Hambantota District in the deep south-east of Sri Lanka has global ambitions. The bustling fishing town with a thriving market on the seafront has now been surrounded by vast infrastructure and business developments that will make the town the gateway to the east and another entry point to Sri Lanka from Colombo. The new harbour now receives trade but is still under construction and an international airport – Sri Lanka’s second – is nearing completion. There is also an international cricket stadium that received global audiences when Australia played there in 2011 and a glittering conference centre that is reminiscent of a Daniel Libeskind masterpiece.
Outside the town there is a peculiar feel to the place. The development feels haphazard as the buildings are surrounded by an unfinished network of highways that scar the landscape. It all seems to have been plonked on the land – there isn’t a sense of relationship or connection between the old and the new. But large scale developments do take time to settle when complete.
We travelled east from Hambantota on an intensely hot, dry day on the way to the picturesque fishing village of Kirinda. The landscape here is fascinating, yet another different climatic zone in Sri Lanka’s varied topography. Huge rocky outcrops and boulders littered the landscape which is otherwise sandy, arid, and flat. There was a powerful, hot wind that whipped up the dust, rustled the cactus plants, and provided short periods of relief from the intensity of the sun. We passed monkeys, buffalo, wading birds and monitor lizards in nearby Bundala national park and marvelled at the ferocity of the sea as it pounded the coast making swimming impossible.
The focal point of Kirinda is a famous temple that sits on a large cluster of boulders, rising from the beach. Pilgrims and locals climb up the burning steps bare foot and seek shade in the shadows from the stupa and temple buildings. From the top it is possible to see the Great Basses lighthouse, built by the British in 1873, and shimmering like a white needle through the haze 13 kilometres into the Indian Ocean. Small huts selling drinks, dried fish and curious porcelain deities line the way back down to Kirinda.
After a couple of days working in the Hambantota District Chamber of Commerce I was on the road again. I continued north east through small towns, jungle, past natural reservoirs and the remote Gal Oya national park just south west of Ampara on my way to an EU funded learning exchange in Batticaloa. Singing Hindu temples and small schools full of cheerful children in dazzling white uniforms competed with the calls of crickets at regular intervals.
The theme of the learning exchange was participation and empowerment. Tamil and Sinhala colleagues discussed how involving local people in planning and decision making can increase social capital and strengthen communities. A highlight was seeing three Sinhala ladies from the learning tour in Mihintale trying to chat with Tamil ladies from an NGO in Vavuniya and the laughing that ensued. On the evening of the first day a boat took us around Batticaloa lagoon. During the rusty coloured dusk we saw a small island whose population of a hundred or so had been wiped out by the Tsunami. Through the foliage our guide pointed out a small homestead, an abandoned mission, which had once housed 35 children until the wave crashed through. A thin sand bar marked the boundary between lagoon and sea. Several fishermen stood in line and threw their nets in unison as we passed. The ripples from our boat will have startled the prawns and increased their catch for the night.