I am somewhat flabbergasted that saris here are made of polyester or nylon. Whilst Indian women are pulling out the chikan cottons and cooling crepes, the women here are forced by manufacturers to itch and sweat. One thing is a major improvement from India though. Rickshaw-wallhs care about their livelihoods. The tuk-tuks are dressed up with flowers and belles and comfy seats, and some even sing Singhalese chart songs. I think they must be the inspiration behind Notting Hill’s Karma Kabs.  Hmm, Sri Lanka is an interesting place, and quite a pleasant holiday, am definitely having fun, but it’s not quite got the Shining of India, nor the Va-Va-Voom of Vietnam… Would greet you in Singhalese or Tamil, but don’t know how.So, plain old bye mates. Til the next time…from the standing hilltop Buddhas of Dambulla… 

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