Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Finding Mannar

I've always been curious about what lies in Mannar, an ancient community at the foot of an island on Sri Lanka's west coast. In May I got to stay there as part of a visit to my friend and colleague Dominic Essler, who's working on an ethnography of the nearby village of Adampan. 

Mannar meant farewell to the North Central Province and my friend Mr. Amara. A few days before he had said he wanted to see Mannar and he would come there with me for a day or two. But as we were driving north from Mihintale he told me he had "forgotten" his overnight things. He could drive me to Mannar though. It dawned on me that he wasn't keen on the Mannar trip and for me, a bus would be much more pleasant than sitting in the back of a tuktuk. It wasn't a matter of money for either of us. He was paid handsomely for the work we had done together. 

So we said our fond goodbyes in Medawachchiya after a quick cup of tea (half a cup for me--I didn't want to have to pee during the interminable bus ride) and he dropped me across the street at the surprisingly modern bus stand, where I started a nearly hour-long wait for the Mannar bus. 

A great thing about Sri Lanka is that once people see you waiting for a bus they start to look out for you. It's a mutual thing I guess but super helpful when there's a minimum of signage--or in many cases none at all. This way you'll get on the right bus with people going the same way as you. 

The trip to Mannar took more than three hours. I slept part of the way thanks to getting up at about five AM for our supposed road trip. It poured down rain a lot of the time, which never really makes your trip into the unknown that happy. But I had the name of my guesthouse and a screenshot of the google map. I was prepared at least with the knowledge that reality on the streets of a Sri Lankan town is never as neat as the tidy lines of the map. I would be lucky if there was any street signage so I knew I'd have to feel my way. Lucky I had packed light, with most of my weight in presents I was bringing people. My heaviest item was the tube of sunscreen I was bringing to Dominic. 

Arriving in Mannar, quite a small place, was less disorienting than most places I've been in Sri Lanka. The main road that brings you into town after a long causeway continues NNW up the island and right through the center of town. There are few turns as you enter and, at least on a Sunday morning less congestion, so leaving the bus stand is a fairly straightforward affair. 

The rain had stopped but my way to the guesthouse was interrupted by massive block-long pools of water. These pools came to characterize my impression of Mannar. The cross lanes had turned to lakes and the going wasn't easy. But I found the guesthouse and its affable host, Mr. Jerome, who was sweeping just inside the metal gate, with no trouble. He quickly made me comfortable while he shouted orders at his houseboy to get my room ready. 

No need to describe my room which was very basic. But it had all the working parts and clean sheets. So I felt at home. Matter of fact, I love Sri Lanka but the place I feel most at home is in the north. This happened to me last time I visited, falling head over heals for Jaffna. Same feeling in Mannar. I had to get out and explore. 

I took two walks that day. My first walk took me through town and out to the edges of Mannar. It was dominated by unpaved flooded streets and a couple of dilapidated tanks. Ancient no doubt but in serious disuse. I knew this to be a problem in Mannar from my talks with Jeremy Liyanage and his Australian crew, who I met in Colombo two years ago. They come out to Mannar every year to do community-based infrastructure projects and Jeremy actually stays in the Baobab Guesthouse, where I was sleeping. Even hearing about their work I was surprised by the state of things on the ground. The number of tanks and their state of disrepair was disheartening. 

My second walk took me into the active parts of town including what looked to be a scene of watery devastation? Tsunami? Rising ocean levels? It turned out, Jerome later explained, that over time people had neglected the inner-city tanks, built along their periphery and ultimately inside them, and that seawater had encroached. A lot of Mannar, as I could see myself, lay below sea level. 

A stunning impression of town, which I saw close-up among my fellow inmates at the guesthouse, is just how much NGO activity there is in town. I stayed with a small crew from Japan who were working with nearby farmers and just about wherever you looked there were signs indicating an NGO presence. Mannar has so many problems from infrastructure to reconciliation. It was a real eye-opener of the slow process of rebuilding that this part of Sri Lanka faces. 

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