The Tuk Tuk Taxi

Taxis in Sri Lanka are these fine three wheeled vehicles shown here and more commonly called the tuk tuk.  Problem being is that you can't seem to find one after 8pm here.  I've been told that people have gotten into the habit of staying home when the sun goes because of their routine during the war.  No one, especially the men, wanted to leave home after dark for fear of 'disappearing'.  

Luckily I have a driver on call named Raja.   His number was given to me and he knows precisely where I live along with virtually every other foreigner in town.  As much as I like the service and the unbeatable price of $1 USD a ride, I also like being able to move around on my next step is a bike-preferably pedal with a basket.   I brought this up with my an expat here and he assumed I meant a motorcycle not all that bad of an idea except that I would more than likely end up with having to have yet another surgery overseas...and unlike the others I don't think I would want to seek medical treatment here.

Home in Batticaloa

Batticaloa (more often called 'Batti') is a peninsula between the Bay of Bengal and a lagoon on the East coast of Sri Lanka.  Until this September it will be my home.  Its beaches are beautiful, though they pale in comparison to the ones in the south.  It's hot and it's humid and there is no air conditioning, which makes a wimpy American such as myself appear spoiled.  I usually judge how hot a place is by whether or not the locals sweat--her they are drenched, which proves it is pretty damn hot.   The other indicator of knowing I'm not exaggerating is the fact that I'm sweating in the shower.
Access to Batti is rather limited in that the road and rail system is very slow.  It was the scene of numerous clashes between ethnic groups and rival LTTE factions during the civil war years and Batti, along with its neighbors, are struggling to recover since the LTTE being pushed out in 2007.

Per Rough Guide Travel Guides in reference to the town in which I'm based, " Few tourists make it this far, but there are lots of NGO workers around..."  So very true.  I pass UNHCR, Unicef, WFP, UNDP, USAID and IOM acronyms daily and was introduced to several staff as part of the local expatriate community.  ICRC moved out of the region this past March.
 These organizations are of course what can be summed up as 'the Usual Suspects' in any given post or ongoing conflict environment.  Especially in regards to UNHCR and WFP, where virtually the entire city and IDP camps were their sole means for survival. What makes the mix so much diverse is the NGO crowd.

Last week I met a group of them over a local Lion beer at the Singing Fish Restaurant and I was truly impressed by all I met and the nationalities they represented.  Amongst the handful that I had the chance to speak with: a French woman working with handicapped people; a Scottish woman working with USAID who has been in the country for 15 years; a Macedonian man who weathered the tsunami who now despearately wants to now go and give his experience in Haiti, a Bangladeshi woman who had just come from a remote village without electricity for the past 15 hours, a token Brit and a German who had some rather eccentric stories of his time in Baghdad.

During the conversation the power cut for about 5 minutes and the Scottish woman reminisced with her Sri Lankan colleague saying ( cue the Scottish accent and slightly euphoric talk from 3 litres of beer)...'remember 2005 in Trinco?  What this would be a signal for?'  She then used her hand to show what was meant for a bomb to fall on the table. 

I believe I am at the start of a whole new chapter for my planned book I keep wanting on the personality types you encounter abroad...or at least some entertainment to fill the void of television.

NINJA attack on Sri Lankan mosqitoes

If you know me well, then you fully understand the hilarity of this.

My uncanny fascination with ninjas can be traced back to an internship I had on the US/Mexico border during the summer of 2004. Myself along with five other students lived in El Paso, Texas for a summer as part of a Border Studies Program offered by George Mason University in conjunction with the University of Texas El Paso. We would cross into drug ridden border town of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico--which has received the dubious honor of being the murder capital of the world.

We frequently traveled to Juarez for a series of seminars, consular visits, internships--at the time I was interning with an immigration lawyer. One of the most interesting visits we had was to sites such as notorious murder houses used by the cartels led by photo journalist Gabriel Cardona.  A very interesting charater who collaborates with renowned novelist Charles Bowden for work (just in case you are familiar with the area, these are well-known names of people working on the issue). At the end of the program, Charles Bowden (who everyone calls Chuck) invited myself and a colleague of mine to his home in was by far one of the most interesting and bizarre experiences I have had to this day and the six hours I spent is a story all to itself. In sum, he's a great man with a lot to tell and was kind enough to treat me to a burger afterwards.

And so I digress...back to the ninjas.

One of the other participants was obsessed with ninjas. He even roped both myself and another participant into making a satire presentation for the head of the program based on ninjas in Juarez. Luckily I only helped with the power point because you could literally hear crickets chirping in the background following the presentation instead of the anticipated laughter. Clearly some people just did not get the joke--understandably so.

I would never fully understand the impact this ninja obsessed man would have on me until years later. It appears his constant ranting of them and forcing me to watch videos of them had some type of subconscious influence on me and has me sitting mesmerized by films with ninja fighting sequences.

So it was no surprise that I let out a squeal of joy when I found this package on a dusty shelf in a grocery store here in Batticaloa. I felt it necessary to buy this package just for the name despite already having a stack of mosquito coils at home. If you're not familiar with mosquito coils...they are spiraled incense that you put on a metal stand, light and allow to burn for hours. The smoke keeps the mosquitos away and its recommended to light them at dawn and dusk when they're most active-especially for those carrying Malaria.

In all seriousness, I give my full support to a coil carrying the Ninja name. I haven't been bitten once since lighting them. Now if I could only find the same thing in spray can form for the roaches...

Tsunami strikes a war zone

On December 26, 2004, an earthquake with a magnitude between 9.1 and 9.3 struck off the coast off the West Coast of Sumatra Indonesia. It generated a tsunami generating in all directions as far apart as Malaysia and Tanzania.

The 2004 tsunami left three quarters of Sri Lanka's island coastline was reduced to collapsed houses, smashed boats and wrecked vehicles. More than 40,000 people were killed and a million were displaced from their homes. Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital on the West Coast remained untouched.

These photos were taken near Lighthouse Beach in Batticaloa. They serve as a mitigation measure to warn residents that they do indeed live in a tsunami hazard area. The other mitigation measure, known as the 100-metre rule, forbids anyone living within 100 metres of the coast line to build their homes. Fishermen were the hardest hit by this measure and many saw this as a way to claim the land for developers of 5 star resorts. Whatever the motive was, the result impacted the livelihoods of the poorest of the poor. While many involved with the tourist trade were able to comply and rebuild, the rest found themselves without homes and work and were forced into refugee camps.

While international response to the tsunami was heartening, the government contributed very little. Thousands of Sri Lankans became internally displaced people (IDPs) seeking refuge in the north from not only the tsunami destruction, but also from the war that was raging in the north and east.

Perhaps the reason why I bring up the tsunami before going into any detail as to the history of ethnic conflict here in Sri Lanka is that many people very well know nothing of the 26 year Civil War that was battled out in the north and east of the country between the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)...more commonly referred to as the Tamil Tigers. It was a war between the Sinhalese (Buddhists) and Tamils (Hindus) and gives a vivid portrayal of how mixing religion with politics can even make the belief of Buddhism turn ugly and violent.

And so these two events, the tsunami and war, should give a better idea as to what has brought me here. True, I don't speak the language and it's out of my regional focus of the Mid East, but Sri Lanka provides ample opportunity for me to learn of a country struggling to deal with IDPs in a post-conflict environment along with natural disaster mitigation. More than likely I will be applying what I learn here back in the Middle East...or at least that's what the plan is. Either there or Afghanistan, though I really, really need to weigh the pros and cons with the idea of a return to Afghan nation. The situation appears to be steadily deteriorating. I definitely have my fair share of grey hairs from my former Afghan experience, but I blame 99% of them on having to deal with my nutty boss trying to send me to Kandahar.

As a friend of mine summed it up, 'you seem to live for disasters'. I guess this is true to an extent.

What's up with the URL 'laurenofarabia' when you're not even living there?

Peter O'Toole and T.E. Lawrence would most likely not approve of my lax reference to Lawrence of Arabia given I have not had the same success on a grand scale to unify Arab tribes as he had.

Added to the fact that I am not even in Arabia. I have, however, previously lived there and even paid homage to Lawrence by visiting the Baron Hotel in Aleppo, Syria in 2010. Lawrence reportedly frequented the hotel as did Agatha Christie. The place is like a relic from another time-peeling paint, creaky floors and the dingy smell that a building from the 1800's can acquire over the years. I doubt the hotel would even be standing if it weren't for it's famous clientele that came there in its glory days.

In this picture at the Baron Hotel, I'm at the bar holding some gin in honor of Lawrence. Aside from the stereotype of all Brits loving gin, I know for a fact he drank gin by taking a look at his bar tab also on display in the parlor across from the bar.

So in sum, the URL will remain the same, I tossed around the idea of starting a new one, but there's just too much history on this one to start fresh. Plus let's face it, I'll more than likely be returning to Arabia once again in the future.

Dodging Cows

I was beyond exhausted during the journey and was surprisingly able to fall asleep from time to time. I am ashamed at how naive I was to the development in the country. I had been warned as to the state of Sri Lankan roads, but the smooth pavement in Colombo made me think that this was a thing of the past. Until we turned right on the road leading to the north.

My driver and I had limited conversation. I did manage to learn that he himself was from Vavuniya and had only returned last year with his two children. The third is working in France. All of them had been refugees in Thailand for three years. As he put it, the guns and was all too much. I nodded and looked out the window wondering about the others we passed as we sped along. Wondering what they've witnessed and how they carry on after having gone through nearly three decades of terror.

The size of the potholes are better described as being craters. The roads were so ruined in some areas that in my opinion the only explanation for it had to have been shelling by air. I didn't ask, but the result was pretty clear.

As we drove on the sun began to set. The road we traveled on was meant to be two lanes-one going in each direction. Sri Lankans make this four and use the opposite lane to pass. Added to this are people on bikes and/or walking along side the road, dogs and cows. Fearless cows that seem to wait on the side of the road until just the right moment to step and look full on at a car that is speeding by after passing a truck. The driver has two options. 1. Go back in the passing lane to get out of the way or slam on the brakes while veering off the road. Hitting the cow is never an option as they are considered sacred by Hindus, who are the majority in the north and east of the island-hence whey you find so many free roaming cows. Anyone who has been to India or Nepal knows what I'm talking about. They're everywhere!

When the sun set the driving became what seemed to be perilous. I could not see far in front of the headlights and was shocked every time a person or cow appeared in view on the side of the road. Headlights from the opposite lane made me blind and I wondered how the driver could see. I'm pretty sure he couldn't.

In the end we had a tally of 0 for the number of cows, people, and other cars hit or injured. My first impression of Vavuniya and the north is that it appears to be a separate country in comparison to Colombo. I've lived in developing countries, but never have I seen such a difference in development from one part of the country to the other...think something like Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Both are on the same island, but separate countries. Not the case in Sri Lanka where its that different, but under one government.

My love of Emirates

I love Emirates airlines. Seriously, if you have the opportunity, you should experience a flight with them. I haven't lived in Arabia for two years but have had numerous layovers in Dubai due to my loyalty to the airline. I think it was the effort to make it look like stars above you with twinkling lights in the roof of the cabin that they put on while dimming all the other that first got me hooked. During On my way to Afghanistan I had the opportunity to be bumped up to business class and it was like a whole new world. The seats reclined into beds and even had massage control settings.

However, this is NOT how I traveled most recently on my journey to Sri Lanka. I was in coach, but it was still extremely comfortable. It was on this flight that I experienced my first flight emergency-not me, but some other man. For the life of me cannot tell you what happened. Gives you an idea of how big the places are-sometimes have a staircase. For the life of me I could not tell you what exactly happened. All the flight attendants were on opposite sides of a the five seat row looking really worried and an announcement was made that if there were any doctors on board to please let them know. I was neither a doctor but was extremely woozy after two sleeping pills and a bottle of wine so I chose to ignore the situation and go to sleep. All seemed fine when I woke up eight hours later.

I've flown the airline enough to be bumped up to their Silver status which allows me access into a lounge. This is not the business class lounge or first class lounge, so I thought it was just a lounge that maybe had some coffee in it. To my surprise it was this massive area with big comfy chairs, a restaurant area, four score meal buffet and open bar. I felt it necessary to celebrate with mimosas. It was bitter sweet in that I began to realize my days of backpacking and crashing on airport floors may very well be behind me...not entirely sure if that's a bad thing.

Sri Lanka requires all incoming flights to have the cabin of flights sprayed in order to comply with their health regulations. When this came over the announcement I thought they had said the outside of the flight until I saw the flight attendants walking briskly down the aisle with a spray canister in each hand that appeared to be erupting with some mysterious spray. I've flown into nearly forty countries now and never have I seen such an odd requirement.

And so I arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka and was greeted at the airport by a driver who immediately had me on the road for the six hour journey north to Vavuniya...the northern city that served as the front line between during the 26 year Civil War which only ended in 2009.