The LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, were routed by Sri Lankan government forces in May 2009. On the back of a later 2009 visit the following piece was originally published by The Sunday Herald in April 2010. Apologies for the ‘kilt’ on the story, but in the light of Sri Lanka’s recent Commonwealth Summit I thought there may exist some value in re-reading the copy.
‘Glenloch’ – the letters on the side of the grey shed are two feet high, the cloud is low, the rain underlining the building’s steadfast proclamation of proud Scots heritage. Ah, those friendly clouds and comforting cool raindrops – but for the huddles of diminutive Tamil tea pluckers this could be Kincardine. ‘Yes sir, 134 years ago Glenloch was started by a Scottish gentleman,’ announces my beaming female guide once we are inside the building. ‘Now we have 600 acres and employ 300 pluckers.’ Among the damp and fog of Sri Lanka’s southern tea country my inquiries to establish whom that long-dead Scot might have been become mired in tales of Messrs Brooke and Bond.
However, Scots links with these south Asian temperate uplands are more than mere swirls of fanciful mist. In 1852 James Taylor set out from Kincardine for Ceylon and, as befits an island formerly known as Seredib (the origin of the word serendipity), made the timely discovery that tea could replace coffee on plantations decimated by an island-wide fungal epidemic. Through his pioneering work Taylor opened the door for his entrepreneurial countryman Thomas Lipton and set the course for Ceylon to overtake China and India in tea exports, in this way defining the island’s economy and landscape for decades to come.
Upstairs, inside the shed, slightly built women queue at a desk to have their sacks of pluckings weighed and recorded, their faces still glistening from the rain – 30kg is an average daily haul, netting a wage of around 500 rupees (£2.70). In Sri Lanka the majority of tea pluckers are these ‘plantation Tamils’, whose ancestors were brought by the British from India. Historically there’s been little mixing between Sri Lankan Tamils and those hailing from India, and after independence many of the latter found themselves disenfranchised and effectively stateless, without the required documentation to gain an ID card and therefore unable to vote.
At Glenloch, accommodation and healthcare are provided by the plantation, and following strike action across the industry it is reported that conditions for workers have generally improved. I take a few shots with my expensive camera and feel humbled to be making such an easy living.
Driving still higher, braving the Tata buses that lunge alarmingly on their springs round tight bends, and stoically ignoring the antics of those scallywags at the wheels of 25-ton Lanka Ashok Leyland trucks, we arrive in Nuwara Eliya. At over 6000ft, the town was at the heart of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country. Often referred to as ‘Little England’, the town’s true allegiance seemed directed further north – ‘Little Scotland’ maybe. The 18-hole golf course designed and built in 1889 by a Scot serving in the Golan Highlanders captures the sense of slightly faded colonial tweeness.
And just past Lady McCallum’s Drive, along St Andrew’s Road was the old Scots Club, now the St Andrew’s Hotel. In the hotel bar, beneath an oil colour of bucolic highland bliss, the fire crackles. John Matthew, a dignified Sri Lankan retainer who’s had the hotel for 30 years, smoothes his substantial moustache, and expands on the area’s heritage. ‘Definitely Scottish, most of the buildings, post office, the hotel, the golf course, all Scottish,’ he says. The wind and rain are getting up outside in a decidedly Scottish way, too. I order another Lion beer, Tiger not being available in these parts, and sit while Matthew voices his hopes for more visitors next season, now that ‘the war is finished’.
Yes, the war. I knew there was something I wasn’t supposed to mention. The insurgency by the Tamil Tigers, which began in 1983 in a bid to create an independent Tamil state in the north and the east of the island, is the elephant in the jungle that visitors have tried to ignore and Sri Lankan residents have had to live with.
Kingsley Withanage, a 47-year-old from the majority ethnic group the Sinhalese, is nursing a glass of arak and coke. A skilled machinist and sometime tourist guide, he has spent long stretches in Japan, Taiwan and Italy. He explains: ‘There was no future here,so what to do? I went abroad. In 2008, I came back. Many politicians, they’re easy to buy, they talk a lot, particularly near elections, but afterwards do nothing. Everybody wants the power, then they get the business.’ He rubs his finger and thumb together. ‘At least this president [Mahinda Rajapaksa] has actually done something – now we can see it. He said we needed new roads, and they are being built. He said he’d end the war – it’s ended.’
Later, on the road to the north-east coast and the Tamil city of Trincomalee, some of this highway reconstruction is apparent. Certainly, the network is in dire need of an upgrade, with fevered overtaking the only way to circumvent all manner of traffic, from autorickshaws, buses, trucks and motorised wheelbarrows.
Occasionally bands of buffalo spill out from roadside stands of palu, mango,hora and tamarind trees, raising their heads to sniff the air, limpid dark eyes offering no clue as to their next move. In addition to checkpoints, the route is still lined by dugouts despite the Tamil Tigers ending their armed struggle, soldiers standing a hundred metres apart, catching shade where they can, each carefully cradling an assault rifle, straight fingers poised over trigger guards.
Though the defeat of the Tamil Tigers was greeted by street parties in Colombo, the estimated 245,000 displaced Tamil civilians still interned in overcrowded northern ‘welfare centres’ are unlikely to be celebrating any time soon.
At Colombo’s Bandaranaike airport, a hoarding proclaiming the country’s tourism strapline is worthy of a Have I Got News For You headline guessing game: ‘Sri Lanka – Land of … (obscured by tape).’ President Rajapaksa has won the war, and if he keeps the peace he’ll have the right to choose how the slogan ends.
A couple of weeks ago I found myself in discussion with a UK-based lawyer, a frequent business traveller to Cairo, who sought to make sense of Egypt’s incomplete 2011 revolution, and its recent rather more emphatic military coup. ‘There were people in Egypt, ordinary professional people, women, minorities – Copts and others. They went to work, got to their offices, locked themselves in and at the end of the day raced home and hoped that in the middle of the night no one was going to break down their door. They were frightened and still are.’ There was earnest conviction in her description of daily life for those she counted as friends and colleagues. The lawyer continued, ‘What was going to happen? Was the Brotherhood’s agenda just to be accommodated, their increasing control of institutions, their creeping conservatism, not to mention their economic incompetence?’ I suggested that democracy is messy and in the long run might it not have been better to allow the Egyptian people to judge Mohamed Morsi’s performance in free and fair elections rather than to rejoin the boom, bust cycle of political oppression followed by popular uprising? ‘What has happened, it’s not democracy,’ she said, ‘but the fact is that sometime, somewhere, someone has to say to these people ‘No!’’
It’s easy to understand the lawyer’s perspective and the real worries of those she described. However, it hardly needs to said that regimes established on oppressive dictatorial foundations in the end always come crashing down. And when this happens there’s little else in place to maintain the humdrum necessities of a healthy economy and semblance of civil society.
The 2011 Egyptian revolution has been likened unfavourably to the case of a dog that chased cars, finally caught one and then realised it couldn’t drive. The Muslim Brotherhood shrewdly played a long game, carefully standing back from the protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere. Following Hosni Mubarak’s departure, in the absence of any other established opposition, the Brotherhood was seen as the only national network with any kind of alternative identifiable political strategy – except of course for the army.
And perhaps the army played an even longer game, standing back even further. The grinding misery of fuel shortages miraculously ended with the army back in power, so too the greater national debt crises disappeared from the headlines – aided of course by the curtailment of a free press. Was this all a case of ‘give ‘em enough rope’, a strategic military manoeuvre using the overwhelming momentum of popular disaffection to once again propel the army, in the guise of General Sisi, from servant to master?
Where does Egypt go from here? Even the usually unifying October 6th commemorations of 1973’s Arab-Israeli War only served to stoke unrest, with estimates of over fifty dead in the capital alone. Most Egyptians want no more than to get on with their lives in peace. However, against the background of a stalled economy, the FT describing Egypt’s tourism as ‘having fallen off a cliff’, 16% adult urban jobless and shocking levels of youth unemployment, there’s little sign of calm returning to the streets – Egypt’s game may be very long indeed.
It’s time to update to my blog – once a year, regular as clockwork… What has predicated this further prodigious outpouring? An earnest need to record social injustice, a duty to highlight an humanitarian catastrophe, an epiphany that the world should know Dubai is not after all a sterile, air-conditioned prison of bars and spas? Or is it the gurgling gastro-intestinal imbalance of the soul, common in all ‘great’ bloggers, that makes me reach for the soft, strong and very long online page?
Anyhow, today from Afghanistan comes depressing word of yet another brave high profile woman murdered by illiterate thugs – the ‘halcycon’ days of The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan must must seem far distant. Then from the US, news that a ‘harmless’ Buddhist convert opened up with an assault rifle, killing twelve, which leads me to believe his conversion was at best incomplete. Add to this, 24-hour rolling Parbuckling Live and the tin lid is firmly on my despair – in future, I’m sure I’m not alone in calling for coffee companies to stay on dry land and stick to what they know best.
Elsewhere, ‘conventional’ civilian deaths mount as the nettle of Syria’s tragic farce remains yet ungrasped by an understandably war-weary West – others are not so fatigued. I wonder whether, amidst devastation, the dry humour of Armen Mazloumian – ‘We’ve been rather quiet, so we’ve given the barman a holiday.’ – manager of Aleppo’s Baron’s Hotel, still has an audience? What too of the eloquent Hassan Zahabi and his Damascus emporium of fabrics and ceramics? – ‘We prefer to live with our sorrows… because we never know whether your promises will bring more sorrow.’ Unknown to us both the writing had been on the wall in Hassan’s shop, a pottery plaque announced ‘Al waqt hawa’l hayat’ – ‘time is life’. ‘Some people they believe time is money,’ he’d said, ‘I don’t agree.’
For me the pensions of Beirut, fleapits of Kalis and foggy, winding roads across the Anti-Lebanon Mountains have to wait. For the most part the travel press commissions copy that brings in advertising and sells holidays, perhaps accounting for a diminished readership – many of those I know consign travel sections, along with sponsored advertorials, to the same pile as Scotts of Stow catalogues and UPVC window flyers…
So, having given up pitching into the wind of editorial indifference, my desk is clear and tomorrow I’m off to climb a hill in Italy…
Have a good week.
To be clear from the outset, I don’t like Christmas. Even if a vestigial spiritual aspect remained I’d be unmoved. In common with Norwich I have no religion, not even Jedi. However, I’ll agree that when mornings are dark and days short we all need to be cheered up and if rituals involving eating and drinking, socialising, singing, quaffing pretend blood and melting wax effigies do the trick that’s just dandy – it’s a mostly a free country.
That said, the proliferation of Christmas presents should be banned, or at least controlled in the same way as nuclear weapons. It’s true there are some inherent flaws in this policy. Americans and Russians would still have shed-loads of presents, the Chinese too – even though they don’t believe in Santa. Indians would claim they invented presents, Pakistanis would sell some of theirs to the North Koreans, Israelis would just get angry and say nothing, and the Brits and French would go off in a huff, each with one small present from last year, wondering why nobody loved them anymore.
Anyhow, to this end I suggested to my wife that we simplify our lives, and those of others, by limiting Christmas giving to a pot of marmalade and a fake tattoo – I’m still working on the marmalade. As ever, the guilt-driven ritual of tat for tat exchange that fuels Britain’s annual festival of shopping obscures the origins of this ages-old midwinter rite. The significance of Santa’s crucifixion is lost for many in an atmosphere heavy with forced conviviality preceding the consumerist storm.
In fluorescent-decked halls across the land superstore muzak is cranked up to 11 in readiness for the December trolley dash… And they’re off… credit cards at the ready, easy payment facilities available (subject to status, terms and conditions apply) and Wanka.com for the rest. To the victors… the feral sweetness of ‘celebrity’ perfume, shiny smartphone conduits for incontinent electronic dribbles, and for those fashionably smug, flat Chinese computers made from ground up babies’ bones…
Merry Christmas one and all.
In this week’s news from the net…
Christmas is a time for sharing… Shoplifting on the increase reports the BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20765838
Kurdish/Rebel clashes add yet another facet to Syria’s war http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/12565/kurdish-rebel-clashes-raise-specter-of-interethnic-war-in-syria
Iraqi President in a coma after stroke http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20766435
First round of Egyptian referendum sees 57% approve new constitution http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/12/18/uk-egypt-politics-idUKBRE8BH0LU20121218
‘Plague ship’ docks in Southampton – lovely aggregator of woe from the Yorkshire Post – http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/at-a-glance/main-section/passengers-tell-of-virus-hell-as-plague-ship-cruise-ends-1-5228405
Look, I stand by what I said about religion, but here’s Rev Stanley’s take on life’s legacy… http://ramblingrector.wordpress.com/2012/12/01/how-do-you-want-to-be-remembered/
Gerard Depardieu shrugs, quits France, and sends his passport to Prime Minster Ayrault – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/9750510/France-warms-to-Gerard-Depardieu-the-heroic-exile.html
‘After the revolution we thought all the young people will have jobs. But it’s just the same.’ exhaled Walid. We walked on through the dunes, Walid barefoot, wearily leading the camels, our happy band of trekkers following. 100km across a sandy finger of the Sahara’s Grand Erg Oriental lay our destination, the fort and oasis of Ksar Ghilaine – a popular tourist route for dilettante desert explorers.
Tunisia’s 2011 ‘Jasmine Revolution’, the first popular uprising of the ‘Arab Spring’, saw a coalition led by the previously banned Ennahda (Renaissance Party) take power. However, for many educated young Tunisians the new Islamic government has yet to deliver. ‘What is happening in Tunis now, it’s just the Islamic who find jobs, mostly in the government,’ continued Walid. As in other Arab countries the secular youth, those best educated, most connected and a primary catalyst for change appear to feel sidelined. ‘My mother, my father, they pray. Not me. I do believe, but it’s in the background,’ Walid sucked in air through his teeth, looking at me questioningly. ‘OK, so not fight, not kill but people should be able to do what they want, that’s freedom,’ he concluded.
Tunisia’s economy is not all dates, pottery and tourism. Petroleum, hi-tech computer components, parts for Airbus aircraft and vehicle manufacturing, all contribute to a varied GDP. However, in a global downturn jobs are hard to find. ‘I graduated in IT four years ago,’ says Walid in disbelief. ‘Mostly I’m worried that if I keep doing this,’ tossing a look over his shoulder at the camels, ‘I’ll forget my job. Things will have moved on.’
A common escape path favoured by disillusioned young people the world over is to marry a foreigner. However, for Walid this is a step too far. ‘You know there are more than one million Tunisians in France. It’s difficult to go legally. Maybe marry a French woman, but I have 25-years and only the older ones are interested… I have a friend who has done this. When he visits with his wife I say to him in Arabic, “Why are you with this woman?” He says he loves her. Come on… It’s not for me. Maybe later. Who knows?’
Almost exactly 70 years ago Winston Churchill described the first Allied victory in North Africa as ‘not the end… not even the beginning of the end but… perhaps the end of the beginning.’ Maybe in time history will look upon Tunisia’s revolution and those others in the Arab world in a similar light.
This week’s eye-catching links, in no particular order:-
- If you’re intrigued by a desert experience, Exodus’s Sahara Desert Trek is to be recommended. You’ll need to be reasonably fit, not too attached to such tissued fripperies as soft beds and personal hygiene, and not allergic to sand or camels. A penchant for couscous, though not essential, is an advantage. Here’s the link – http://www.exodus.co.uk/holidays/tmu/overview
- Railsavers (http://www.railsavers.com) is offering motorail services from Den Bosch, close to the Dutch/Belgium border, to Koper, Slovenia (not far from Trieste, in Italy) next summer. If you can be flexible on dates there are some real bargains on this new route, as well as on existing services to Alessandria and Livorno in Italy.
- Red line – Choppy seas ahead as China makes enhanced claims for national territorial waters… Not satisfied by re-writing the history books China seems determined to redraw the maps - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13748349
- I left Haiti 6th December 2009 having researched a magazine and newspaper travel commission. The 12th January earthquake tossed those stories onto a spike, whilst in Haiti any aspirations for a tourism renaissance were lost amongst the dust and rubble. Three years on Paul Clammer’s new guidebook provides an up-to-date vision of a Haiti, a destination that whilst challenging, is again one of the Caribbean’s most rewarding for adventurous travellers. Here are some extracts from Haiti http://www.bradtguides.com/extracts-haiti.html
I was invited to dinner the other day by some folks not long moved up from Buckinghamshire. It’s happened before. A neatly turned out Sasha or Duncan meets my wife alone, presumably decides she sounds quite jodhpurs, ponies and private schools and is charmed by a false sense of shared values. Sight unseen they extend a bony finger of social largesse to include me, which is where things start to unravel.
Even as we crossed their threshold, bottle of Sainsbury’s Cava and Costco mints in hand, I detected disappointment that my vowels fell into the NQWWW category – Not Quite What We Want. I’m hardened to this. My own speech has never fitted in, from Secondary Modern in the North West which I endured whilst being ‘rite posh’, to nine years in London as a token ‘northern git’.
Hanging up coats, we took seats in the lounge. It transpired the Sashcans still had their house in High Wycombe, hinting to me at expatriate impermanence, as though they’d be ready on the tarmac with bags packed ready to board the last flight out when the inevitable UN evacuation was ordered.
Over an array of nibbles we discussed public transport in Northumberland, or rather the lack of it. I cited recent homework asking my daughter to describe a journey to St James’ Park by bus and train. Being ‘in travel’ I’d decided to assist, discovering that the twenty mile odyssey took 15 and a half hours, comprising a three and a half mile walk to the bus stop and in a cruel twist an occasional obligatory overnight next to the Metro at Callerton Parkway’s Premier Inn. I mentioned little old ladies, isolated and lonely, too doddery to drive even if they could afford to, marooned in villages where they’d lived for decades. Perhaps rashly I made the case for public transport providing a service rather than earning a profit, a suggestion obviously akin to wearing a flat cap, eating a chip butty and lighting up a ‘tab’ whilst clog dancing The Internationale. ‘Why should we pay for your transport?’, came the astonished response from Duncan’s visiting sister. The pros and cons could have been argued but the subtext was plain – Why should we who are comfortably enclosed in the fat of the Home Counties care a jot for anyone else, particularly those for whom bath, path and laugh are a bridge too far?
I felt suddenly tired. My glass was refilled but even meltingly-ripe Camembert and five types of cream cracker couldn’t resuscitate the evening. Time to head home, after all, the whippet would need a walk before bed.
This week’s links…
Kelvin McKenzie’s piece in The Telegraph in which he bemoans subsidising folk from the rest of the country… http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/9717537/Kelvin-MacKenzie-overtaxed-South-needs-its-own-party.html#
It occurs to me that you have to be of a certain age to appreciate this Goodies clip – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJxGi8bizEg
A fascinating TED talk by Susan Cain that seems to suggest that sales, PR and mob-think may have gone too far… http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html
Tony Hawks on Radio 4′s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue attempts to keep up with Psy’s Gangnam Style – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p011txtf
Carole Cadwalladr suggests a new name for the world’s least favourite airline in this Guardian piece – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/02/ryanair-needs-a-new-rude-name
Down the lane, after a week off-limits the track around Kirkharle’s lake has reopened following ‘baring off the sward’. It’s a process that sounds intriguingly pagan, certainly a phrase to file away, but it involves a few dozen sheep nibbling till narcotised on grass they’d normally only dream of – if they dream at all. Anyhow, the lakeshore’s munched to the quick and the sheep have departed leaving only their spoor. The ‘durg’ (a Geordie dog) is able to roam free, the red mist of woolly pursuit averted. Sitting in the sunshine on a thoughtfully provided bench I feel a tad underemployed. There’s a lot of it about apparently. The ‘durg’ seems deliriously happy just widdling its way around the lake. Lacking the same level of urinary control I’m unable to explore a similar path to fulfilment. From across the water drift reports of ruddy-faced chaps in mustard cords giving the pheasant population a proper pasting. Though as gunfire grows more intense it strikes me that semi-automatic assault rifles are not best suited as sporting weapons and instead it’s the army practicing to defend our liberties at Otterburn Ranges.
Time to get back to my inbox…
In the meantime, in no particular order, here’s an aggregator of items that recently caught my eye:-
- Undiscovered Destinations – New tours for 2013 – Somaliland, Niger, South Sudan, Turkmenistan and Burma – http://www.undiscovered-destinations.com/travel-news-offers/news.html
- Celia Topping’s South Sudan piece in The Independent – http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/south-sudan-the-wildest-frontier-8227095.html and a link to her gallery of images - http://www.celiatopping.com/galleries/south-sudan/
- Video highlights of Travel Blog Camp – Matthew Teller ‘PR is corrosive’, Jeremy Head ‘Great content isn’t something that should be ordained by Google.’ http://www.travelblogcamp.co.uk/highlights/
- The General’s Son author Miko Peled – a partial history of Palestine and Israel – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOaxAckFCuQ
- Wild Frontiers’ Pakistan video report – http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=AvPoyS2oBQI
- Breakthrough in new jet/rocket engine design by British scientists – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/9709041/Britain-to-Australia-in-four-hours-with-new-engine.html
- Atheists and Islam: ‘No God, not even Allah’ from The Economist – http://www.economist.com/news/international/21567059-ex-muslim-atheists-are-becoming-more-outspoken-tolerance-still-rare-no-god-not
- Mikey Leung’s TEDx Dhaka ‘Be the Change’ talk on sustainable tourism in Bangladesh http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SvgPxOoLdgU&feature=player_embedded
- Video of AidConvoy2Syria.com convoy from London to Turkish/Syrian border… – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wqyGoRhuS0&list=UUo96BOMHLr0qhAhatidV_Lg&index=9&feature=plcp