Tag Archives: Transport

24 hours in the Maldives

It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog. Since the last entry we have been to the UK a couple of times, spent a couple of months in Bangkok, a couple of weeks in Japan, and another couple of months in Yangon before moving back to Sri Lanka, where we’ve been for nearly eight months now. Part of the arrangement at the moment is a visa run every 30 days. And until this last one I have avoided the Maldives, despite being a short flight at around one hour from Colombo. I suppose I felt that nearby cities such as KL, Bangkok, Chennai, would be better for such fleeting visits. Yet I was wrong – and had a thoroughly enjoyable 24 hours in the Maldives.

From the first time I came to Sri Lanka five and a half years ago I’ve been curious to visit Male’, the tiny Maldivian capital. I remember Male’ rising from the Indian Ocean across the strait from the airport, hazy in the evening dusk, as we waiting on the tarmac to pick up passengers. I didn’t stay in the city but in one of the small guesthouses on reclaimed Hulhumale’, linked by road to the airport island. It was built just over a decade ago to ease housing issues and provide more space, with wide streets, a beautiful beach, an obvious plan, but with little discernable soul.

The ferry to Male’ took about 15 minutes, skirting around the airport on its way to the capital. Intense blue, everywhere. And flat: the perpendicular of sea and sky broken by small atolls of green, enormous boats, then Male’ with its low to medium-height buildings of banks and corporate head-quarters, clad in glass reflecting the sun or painted in different pastel colours, squeezing onto the little available land. It really does look like it grows out of the sea.

It’s a lovely thing, having several hours with nothing to do in a new place. I wandered from the Hulhumale’ ferry terminal at the northeast to Villimale’ ferry terminal at the southwest. From one corner of the capital to the other; just over a mile. Male’ is compact, frenetic, made up of thin streets that crisscross the island. Moving from northeast to southwest the buildings become lower rise, with fewer shops, fewer mopeds. There is a surprising amount of greenery. And you’re never far from a glimpse of that perpendicular. All of Male’’s roads are brick not tarmac which gives an unusual, appealing, streetscape.

Villimale’, two miles from the capital on the nearest atoll, yet a world away. Motorised vehicles are banned and the locals get around on foot, bicycle, electric moped or golf buggy. So it is quite, amazingly quiet. Along the promenade from the terminal the beach begins and, true to the Maldives, it is palm-fronded, azure and golden. From the palms hang individual hammock chairs that sway in the breeze. From what I can gather the locals spend their days asleep in these, not a bad way to spend a day. I join them, conscious, however, that I must return to the airport in a few hours.



What a bus-tard

Not far from Matara the lady next to me pressed her breasts firmly against the side of my head. It wasn’t her fault, as the bus was so overcrowded there was barely space to sweat. Despite the uncomfortable awkwardness the damp mass of bodies created, the situation in the bus was calm and oddly quiet. We simply swayed and bounced along.

That is until a drunken fisherman from Tangalle decided to pick on me, the sole sudhu, himself having been shunned my way by a group of angry women who viciously attacked him with their eyes.

Over the next hour he proceeded to belch out such grotesque filth and sexual drivel that I’m loath to recount the experience here. And worst of all, the gentleman to my left escaped, enabling this man of the sea and the bottle to clamber into the seat next to me. I was well and truly trapped. Breasts to my right and the Devil’s own personal chauvinist to my left.

After my futile attempts to ignore him failed, I tried a different tack: to engage the man in conversation, albeit rather broken due to my lack of ability in the Sinhala tongue and his utter inebriation. But at first there was some element of coherence to it. He liked to catch tuna. His wife, an Italian, was coming to see him in three months’ time. We also established that I was not a tourist, that I was living in Goyambokka, and that I, too, have a wife.

But then it started to turn bad. His arm went around my shoulders, his face pressed right to mine (imagine an open sewer both for smell and as a metaphor for dialogue) and he started to spout foulness that I haven’t come into contact with since the dark days at university where I indulged myself, for a short while, in the works of De Sade.

The worst part was a particularly uncouth action directed at the lady in front of me, that I can only imagine symbolised the act of cunnilingus.

I still had no means to escape, apart from getting off the bus in the dark rural bad lands of the Deep South jungle (many Sri Lankans have told stories of Tangalle’s debauchery, thuggary, and drunkedness). I started silently crying out to my travel companions: why wasn’t anyone trying to help me? To assist the poor sudhu and scold this barking mad scoundrel?

But to no avail. He started gesturing that I should go with him, my friend, and together we could fill our bodies and minds with smut and intoxicants. It was too much. In the end I removed myself, with great effort, from the fleshy mass that filled the bus and alighted into the night.

The last few weeks in photos

Chennai in a hurry

I remember the stench from the tracks. That and the crowds of people flooding the carriage entrances, walkways and open spaces, made Chennai station an overwhelming experience.

We had bunks in the non-AC 2nd class section of the Nilgiri Sleeper Express. After the exertion of negotiating our way to the correct berth with heavy, impractical bags, we sat in silence, sweating in the closeness of the heat.

In the gloom the décor was a tired and dirty plastic blue, like a run-down hospital. The bunks were stacked in three tiers and there were bars on the windows. A secure and fading asylum. But it was all oddly practical and well planned; someone had put a lot of thought into this once upon a time.

The train set off, creaking and swaying through the Chennai suburbs. Only a few hours before we’d hurtled through the city from the airport to the station. It had been chaos as a complex overhead metro system being built had turned all the main arteries into building sites.

The Indians around us all seemed to know the score: when the ticket collector had passed through the carriage it was time for lights out. During the next several hours I slipped in and out of restless sleep; with vivid dreams of surreal chases and journeys, punctuated by garish neon, Tamil jingles, and figures from my past.


A portrait of Sri Lanka

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.


A32 from Jaffna to Mannar

When travelling around Sri Lanka one thing is for certain – distances are deceptive. Here, a simple enough journey on paper can become an epic slog as A-roads disintegrate into sandy tracks and kilometres appear to defy the laws of physics as they grow ever longer. And in a country the size of Ireland with a population of over 20million, it is still possible to feel completely alone and utterly in the middle of nowhere.

This is where the excitement comes from and from where adventure is born: a rush of adrenaline when the car loses traction on a sandy rut miles from anywhere; the knowledge that you are driving through areas that have only recently been cleared of landmines; or the many small, tumbledown settlements full of wide-eyed locals fascinated by the sudu in a small Indian car…