COLOMBO – I know, there’s been a long silence. Some people have even written to me, wondering if I was still alive; I hope my lack of response didn’t convince them of the worst. “Absence of evidence,” as the SETI researchers are fond of saying, “is not evidence of absence.”
Between February 3rd and 18th, I was in India, taking a short break from the relentless activity of the relief mill. I’ve now returned to Sri Lanka, but my mandate here has changed. In January I was a roving reporter, traveling across the island with photographer Dwayne Newton, writing up every story that caught my eye. My work was supported by Mercy Corps, but I was a volunteer.
Having returned, I’ll continue to work with Mercy Corps – this time, as a consultant. Country Director Ian Schneider, a major player and minor Buddha in the world of international relief work, has asked me to investigate the projects that Mercy Corps has funded here so far, and write up the success stories (there have been no failures). My short, focused essays will be used by Mercy Corps, local NGOs, and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (one of our most important in-country partners and funders) on their websites.
This temporary assignment will end on March 2nd, at which point I’ll have to decide what to do with myself.
Still, the writer/reporter in me continues to kite ideas, and latch on to intriguing stories. I do plan to write a final dispatch for this site before I leave. Just a couple of days ago, I thought I knew what that story was going to be…
On Sunday, February 20, a momentous event took place here in Sri Lanka: the reopening of train service between Colombo, and Matara, 100 miles to the south. The train to Matara had not run since the tsunami, when the Queen of the Sea was smashed by the tidal wave. More than 1,200 locals and tourists were killed, making it the worst train wreck in history (see my 2nd dispatch, “Sri Lanka, Revisited“).
Now the rails have been repaired, and the new train was set to make its maiden voyage on Sunday morning, at 11:15 a.m. (some hours before former presidents Clinton and Bush Sr. were due to arrive on their tsunami survey). It was an invitational run, carrying only press and local VIPs; no passengers. After chatting briefly with the Superintendent of Railways, I was invited aboard.
Ten minutes before the scheduled departure, I changed my mind. Why? Because I’m a populist. Wouldn’t it be better to wait a day, and make the ride down the coast in the company of local commuters, riding southward for the first time since the disaster? I conveyed my regrets to the Superintendent, and drove back to my hotel with a smile of righteous satisfaction on my lips.
That evening, a small group of Mercy Corps staff went out for dinner. One of the program directors was surprised to see me; he’d heard I was on the train. I explained my rationale for waiting.
“Too bad you didn’t get on today,” he sighed. “I was listening to the news; seems that Clinton and Bush arrived early, and boarded at one of the stops.”
My reaction to this news was not positive. It’s a painful thing when the intuition you thought you were following sneaks up behind you, dispensing a kick in the ass.
On Monday next morning I pored through the papers for news of the Clinton/Bush train ride, but to no avail. Nothing on TV, either. It turned out that their appearance was a rumor, created, perhaps, for security reasons.
This was fabulous news, and put the steam back in the pistons of my plan to ride the commuter train. I sent my driver off to the station to pick up tickets, and was packed and ready to go when he returned 30 minutes later.
His sheepish expression informed me that something was awry.
“Did you get the tickets?”
He lifted both hands, palms up, in a pose of exasperation. “Sir… There’s a wildcat railway strike. No trains today.”
Again, with the hands.
Sometimes, the Fates are just not with us. I never did get to ride that train; nor did I cross paths with George or Bill – although I did see, and was appropriately outraged by, today’s (2/22/05) English-language newspaper, The Island. The front page features a large color photo of former president Bill Clinton, flanked by Bush senior, screwing the doorframe onto a temporary housing shelter in Polathumodara. The heading, in a red banner above the picture, says:
“With screwdriver, Clinton shows what he’s good at”
Heads, I suspect (and hope!) will roll.
* * *
That’s it for now. Tomorrow’s a full-moon poya day (see “Beyond the Full Moon”), and a full-day train ride to Matara (featuring a harrowing return via minibus) is not in the cards.
During the coming week I’ll be in the east, off-line as I investigate four of Mercy Corps’s projects around Trincomalee. But I still plan to wrap up this visit to Sri Lanka with a final dispatch, summarizing my thoughts at the tail end of this very long and sharp learning curve.
Until then, best wishes from Colombo, where the ocean is no longer an enemy, and the sky is filled with kites.