Time in Sri Lanka commenced with James and I confronting a navy boat in our pants at three o’clock in the morning. You can be relatively sure you’re in for an interesting time of it when things get going in this manner, and Sri Lanka was nothing if not interesting. What follows is an observation of the curiosities and idiosyncrasies of that nation, which we visited with Blue Eye in February 2019.
Actually, it’s not quite right that it all began with two men in their briefs at an ungodly hour of the morning. In truth it started with a pod of humpback whales some ten miles off the Sri Lankan coastline, as James, Will and I approached the conclusion of a bumpy 1000-mile voyage from Thailand. Will and I had been standing on the stern cockpit seat surveying the horizon. We weren’t looking for whales – that game was given up long ago – but had rather been hoping to find Sri Lanka itself, whose absence from the skyline was becoming disconcerting to a degree. There was a strange white smoke every now and then, we thought, but no land from which a fire might burn.
This was, of course, because it was in fact the spray of a whale’s breath. When the penny dropped, I announced the matter to James and Will with a conduct so calm and eloquent that I shouldn’t bore you with it here. These eloquencies continued as it dawned that there were in fact two whales, and Will began a slow descent into wittering’s of “Oh my God”, from which he would not recover for a considerable time. As we approached the behemoths – they truly were humungous – it emerged there was not just two, but four! Four humpback whales! And there was another two spouts erupting over there! Six! “Oh my GOD!” shouted Will.
But it wasn’t just six. Perhaps not even just sixteen. I think there might have been about four hundred and fifty eight, but don’t take my word for it, I was in a state of considerable giddiness. It was sensational. Will was screaming. James didn’t know which way to point the boat. Lorry-sized animals just carried on all around us: their blowholes exploding at every quarter, their carunculated backs breaching wherever we looked, their sail-sized tails rising and falling everywhere. “Oh my God” rang out ceaselessly.
With the sun setting prudence would have had us hastening to make landfall before dark, but when one stumbles upon something like this, prudence can bugger off. We were dizzy with delight. Two particularly enormous whales sidled up to us, the strange object in their midst, and had a thoroughly good look. Such curiosity can be unnerving when it originates from an eyeball the size of ones own head, but in that moment I was capable of nothing but awe. Awe at their enormity, awe at the roar of their breath, awe at the rawness of their beauty. As Will remarked, once he had reclaimed a vocabulary beyond just the three words, how humans can bring harm to these animals is beyond all comprehension.
By the time we finally made it to the sprawling natural harbour of Trincomalee (for Sri Lanka, it transpired, had been crouching just below the horizon after all) it was decidedly night-time. There had been some confusion as to whether we might be permitted into Trincomalee’s inner bay in the dark, but such uncertainty was swiftly cleared up when a navy boat appeared from the blackness – panicked and unwelcoming – and shooed us away.
A plan of devilish cunning was required, then, for the remaining ten hours of night; and we were lucky to locate a spot in the outer harbour where we would be sufficiently protected from the considerable swell of the Indian Ocean we had just crossed. With little ceremony the anchor was tossed down to the seabed, and three tired sailors plunged into a state of sleep as deep as the abyss into which humpback whales retreat.
That was until three o’clock, of course, when a roaring engine and a blinding searchlight cut through night air and whale-dreams alike. It was to our advantage, we reflected later, that we unabashedly and belligerently confronted the situation in only our pants. The effect on the navy men was evidently startling: Sri Lanka’s finest regarded a brace of bedraggled and bepanted men with apparent bemusement, not altogether sure what they’d stumbled upon in the darkness. Faux-polite demands of “Can we help you?” went unanswered for some time, and the driver was so distracted that he let the stiff wind blow their boat onto ours. The bows met with a clang, but there was no damage, and it seemed to strike some life into these midnight visitors, who proceeded to make some embarrassed and vague enquiries: what nationalities? number of crew? why was someone yelling “Oh my God” down below? Satisfied, or perhaps just disturbed, they retreated into the night, and we to our slumbers.
Interactions like this bookended our time in Sri Lanka. Once we’d undergone the arduous process of clearing into the country the next day, we were free to enjoy our time within it: travelling by train, meeting friends, and, of course, eating curry. And by the time we wanted to leave again, the peculiarities of the Sri Lankan processes could resume with fervour. It can be an endlessly entertaining endeavour – so long as one is willing to see it that way – to set about doing this or that in Sri Lanka, only to be pulled up by some quirk of custom that would be impossible elsewhere. The controversy of our Sunday grocery shop being a good case in point.
Our yacht agent and firm friend, Sandeep, had advised us that Sunday was not a day we could load the boat up with fuel or water as we had been intending to. Baffled, but not to be put off our productivity, we set off to provision for our long journey ahead across the Arabian Sea, without a trace of thought that this might also be problematic. What were Sunday’s for, if not for cramming inordinate amounts of food into a trolley that doesn’t steer in a straight line? Having meandered around the small aisles of Trincomalee’s modest supermarket, and transferred most of the shop into a tuk-tuk, we were unpleased to be flagged down by a particularly wearisome guard at the harbour gates.
We groaned and immediately foresaw the stern investigation of our tinned sweetcorn, the heavy scratching of chins designed to impress upon us the seriousness of taking Sri Lankan groceries through this Sri Lankan gate, the long wait as such a spanner in the works to an otherwise drowsy Sunday was mulled over, and the eventual assent that this time we could bring the goods through, but next time we had better give good warning about such dubious activities, so as not to surprise him again. That the importunate fellow had inspected our bags on the way out of the gate that very morning, and found them full of more bags which we had explained we intended to fill with food, he had apparently as much memory of as he had awareness of his pedantic prattery.
Conversely, civilians of Sri Lanka were of immense help. The following day – a day more appropriate for water and diesel acquiring it would seem – a Sri Lankan of similar age to me borrowed his fathers tuk-tuk and ferried me and the essential liquids to and fro. Shaklar and I began in town, filling 20-litre bottles with water at our agent Sandeep’s house, which we would then drive back to fill Blue Eye’s 300-litre tank with. Shaklar had a limited grasp on the English language, but seeing as it was literally infinitely better than my Sri Lankan, we struggled through with strange sentences and inspired gestures. In one conversation we were – to the best of my knowledge – deep in debate about how many bottles we could get in the tuk-tuk. Six maybe? I proffered. Shaklar wobbled his head in the endearing way South Asians do, though it was indiscernible to me exactly what it meant in the context of the given moment.
A few minutes later, clearly having given it a great deal of thought, he said “Ten bottles I thinkings”.
“Ten!” I remarked, “You’re mad Shaklar!”
He smiled and replied “Downtuous Tom, downtuous!”
I was perplexed and amused in equal measure by this unintelligible enthusiasm, and regarding my confusion Shaklar returned to deep thought to consider how best to express himself. After a while he had it.
“Ah! It’s like… attitude! Downtuous! How many bottles we takings in tuk-tuk? Yes, it’s downtuous!”
Shaklar the inspirer. How many bottles we took was about attitude: it was down to us.
So buoyed were we by his motivational words, and at the success of getting ten bottles in the tuk-tuk as he’d predicted, we went to fetch more. But no matter how we positioned them, we couldn’t fit more bottles in if there was still to be space for the two of us.
“An elephant egg”, Shaklar sighed, looking on. And then, seeing my confused expression again from the corner of his eye: “Not possible!” he beamed.
At the same time Shaklar and I were solving elephant eggs, James was working with two fortuitously placed Sri Lankan engineers. Plans to leave the following day had been thrown into severe jeopardy with the discovery of a cracked engine mount – something we’d be needing for the windless passage ahead – and it was only that a bespectacled man, who so happened to be a navy engineer, had come along to say hello to James, that with unprecedented good fortune he was able to enlist an expert there and then.
With admirable alacrity he and his friend dropped what they were doing for the day, and went off to discover a solution to the problem at hand. And come the late afternoon, the thing that had threatened to delay our carefully planned departure had been ingeniously resolved, and the two engineers busied themselves in the cockpit floor of Blue Eye whilst others gathered around and played the guitar to entertain us all.
It is as big a testament as I can muster to Sri Lanka, that even in these mundane transactions that took place at the start and end of our time there, it was an intriguing and heart-warming experience (obsequious harbour guards aside). Of all the countries we have been so lucky to visit it is the one I would most readily return to, and it was very sad to leave the following morning. Nonetheless, time was already running out to cross the Arabian Sea with reliable winds, and in stepping off of Sri Lanka we said goodbye to solid ground for an entire month as we ventured towards the Red Sea.
Some thoughts pertaining to the Sri Lanka Easter bombings
Four Sundays ago I accompanied my morning blog post with the line that it would be “probably cheerier and truer then anything you’ll find in the news today”. It was with no small amount of guilt and sadness that a few hours later I read of an increasing number of lives that had been ripped apart by a series of bombings throughout Sri Lanka. My blog might have been cheerier, but it was of course completely (and self-admittedly) inconsequential in comparison.
The news is important. Only by having a good idea of what is going on, can we know what is going wrong. We understand this, but in our understanding we forget something that the late Hans Rosling observed so acutely:
“Here’s the paradox: the image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and more safe.” – Factfulness
Do we have a good idea of what is going on? If you read Rosling’s book Factfulness, it is likely you will discover that you – that we – do not, and that by and large our media can be held responsible for our warped view of the world. Then again, a tendency to focus on stories that are sudden and dramatic, rather than slow and incremental, works because that is what the consumers – us – want.
This is not to criticise the airtime given to those who were killed or injured on Easter Sunday. The cruel taking of hundreds of lives is more than worthy of our attention, and the least the victims deserve. But our attention is finite and it is too often filled up with things that make it almost impossible for us to realise that improvements are happening all the time, that day-by-day the world is becoming a better place, and it’s essential to recognise that.
Because the cost of not recognising it, and instead only paying heed to the terrible and the shocking, is to allow for the realisation of the very dystopias that the papers and politicians warn us of. This is most evident in the tragic irony that the West’s foreign policy in the Middle East – which, amongst other things, was driven by the fear caused by 9/11 – is that ISIS rose from the mayhem, which terrified us all over again.
But terrorism does not work if terror does not follow. We – the onlookers – are the ones who decide how effective these despicable acts are. As Yuval Noah Harari puts it: “It is the responsibility of every citizen to liberate his or her imagination from the terrorists, and to remind ourselves of the true dimensions of this threat”. It is our obligation to resist them, not with hate and violence, but with the understanding that instilling fear is all the perpetrators have. We would do well to remember, for example, that not a single person has died as a result of a terrorist hijacking a plane since September 11th 2001.
If our reaction is disproportionate, then the horrific actions of weak culprits lead to the indiscriminate destruction of many innocents (see Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, etc.) We should not let governments wage election-winning wars over it, and not allow sensational headlines to make the Daily Mail and co. millions of pounds that they can then re-invest into a bottomless pit of fear and hate.
I hoped to wage my own little, humble battle with the terrorists, by bringing to light some of the goodness that we found in Sri Lanka, which is the same goodness that pervades every minute of every day, whether you or I are there to see it or not. This world is a stupendously better place than media headlines give it credit for, and to acknowledge it and strive for it is, as my friend Shaklar would say, downtuous.