Sri Lanka is re­cov­er­ing from the twin ef­fects of a tsunami and a civil war. On a re­cent visit, Fir­dose Moonda found a coun­try that some­how keeps get­ting back up on its feet

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Beauty and bro­ken hearts may not share a space as snugly any­where other than at the train tracks that run from Colombo to Galle. On one side, the In­dian Ocean sparkles in the sun­light; on the other lie the graves of some of the peo­ple whose lives it took al­most 10 years ago.

It was Box­ing Day morn­ing in 2004 when the ground be­neath the In­dian Ocean shat­tered and sent 9mhigh waves crash­ing on to the tracks. The wa­ter flooded a train, trap­ping the pas­sen­gers and those who had climbed aboard, er­ro­neously think­ing they would be safe. Most drowned, some were crushed when the carriages smashed against the ad­ja­cent houses and trees, and oth­ers were swept away.

Of the ap­prox­i­mately 2 000 peo­ple who per­ished that day, only 900 bod­ies were re­cov­ered. Many of them rest less than 10m away from their killer, among a mish­mash of struc­tures that suf­fered a sim­i­lar fate but at least have a fu­ture.

There is a lot of re­build­ing go­ing on in Sri Lanka and it is not con­fined to this route. The coun­try is in the process of re­cov­ery from twin tragedies: a 25-year civil war and the 2004 tsunami. The re­vival is well un­der way.

The Sri Lankan econ­omy, which is fu­elled mainly by ex­ports of tea and im­ports of tourists, is grow­ing at more than 7% a year and ev­i­dence of that is most ob­vi­ous in its cap­i­tal city, Colombo – con­struc­tion cen­tral.

One of its main ar­ter­ies, sen­si­bly called Galle Road be­cause that is where it leads, will soon be lined with ma­jor in­ter­na­tional ho­tels.

ITC, Hy­att Re­gency, Shangri-La, Möven­pick and Sher­a­ton are all due to open in the next year, while the grand old lady of the strip, the Galle Face Ho­tel, with its ter­race over­look­ing the sea, is be­ing re­fur­bished.

The new de­vel­op­ments serve the dual pur­pose of at­tract­ing vis­i­tors to the is­land and en­tic­ing the prodi­gal sons and daugh­ters to come back home and take part in the re­birth.

Many of them would have left the coun­try as chil­dren when their par­ents fled the civil war. To­day they are seen as the golden eggs.

Thilini Punzi is one of them. She was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in Bahrain, stud­ied in Aus­tralia – where she met and mar­ried an Ital­ian man – and then worked in Eng­land. She has now moved back to Sri Lanka – with porce­lain teacup ac­cent, Vic­to­ria Beck­ham wardrobe and her hus­band – and opened a gourmet pizza res­tau­rant.

Their es­tab­lish­ment is barely nine months old but may one day grow into an en­tity like Sugar 41, a new up-mar­ket es­tab­lish­ment with a house band.

Mzansi, a South African jazz-fu­sion group orig­i­nally from Ekurhu­leni, have per­formed at the venue for the past seven months. The group’s lead singer, Kgo­motso Xolisa Ma­maila, has been in Sri Lanka for a year and this is her third stint in the coun­try since she first ar­rived on re­quest from the South African em­bassy in 2010 to gen­er­ate a World Cup vibe.

Why does she keep re­turn­ing? “You know home, hey ... it’s dif­fi­cult to find work,” she says.

Her ex­pe­ri­ence of the very same Colombo, where over­crowded buses with seats re­served for the clergy are the or­di­nary person’s best way of get­ting around and av­er­age house­hold in­comes sit at just R3 700 a month, is a sign that, like South Africa, di­vi­sions in Sri Lanka are shift­ing from eth­nic to eco­nomic. The con­flict might have been about cul­ture, but the fu­ture will be about class.

Although Sri Lanka’s Tamil mi­nor­ity fought a bloody war that even­tu­ally caused the deaths of al­most 100 000 peo­ple, the coun­try’s eth­nic groups have long pre­ferred peace. Nowhere is that more ev­i­dent than down the coast in Galle.

To get there from Colombo, you can ei­ther take the new high­way built with Ja­panese in­vest­ment, or use the rail net­work. The for­mer will get you there in less than two hours, the lat­ter will take about 45 min­utes longer, but will teach you a thing or two.

The rail­way line runs along the coast – the ocean is so close that if you are in cat­tle class, you will be tempted to reach through the open win­dows and wet your fin­ger­tips. On the other side, a mix­ture of houses, in­for­mal dwellings and burial grounds dot the scenery. Lest we for­get. Even in that space, peo­ple do not go about their busi­ness in a state of con­stant mourn­ing, as you might ex­pect. There is a sense of hope.

One of the prin­ci­ples of Bud­dhism is rein­car­na­tion, and many peo­ple feel the dead are still among them in some form, which gives them com­fort.

With that in mind, you will reach Galle and the weight of the big smoke will lift. This is a sea­side town and its dom­i­nant fea­ture is the Unesco World Her­itage Site, the Galle Fort.

It has stood since 1584, when the Por­tuguese con­structed it af­ter an at­tack from the Sin­halese king. It was re­built by the Dutch, who seized it in 1640. The Bri­tish took over in 1796 but failed to add too many dec­o­ra­tive touches. These days, it be­longs to the peo­ple of Sri Lanka, all of them.

There are sev­eral Bud­dhist tem­ples within its walls; as well as the Meeran Jumma Mosque, which is con­sid­ered the heart of Galle’s Mus­lim com­mu­nity; and the Dutch Re­formed Church, the old­est Protes­tant place of wor­ship in Sri Lanka. There is also a mag­is­trates’ court and doc­tors’ rooms.

The first li­brary in south Asia can be found here, as well as the na­tional mar­itime mu­seum and a bread­fruit tree, which is con­sid­ered to be one of the old­est in the coun­try.

All of this ex­ists in a space of less than half a square kilo­me­tre. Robben Is­land is 10 times as big.

Travel fur­ther north and you will hit Kandy, the hill coun­try, the tea es­tates and fi­nally Jaffna, where the war waged at its worst. Jaffna was the last place to be taken from the Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankan army.

So yes, there are still some bro­ken hearts in Sri Lanka, but there is much more beauty.



In 2004, Sri Lanka’s coast­line was hit by the dev­as­tat­ing Box­ing Day tsunami

HIS­TORY The Galle Fort is a Unesco World Her­itage Site

BY RAIL The Galle rail­way sta­tion is al­most three hours from Colombo

RE­LI­GIOUS LORE Sev­eral Bud­dhist tem­ples sit within the old fort’s walls

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