Coastal Correspondence: Sri Lanka December 2015 – January 2016 Trip
“How would you like to go out?”
I look up at my temporary boss for two months. Have I already managed to make myself feel unwelcome on the newsroom floor? Was he talking about their little promo thing elsewhere in the city? Was it an errand?
“Out? Out of the building?”
“No, like going out – out of the city, outstation?”
Out of the city. Out of the city is technically not a problem. I mean, he’s asking someone who has gallivanted merrily around the globe. Crossing the country would not be an issue. I remind myself that I have an advantage, several: a phone, the ability to get by in Sinhala and a local bank account. But it could be a hassle to get to certain places and it depends on what he wants me to do.
“Ok. Where? What for?”
“I will let you know.”
A few days later he tells me someone else will brief me. I nod and carry on – I am here in Colombo, Sri Lanka for two months and I have been behind the international news production desk for a radio channel for two weeks, sourcing international news for hourly bulletins. It would be nice to cover a story, I think. If anything I realise that I like producing but I like chasing stories more. But then my boss goes off to cover the Turkmenistan pipeline. Sri Lanka not being anywhere near Turkmenistan I ask around instead: “So exactly what is this trip, where am I going and for how long and what am I supposed to be doing?”
The answers are fragmentary but I piece together this much: Please go down the coast to Galle and come back to Colombo via Kalutara over two days and help out with a campaign while you are there.
The Southern Expressway
At 6 am on a chilly Wednesday morning with the threat of rain looming, I board a van getting ready to zip down former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s much touted Southern Expressway which despite still lingering under a lot of questions over the massive and unaccounted for expansion in its budget (the former Highway Secretary gave us the public figures in January 2015 but no detailed explanation of what the extra cash was spent on and seemed to think saying “labour and miscellaneous costs increased over time” was a sufficient explanation – he has since been banned from travelling overseas and more recently been investigated in respect to using some of the funds for bankrolling the former President’s election campaign) cuts down the previous meandering down to Galle time from 3.5 hours (not counting the stopping for first, second and third breakfasts along the way) to about an hour.
I am supposed to meet up with the Sinhala news TV crew. The plan is that they will cover this campaign to raise awareness of women’s rights and then back in the studios, if required, someone will translate voice overs for the footage in English and Tamil.
I both like and dislike the Southern Expressway. I feel it cut through a lot of people’s land and that’s not a great thing. And while it boosts travel time considerably and that’s a good thing for trade, it’s all non stop and towns and villages along the route will miss out from that sort of direct trade unless people actually turn off on the exits and go into them and I grew up with the meandering coastal Galle Road being the usual means of getting down south with all the towns and villages benefitting from people needing to stop for cups of tea and fish buns or to actually buy fish or anything else that people sold along the way. There was always a virtual shopping list hanging about in the car on the return trip – did we need more brooms for example? If we bought fish could it keep till we got home to put it in the freezer?
But I like it because I am a geology nerd and I see the anticlines and synclines and layers in the exposed rock where the highway cut through a hill and so I like roads and highways for those reasons.
But on the chilly Wednesday morning, I discuss DNA and the recent dengue vaccine story with my fellow travellers and text the radio crew back in the studio with the idea that perhaps there was a local story we could chase if we got Dr Hasitha Tissera who studies dengue to give us a soundbite on what it would mean for the vaccine to become available in Sri Lanka.
When we get to Galle, the streets are busy – it’s between eight and nine and people are on their way to work. We park the van on the side of the road outside the Galle Bus Stand/Depot. The Galle Railway Station stands next to it, recent recipient of a facelift – anything built in the colonial era soon needs one. Sea air, humidity and humic soil underfoot wreak havoc with brick, stone and paint here.
I manage to grab a photograph of it later but I am not happy about not being able to venture inside. My parents first met at the Galle Railway Station, my father being one of those sent to pick my mother up for a Christian youth conference. He walked right past her – a momentous occasion it was not, a hilarious one, yes.
I am swept up into the campaign instead, distributing leaflets, wondering if it actually will have an effect at all in the long term but in the short term we end up having a long line of women and I watch as the Sinhala newsreaders do their thing, parroting off the story to the camera in the extremely formal version of the language and doing vox pops as well. I wonder if I could do the same in English – it’s definitely an impossibility in Sinhala.
The girls tell me my Sinhala is good. But slowly in Galle, watching them report, I find my mental gears switching over into thinking in Sinhala and vocabulary comes from nowhere. I can converse but I cannot and will not ever be able to present and orate in Sinhala.
The street side of things over, we move onto a forum. They ask me to sit up front with the speakers but I refuse politely. I could speak about being a woman, about fighting the system, about trying and failing and trying, about feminism and all the rest of it but it would be in English and to an audience that is Sinhala fluent, English conversant. And to sit there and not speak would be odd.
“Give me something to do though.” I say to them. “I do not want to just watch.” I am told to take photographs so I try. Some work, some do not. I eventually follow the cameraman out the door and corner him to question him ad nauseum about the camera and his gear, all in Sinhala. I may never have warmed to being instructed in Sinhala before while in school but I am determined now.
We eventually adjourn for a brief look at Galle Fort, immense, huge, built by the Dutch colonialists centuries ago and now the site of a few hotels catering to the tourist trade, the venue of the third largest literary festival in the world, The Galle Literary Festival and also the best place from which to watch international cricket matches for free as you sit on the ramparts overlooking the relatively new Galle Cricket Stadium next door. One of the journalists, Kushani, has never climbed the ramparts so up we go.
I try to count how often I have been here. Presumably I came here when I was younger, perhaps too young to remember. But I have been down to the Fort several times as an adult. I look down and across the ramparts, at the bits that have fallen away, at the watchtowers and the ledges and it’s all grass and brick and stone now but once there would have been cannons and soldiers and guns and massive engineering. And a lot of blood – the Dutch colonialists weren’t nice at all when they were here but they gave me my mother eventually several generations on.
Now the locals scramble about on the ramparts – it costs nothing to climb up and look at everything but people stop to look at wood carvers selling elephant statues, at snake charmers with cobras and monkeys.
In fact, on the side closest to the cricket stadium, one match is being played in the stadium while kids have taken over the rampart and are playing their own game of cricket, the ball rebounding off the side of the fort. On another side, two cows have decided to take a nap though it boggles the mind as to how they climbed up to that particular side in the first place. Where the sea skirts the western edge of the fort, a funfair has set up blasting adverts through loudhorns- it boasts a wheel of death and a merry go round. All over Galle are dotted little antique shops and I wonder, how much more could there possibly be left of Dutch colonial era antiques to trade and sell? Are these businesses that have been trading since that era, going on for centuries, passing stock and knowledge down?
I debate writing a travel piece on this for some publication somewhere but I am uncertain: my time is not my own on this trip and it will be hard to find something cohesive to write about specifically for a publication elsewhere without being able to wander around and explore. A hook is required for travel writing features and so far I have none, bar the fact that I am meandering down the coast for this campaign, something not really that newsworthy outside of Sri Lanka. Publications are picky, they want angles that work with their audiences and I know I don’t have a hook interesting enough in this short Galle gallivant because I did try the one hook I had: the Galle Literary Festival and no one was keen. Or at least keen and able to pay for it.
We climb down the ramparts past the cobras and monkeys again and we pile into vans to head off to lunch in a little roadside joint on the main Galle Road. Lunch is fantastic with plates of rice, plantains, pappadums, potatoes and ambul thiyal, a sour fish curry that is rather dry, gravy wise. We head off after lunch to Kalutara along the old Galle Road, a choice I am not that disappointed by – I am tired but it is a chance to see this road again, this route of my childhood that I think we last used years ago when we went to the Yala National Park. I am remembering the fights we would have in the car. My childhood in a lot of senses was a privileged one especially in a country with an ongoing civil war at the time.
Tsunami Museum, Hikkaduwa
I am sad that we don’t get to stop so I can take photos but again my time is not my own on this trip. We pass interesting things all the time that I would like to photograph or just even take a look at including the Tsunami Museum, an unassuming shack like building on the side of the road with a sign, just outside Hikkaduwa, a city that built its tourist reputation on the coral reefs offshore. It seems a bit wrong somehow and I realise that it probably was put up by a local community group after scraping resources together when the district and the national government failed to do anything. I wonder how former President Mahinda Rajapaksa missed this opportunity for development after being so keen to develop everything else – perhaps it wasn’t in his district. One day I will go back and see what is in there whether it is photographs and memorials, whether they try to match up survivors with other members of their families or help them out somehow.
I haven’t mentioned it but perhaps the others noticed the building too because suddenly there are stories of those who survived and those who didn’t.
”I knew a friend who lost his entire family. He clung onto a tree and was swept away and then caught hold of a cement column and that was swept away too but he managed to hold onto it and so he was rescued.”
”There was a family. The mother drowned and the father survived by climbing a tree or getting into the branches as he was swept past but the two kids were rescued by the family dog.”
The tsunami was eleven years ago. Sonali Dereniyagala who lost her entire family in it will be at the Galle Literary Festival in January 2016 to discuss her book about it titled Wave. It’s a bestseller. One can never tell what the emotional toll is on someone in that situation but I wonder about those who didn’t have the few tools and means that she would have had to help her recover. Those who made their livelihoods through the sea and didn’t have any advance warning that it would turn on them that way – I want to know what happened to them, if anyone helped them in the long term to recover. Perhaps that could be a starting point for a travel piece. An investigative piece. Find a thread and see where it goes, what it leads to, what knots it brings, how it unravels.
Kalutara Beach Hotel, Kalutara
We take turns falling asleep, my fellow journalist Kushani and I, and I wake up when I hear her phone ring and watch her effortlessly give her producer what’s known as a “voice cut” an update on the story of the campaign so far over the phone to be recorded and played either on air on the radio or over footage on TV. She spins it out effortlessly, hangs up and asks me if I was giving the English newsdesk an update. I tell her that I was never told exactly what to do but I decide to text my boss anyway on the off chance that he may just be back from covering Turkmenistani pipelines instead of Filipino typhoons.
He calls back a minute later and after an apology for not organising things better, says: “Can you write a script and give me an update for radio?”
I say ok, hang up and then panic, trying to get my notepad out of my bag. I was told that I would not be covering anything so this is now a bit of a surprise twist but a good one as I am finally feeling useful. Kushani is excited for me and she tells me in Sinhala the facts I don’t know and as we reach our hotel in Kalutara, there is a frenzied discussion over what someone’s job title is when translated to English. it turns out to be the Secretary for the Galle District – it’s the formal titles and words that trip everyone up. The Sinhala team knows what it means and refers to and has to explain the concept to me in English if I don’t get it from context and then even when I do get it I have to offer all the possible English terms it could be till we find the right one and someone recognises it.
“AG? Isn’t that the abbreviation?”
“That would make it an Attorney General – that’s not right.”
“GA. That’s what it is.”
“Government Administrator?” I ask. It’s a good thing I read Leonard Woolf’s diaries – the Sri Lankan public service has not changed since a century ago.
“Acting Government Administrator.”
I call my script in and then call my mother and sister. Having had an apparently boring day, they get excited and start listening in for the radio bulletin, promising to record it for me. They call after my dinner of a paratha and a mixed fish and dahl curry to tell me that it got garbled on air due to some technical issues. I spend an hour chatting about my day, sitting outside on a rock, a huge chunk of granite, under a coconut tree on the lawn of a little beachside motel on Kalutara’s Calidor Beach, looking up at the stars and laughing at what my sister is saying. Halfway through a black bull shows up to eat the grass on the lawn slowly getting closer and closer. Eventually he gets shooed away by someone though not before grunting his disapproval and not before my sister and mother get rather het up about my sitting not two feet away from a bull. I make the point that all he wants is grass and no one is wearing red but it matters not. They inform me that there was a snake in the garden during the day which I think trumps my bull having dinner next to me story but apparently not. I find it comforting though that life here doesn’t mean being cut off from nature or our tamed versions of it.
My sister tells me I am a correspondent now. I laugh and go off to write a brief script for an early morning update for radio before going to sleep.
I wake up early in the morning which confuses me – I am not a waking up in the morning person. There is fog along the coast – the beach is on the other side of the road from the motel. It’s quiet and it reminds me of what the eastern side of the island is like. No one has called me so I call into the newsdesk and ask if by chance anyone wants an update.
“How is it going?” The producer on shift Shehan asks me as he gets ready to record my update.
“Well, a bull decided to have dinner next to me last night.” I reply. I am not entirely sure that Shehan believed me. I don’t blame him – this entire jaunt down the coast has been surreal.
“Well, a bull decided to have dinner next to me last night.”
I lounge about till everyone wakes up and we all go to another roadside joint for breakfast. But not till after we take a walk on Calidor Beach.
Day two finds me fielding a call from the TV newsdesk and then suddenly doing my first ever live cross from the middle of traffic on the Galle Road before filing radio updates and constantly sweating all my makeup off under the hot noon sun.
There is dust and sun and no one is happier than I to finish recording a stand up for TV inside Kalutara’s District Secretariat and then collapse into a chair and take the jacket off before calling into the radio again.
Lunch is provided by a journalist and his family who are kind enough to let us use their connection to send through footage that had not gone through to the studios in the morning. When we do get back into the vans to keep going, we are quiet, sleeping at various times, the two others providing more voice cuts as they do their final updates for the day.
Galle Road, Colombo
As we drop off Kushani and hit the Galle Road end of Colombo I feel myself shift back into full English thinking again. I feel the Sinhala vocabulary falling away – a fanciful notion perhaps but nevertheless what is going on in my head. The other journalist goes into full producer mode, she will be producing the next day, and starts calling people to line up what needs to be covered during the night.
They drop me home and I wait patiently for my mother to unlock the door. To my surprise, I have only been away for 48 hours but she hugs me all the same. Perhaps it is a mother thing – the idea that if your child wanders out of sight no matter how old they are, then one is perpetually anxious till they are back in sight again. I can only imagine how she copes when I spend most of each year in another country.