A camp three-wheeler driver called Sanjo took me to Uppuveli beach. I had intended to catch the bus but he followed me up and down Central Rd in Trinco, with amazing persistence, finally offering me the 6km ride for only R100. On the way he told me a story about a girl who complained after a man ‘broke her box’ and then left her! He loved this expression and used it several times, telling me how it’s much better to be the first to break the box as then there’s no worry about diseases. All of this said in a high voice with lots of big gestures and turning around, which made me a little concerned about the driving. As we turned in to the beach we passed a man who’d been knocked off his motorbike by a group of soldiers in a truck. He was sitting on the ground looking dazed and bleeding profusely from his leg. The blood looked shockingly red against his dark skin. ‘They always go too fast and don’t take care,’ said Sanjo of the army, although ‘Fonseca’, the young boy in charge of the guest house, told me the motorbike was on the wrong side of the road. Fonseca took the man to the hospital and it turned out he had a broken his leg.
It was hot at Uppuveli beach, but in spite of that it proved to be my favourite beach in Sri Lanka. The day I arrived was a Sunday and a group of soldiers were having a party at Pragash, complete with music (such as Barbie Girl, by Aqua) blaring out so loudly I had to shout at the top of my voice to ask the DJ to lower the volume. ‘WHAT?’ he bawled? ‘CAN YOU TURN IT DOWN??’ I shouted again. I’d come here for a little peace and quiet and thought this was a reasonable request, not realising until later that I’d spoken to their sergeant. Apparently they got drunk every Sunday – their day off – beginning on Saturday night.
They stayed all day and the sergeant was the drunkest of all of them, presumably because he had the most responsibilities to escape from. He crawled around on his knees while the other men, still calling him ‘Sir,’ tried to get him to stand up! They had all taken an active part in the war and I wondered what they had seen. I didn’t ask anyone questions about the war but people were keen to talk to me about it. Almost everyone had been affected in one way or another. A woman who helped run one of the guest houses had been shot in the leg and now walked with crutches. Many families had lost a child, a husband or a father. The effect of the war is no longer so obvious in Trincomalee until you start to speak to people, then you begin to realise how devastating it has been.
The Channel 4 documentary, ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,’ about the final weeks of the war had recently been aired and was causing much controversy in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese did not at all like these allegations of war crimes and several people told me the footage had been faked to stir up trouble. The last thing anybody wanted was more trouble. I said I didn’t think quality journalists would show film they weren’t convinced was authentic, but I didn’t make a big deal about it. I’m sure there were atrocities on both sides, but without a full inquiry it’s impossible to know exactly what happened. Even then, I doubt the whole truth will ever come to light.
After my first swim in the sea I began to relax. It’s a beautiful place, the water is deliciously cool and my room opened out to a view of palm trees and sea. I was 50m from the water and the sound of waves lulled me to sleep, once the soldiers had finally left.
The Salli Muthumariamunam Kovil is at the northern end of Uppuveli beach. It’s an important temple to Tamils and regularly holds Hindu festivals. I was lucky enough to be in the area during one of these and witnessed a long procession of people heading to the temple over the course of several hours.
There were dancers and drummers, but most striking were the people whose skin had been pierced with sharp metal hooks. Many men had large numbers of hooks stuck in their backs, attached to long cords that were held by another man behind them. The man in front kept the cord taut by straining ahead, because the more they suffer the more merit they will accrue. This ‘bearing of a burden’ is called kavadi and devotees prepare for it through fasting and puja, and claim to feel little pain. Some men were actually suspended from a vehicle by hooks through the skin of their backs and legs. They kept bouncing up and down and waving their arms as this is meant to stop the skin from tearing.
It was a long 4km to the Kovil and the procession kept stopping so the dancers could go wild. Old women walked along carrying pots of milk, with their tongues skewered with tiny Shiva tridents. Children joined in the dancing or sat on the back of the vehicles from which the men were suspended, laughing and waving. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, despite all the self-inflicted pain. It was all a way to worship Murugan, the God of War, and once everyone arrived at the Kovil, pujas went on all through the night.
Activities If you’re feeling energetic, and have the cash, you can go diving, snorkelling or windsurfing. You can hire a two person canoe or go for a tour in a boat. It is worth walking up to the immaculately kept Commonwealth War Cemetery, a graveyard for over 600 servicemen who died at Trincomalee during WWII. Prepare to be approached for a donation as soon as you enter. If you intend to take photographs it’s best to visit at sunset, when the light is on the epitaphs.
Jayantha Lokuliyana, aged 47, runs the Siva Beach Guesthouse on Uppuveli beach. He is a PADI instructor and began running a diving operation here last year. I asked him about his work.
‘Last year was busy but this year there are not so many tourists. Before then I couldn’t run a business here because of the war. In spite of that, I’ve been diving around Uppuveli every year since 2003. I brought up clients from Hikkaduwa and hired boats from local people. This area is very good for the beginners. The dives are shallow and there’s coral, and lots of fish. You can dive for eight months of the year, from March to April and July to August. At the end of October we go back to Hikkaduwa.’
‘How do you get on with the local people?’
‘The Tamil people are very friendly. This area during the war was quite peaceful – Nilaveli beach was OK. I have three or four Tamils working for me.’
Where is best for diving?
Have a look at divesite lanka: www.srilanka-diving.com. Around Pigeon Island is nice, but it’s stupid that they charge to go there now. There are lots of little restrictions, for example the navy doesn’t give permission for 80 horsepower engines, even though the war is over. During the war not much was open but more development coming. I’m hoping to open a small resort at the end of Nilaveli beach.’
The beaches on the east coast are indeed much less developed than on the south, and this makes them much more attractive. Even Jayantha, who is a Sinhalese from the south, says he prefers it here to Hikkaduwa.
‘There there are lots of beach boys. Every five minutes they try to sell you things. Hikkaduwa is like a party place now. There’s a lot of nightlife – DJs play every Friday and Saturday. Many foreigners visit and there’s a big range of rooms.’
‘What’s the most interesting or exciting thing you’ve seen while diving at Trincomalee?
‘A whale shark.’
Accommodation I stayed in Pragash French Garden, which is one of three budget places to stay in a small cluster just beyond Uppuveli village. The other two are French Garden Anton and Shiva Beach Guest house. NGOs favour the Palm Beach, which is maybe a little beyond a backpacker budget but is run by Italians who provide delicious pasta meals and excellent coffee.
Eating in Uppuveli Apart from the Palm Beach, for Italian food, there are two cafes on the beach, one of which has free wifi. You could also investigate the restaurants in the two large resorts, Lotus Park and Hotel Club Oceanic. If you’re trying to save money you can eat at one of several small cafes in the village. I had excellent string hoppers and dahl for breakfast there one day, and a rice and curry lunch another day.
Nilaveli and Irrakandy Beach
These are two more beautiful beaches, a little north of Uppuveli. Most of the mid-range and above hotels are based in this area, but in my opinion Uppuveli is a better place to stay. The palm trees at these more northerly beaches are much further back from the sea, so during the day you have to cross a wide, scorching expanse of sand to reach the water, while the sun beats down relentlessly as if you’re in a desert. I got here on the back of a moped driven by diving instructor Jayantha, who was trying to drum up some business at the hotels, but there are regular local buses and plenty of three-wheelers.
At Irakkandy beach several groups of fishermen were engaged in pulling in two enormous nets. Another net was already in and was being coiled up, but the other two would take at least another hour to haul in. Two sets of people work on each net, pulling at the two ends, and once the person at the front has walked backwards a few steps the man at the back walks around to take his place. It’s hot, tiring work, as I learnt after only a few minutes of trying it. ‘Then after all this they’re not even sure to get fish,’ Jayantha said. ‘When they don’t it’s very bad: they have no money or food for that day.’
It’s a hard, precarious, life, getting harder as the population of people rises and the fish population goes down. The fishermen were certain of a few fish that day, at least, because we could see silvery shapes flashing in the sun as they jumped clear of the water.
Trips to Pigeon Island are easy to arrange but the government, in its great wisdom (greed), has designated the whole area a National Park, purely in order to charge foreign visitors for a permit to go there. Even if you want to go snorkelling or diving near the island, without landing, you still have to pay. The permit costs R1200, which I decided was too expensive, considering I’d also have to charter a boat, for another R1500 or so. A smaller island nearby, called Crow Island, is presently free to visit.
Kanniyai hot springs
Here there are seven brick wells and a small, eighth, spring bubbling out of the ground. You draw out the mineral water and throw it over yourself. I didn’t go here but I spoke to several people who did and nobody was overly excited about it. It’s somewhere to visit on a lazy afternoon.