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Peace and Reconciliation

Written by Lauren – A Uniting Journeys traveller

Peace and Reconciliation Tour- Sri Lanka July 2016

A simple thank you just wouldn’t cut it.

We are eternally grateful for all the Gods involved for allowing this journey to occur, the planners, tour guides, conversation partners and everyone in, out and between. What Uniting Journeys has been able to facilitate has been nothing short of incredible.

As I told you from the outset, I didn’t know what I could offer on this journey; being so far removed from it all as an Australian born of Sri Lankan heritage, I didn’t think I would be the right person for this journey.  But sometimes, it’s not what you can do- it’s what others can do for you- open your mind, your understanding and your perspective of the world around you.

It’s been a long time between visits and regardless of the time lapsed, now was the right time to be there with the right people. I couldn’t have been blessed with anyone better- what we had was a microcosm of Sri Lanka, a Noah’s ark representative – two of each, male and female of the major faith groups; Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian and the races; Singhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher.  There was so much diversity, yet so much in common. That first meeting at Lentil as Anything, we began by shaking hands. We walked out of the restaurant hugging and kissing goodbye like old friends.

Led by the loving and gentle Larry and Cynthia, they took us in and kept us safe, yet allowed us space for vulnerability and exposure to every site we wanted to see, the patience to understand the stories of those we met and openness to allow the possibility of things not on the itinerary. These things were the most memorable.

One of Sri Lanka’s many names was once Serendib – where the term serendipity comes from; happy discoveries by chance and we were blessed with so many connections due to lots of opportunities we allowed ourselves time for. Two such people we should thank in particular are Ralston who introduced us to the incredible story of the Tamil tea plantation family who has endured so much to continue working the land that they have known, and Rev Aloysius Peiris, who at 83 keeps inspiring us with his vigour to run a school for hearing impaired children with incredible success alongside his collection of Christian art depicted by a Buddhist sculptor.

The second person is our tour guide Kumara, who went out of his way to answer every single question we could possibly throw at him and to made special effort to accommodate every request to stop at somewhere. For example, if it was at all possible, I was keen to visit a cinnamon plantation and moonstone mine along the way. We had had some free time and he promised it was half an hour away. The half hour journey ended up being a little longer than expected of course and by the time we arrived the manager had just left the premises for the evening and the security guards were having no bar of us to let us in. Well, Kumara worked his magic and called the manager who not only let us in for a tour of the facility and allowed us in the jewellery store for purchases. Turns out, had it have been anyone else, it wouldn’t have happened. Lushani, Kumara and I later charged our blue moonstone rings under the full moonlight of the Kataragama Perahera the next night. It makes me smile and is a constant reminder of the magical discoveries and adventures on our trip.

We were so blessed to cover as much as we could around Sri Lanka, we were constantly changing environment, the lush greenery of the south to the dusty ochre roads and arid dry of the north. It reminded me of the varied landscape of Australia except instead of being greeted by kangaroos on the road, we had elephants! But it is not just the destination that is important. The journey along the way was just as important and my, what fun we had. Quite early on, Lushani had become our resident DJ, downloading baila hits in both Singhla and Tamil, taking requests from Larry for the additions of 60’s and 70’s party hits. Later on, we passed a drumming stall which landed some musical additions of not only a few more drums but even a tambourine to the bus. Shanaka and Desh accompanied our budding singer soloists, Sivanjana and Kumara and our dancers Shyama and Shally. Forget the Vengabus; we had the Montaloose party bus. It held singing and dancing, sightseeing and people watching, deep and meaningful conversations, a place of resting and snoozing and snacking on the incredible fresh produce and very tasty snacks.

While we were surrounded by mostly fun and frivolity in South, our adventures in the North held a different story, deeper and darker. I do not know what it is like to experience war, let alone witness it as a child, dodging bullets on the way to school. Hearing Desh’s story in Batticoloa, seeing the bullet hole marks marring the property of his Uncle’s house, seeing the heavy German machinery rust away surrounded by self-seeded trees after the factory being burned down, show how nature finds a way.  The resilience of the Tamil people is incredible as they continue living their lives in their hometown despite the horrible instances of the war. It takes time to heal, grow and mature our understanding and scars don’t fade completely. Their family insistent on not patching up the bullet holes reminds us of their struggle and story and how far we have come to be able to tell that story.

Things appeared a little brighter in Jaffna where the bus welcomed extra passengers in the form of Sivanjana’s partner and friends, Ash and Kate. We were surprised to find them waiting at the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil. After the initial shock, we were given a guided tour by Siv. I have never been in a Hindu temple before and I was struck by the colour and beauty of it. When asked to compare which place of worship looked better, I simply couldn’t, each place of worship is beautiful in their own special way. I was particularly captivated to the sound of the naraswaram, a reed instrument that sounded like it was a brass instrument. It seriously sounded like it was a bluesy pop saxophone played along with drums. It surprised me how calls to prayer could sound almost festival party-like when compared to the sullenness of an organ at a Catholic church. The stories of the Gods painted in large murals on the walls of the temple enabled us admire the morals in the tales, much like a parable that would be similar in Christianity.

We then took a boat ride to Nainativu, a small island off the coast of Jaffna Peninsula. Here there is a Buddhist shrine and a Hindu Kovil. Here my faiths were in all the Gods not only to get there and back safely but also to avoid sea sickness. The Gods were with us. Again we were struck by the beauty and the prayerfulness of both the temples and I also noticed the rituals are similar; water to cleanse, fire for candles of blessings, incense to purify and flowers for homage.

Here we stayed for lunch which was an experience in itself. Imagine a room with a continuous straw like mat laid in rows with individual banana leaves as place mats on the floor. Here we lined up and were admitted into the room in a somewhat orderly fashion to be served a vegetarian meal of rice, dahl, vegetarian curry and pappadums. This was communal eating like no other. Although being right next to each other in the queue, we all became separated from each other and I sat amongst ladies resplendent in their sarees, crossed legged, eating the same meal. The service was faster than any McDonald’s and tastier than anything I have ever experienced and just as soon as we had finished, a new group of people flooded the doors and new spots were taken up and new banana leaf placemats replaced.

Later that evening, the ladies of the group were in on a plan that had been hatched in the form of an engagement. Dilan, the ever romantic had organised an outfit and transport for Siv for the evening which us ladies were (invited ourselves) to surprise her with. Surrounded by a bed full of jasmine petals, Siv awoke from a siesta with a box full of instructions and us at standing at the foot of the bed armed with cameras. A bullock cart whisked her away while we waited with in an icecream parlour for the wonderful news. Needless to say, being able to bear witness to the engagement of a beautiful interfaith couple only strengthened my belief that there is hope for unity in diversity and hopefully an invite in the mail for an excuse for a reunion tour!

There were so many personal stories from this trip that were uncovered and I along with others are honoured that they felt comfortable to share their story with us. Being all “overseas Sri Lankans”, the accepted term for diaspora, we all have our own family story for leaving this beautiful little island and not all of them are pretty. However, whether time heals old wounds or that we’ve fallen in love with new places, the majority of the group have all committed to returning sooner rather than later.

Something I’ve come away from this trip is that if you haven’t been affected in some way, you haven’t really travelled. It has to have an element challenge, a depth of reflection and journey inward. It’s not ticking off a bucket list of tourist hotspots or tracking the kilometres travelled. There’s more to life than that. I’d like to thank you, Uniting Journeys, for the opportunity you have given us all to experience and witness a travel experience like no other.

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