by Gabriela Aleman
While many people marvel that I’m volunteering in a different country on my gap year, they forget that’s not 100% of what my year entails. I didn’t come to Sri Lanka just to work at an orphanage—I came here to experience the culture and its people as a whole. With this in mind, my friend Soleil and I took a break from our work to travel around the northern parts of the country. By the middle of the week, we found ourselves on the east coast in the gorgeous city of Trincomalee.
Now, I’m no stranger to attention; ever since I set foot on this island I’ve felt like a walking neon sign that screams “TOURIST.” I thought I’d grown accustomed to it until I stumbled off the bus in Trinco’s dusty bus station and was immediately bombarded with shouts of “Sister, sister! Come, come!” Soleil and I looked around bewildered until we found the source of the commotion coming from a man across the street. His emphatically waving arms, coupled with his sarong (aka man skirt) blowing in the wind, made him resemble one of those inflatable tube men that dance at you from the corners of huge vehicle sales. His purpose was to get us into the Sinhalese restaurant behind him and to stop us from entering their sole competition, a Tamil establishment immediately to their left. We obliged the emphatic man and, when hit by a chorus of protests from the Tamil restaurant, we promised that we’d eat with them the following day. We sat and ate our egg hoppers, not realizing that the harmless competition we witnessed over our business actually represented an important part of the city’s history.
We woke up the next morning eager to explore. Trincomalee, unlike Galle in the south where I’m stationed, felt the tribulations of the war that ended in 2009. For those who don’t know much about it, Sri Lanka underwent a thirty year civil war, initiated by the terrorist group LTTE, more popularly known as the Tamil Tigers. Sri Lanka has two distinct ethnicities—the Tamils and the Sinhalese. The Tamils are found mostly in the north of the country due to it being closer to India, where many of them originated from; the rest of the island, including Galle, is mainly Sinhalese. The Tamil Tigers believed that the Tamils in the north deserved a divided state of their own, so they began to wreak havoc against the government. The brutalities experienced by both Tamils and Sinhalese were unfathomable and many people suffered because of the extremist group’s violent beliefs.
After walking for a bit, Soleil and I came across an old pier with half of its foundation missing. Single planks of wood connected larger areas of the floor that were still intact. Deciding it would be a nice place to relax for a bit, we made our way carefully along the old wood until the corroded and rusty structure let us go no further. A few minutes later, a man approached us and struck up a conversation that quickly turned meaningful; it even began to resemble a Humans of New York interview. It went something like this:
Soleil asked the man, “Were you in Trincomalee during the war?”
The man answered, “Yes. I served in the Navy for over twelve years and was stationed here. My brother has been serving for twenty two years. It kind of runs in the family.”
I asked him, “Did you see a big split between the Tamils and the Sinhalese people?”
He responded, “A little, but for the most part, everyone got along. I’m Sinhalese and my neighbors were Tamil and we always helped each other. Even most Tamils didn’t approve of what the Tigers were doing. But it was nerve-wracking. One never knew when a new strike would occur. People were afraid that a suicide bomber would be on their bus. It was very scary.”
I gathered the courage to ask, “Was your family okay during the war?”
A solemn look came over his face, and he extended his left arm and pointed to his forearm, where a phrase in Sinhala was tattooed. He said, “We lost our oldest son during it. That’s his name.”
Soleil and I were silent as he continued.
“The worst part was that it wasn’t even a cause of the war. That almost would have made it more bearable, to blame it on someone else.”
Soleil asked quietly, “How did he pass?”
“In a car accident with his mother. She was driving and he was in the passenger seat and got hit straight on with a speeding truck. It wasn’t her fault, but she hasn’t forgiven herself.”
Soleil and I were struck by the honesty of the man. His words lingered in my mind as we walked around the rest of the day, noting the Tamil signs over shops, the dilapidated buildings overgrown with vines, the graveyard in the middle of the city. We could hear the sharper tongue of the Tamils drifting through the streets, a contrast from the smooth and flowing Sinhala. We also noticed the amount of soldiers stationed at different street corners, rifles strapped to their shoulders or cradled in their arms. At one point, we ducked into a bank for some relief from the heat, and while Soleil used the ATM, I watched a bank clerk in uniform talk to a customer at his desk with a rifle sitting on his thigh like a baby. Even later, when we visited Fort Frederick thinking it would be similar to the Dutch Fort in Galle with its touristy restaurants and boutiques, we were in for another surprise: it was still being used as a military base and its streets teamed with militants.
As we traversed the streets, we discovered a monastery that had been abandoned and then re-inhabited a few years ago. Climbing to the top, we were greeted by a spectacular view of the city and harbor. We were completely alone for the two hours we were up there, except for one man who came to place an offering at the Buddha statue’s feet; it loomed before the city like a brilliant white guardian. Subsequently, he told us the statue had been built after the old one had been torn down during the war. Soleil and I marveled at the serene view before us. We breathed in the salty air mixed with the sweet, nectary aroma of the flowers in the trees around us. And to think that a mere five years ago, people stood in the same place, looking at the same city, yet saw something completely different than the peace we encountered.
Trincomalee, coincidentally, has become my favorite city in Sri Lanka. When we entered the Tamil establishment later that day, we were welcomed with cheers and lively handshakes for having kept our promise. I was also served some of the best fried rice smothered in the most delicious curry sauce I’ve had to date by a charismatic waiter. The city’s history and slow recovery has filled it and its people with charm and hope. It has become a reminder to me that beauty always finds a way to shine through its scars.