Adventures in Diasporic Travel

The girl from foreign and her mute friend: a comedic traipse through Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

After a long eight hours, Suruthi and I are finally in Trincomalee, a town on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. Our North American sensibilities are appalled and terrified by the dark streets, careening traffic, and generally lawless driving of Sri Lankan buses, so I am excited to finally be off the bus.

We’ve just come from Colombo, where Suruthi and I have been living as part of the LankaCorps Fellowship. We’re both North Americans, expats of Sri Lankan origin, exploring this country for the first time.  We’re also both Sri Lankan Tamils, though she speaks the language fluently, and I do not at all. Trincomalee is part of the Tamil speaking part of the country, and the people we encountered were excited to have a tourist that spoke their language so fluently.

And so we leave the bus stop and flag down a tuk, pile ourselves and all of our luggage into it, and give the driver our address. Instead of opting to stay at the luxurious Chaya Blue, operated by one of the larger hotel chains on the island, we go the budget route (you’re only young once!). We drive up to our hotel, and are greeted by the entire staff, who are intrigued by the type of foreigner who opts for a modest hotel over the opulence of Chaya Blue. Sri Lankans tended to assume that we were made of money in ‘The West’, and never fully believed us when we tried to tell them otherwise.

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Note: All of the empty rooms

We are shown to our room. While it’s facing the beach, it’s also next to the only room in the whole hotel undergoing renovations. Again, we are the only guests.

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Discussing how beautiful the place is takes away from my absurd and pitiable narrative. Sorry Trincomalee!

We decide against eating dinner at the hotel, but we’re too exhausted to search for an eatery in town. We get a tuk and head to Chaya Blue. I know, I know, we totally sold out. There, outside among the crashing waves and overfed stray cats, we feasted on far too much crab curry and dhal while simultaneously ingesting a fair amount of arrack[1] and pineapple concoctions.

Early the next morning, I took a solo stroll on the beach. Sunglasses on and water bottle in hand (for the hangover more so than anything else).

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The sun laughs at my hangover

I love early mornings. It’s when hardcore weirdos are out. You know the type: jogs at 4 A.M., gym at 5 A.M., a non-kid friendly cereal breakfast at 6 A.M., glossed and smiling at the office by 7:30. Apparently they exist everywhere, and sometimes they just can’t afford the childcare.

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Jogging while fathering

The group of men gossiping on the beach eyed me warily. I realize that they are mostly hotel employees, and I think they are worried that I am looking for breakfast and will pull them away from their gossip-‘sesh’. I nod at them and head back inside.

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Like Sri Lankan Mean Girls. I wasn’t invited to sit at their table. They also wear pink on Wednesdays.

Back in the room, Suruthi is awake and in the shower, and I decide that we should go to Pigeon Island. Most of the ‘city set’ had told us it was a “darling little place” for hiking and snorkeling. I’m not an outdoorsy girl, but there was just not much else to do.

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Except the gorgeous beaches, have I mentioned those yet?

We get into another tuk. The driver  seems very excited to have two foreigners on board, and one who can speak Tamil – a brown unicorn! Suruthi and the tuk driver speak excitedly in Tamil, while I zone out. I have been almost mute since I got here. Suruthi, on the other hand, is famous. She is known as “The Girl from Foreign who speaks Tamil”, roughly translated. It’s petty, but I am jealous of her fame.

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Dogs are so smart

The dock is entirely male-centric. As the only women around, we sit in a circular bench as the men discuss the rules of the beach. They bring us the smallest flippers and find some masks that fit.

We watch other boats being pushed off, the sea a bit choppy, and the tide firmly pushing against their efforts. Finally, a young man (of course) comes to take us on our boat. It takes a few tries,  and Suruthi and I are sat in this boat, unsure as to what we should be doing. Is there a paddle? Should we use our hands? Would it be helpful if we weighed less? I suck my stomach in. Nothing seems to help.

The boat finally gets out into the ocean. The boat dude, whose name we’ve forgotten, is chatting excitedly with Suruthi in Tamil, and throwing me an English bone every now and again. He’s showing off, going faster and slowing down. I think he even offered to let her steer. I’m over it.

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Unbearable for our pampered Western feet

We get to Pigeon Island, where the beach is pure white. It’s a coral beach, beautiful, but painful. Our boat dude, who Suruthi has started referring to as “Boat Anna” (Ahn-na, meaning older brother, a show of respect), jumps out and tells us to get our snorkels on. I ask Boat Anna if we could hike around first. He is not impressed by the idea at first (because it was mine) but then realizes that he can spend more time showing off to Suruthi, and warms up to the idea fast.  We walk around the island, Boat Anna guiding Suruthi by the hand, as she shakily makes her way up the narrow paths of tree stumps and rocks.

I am not one for hiking, camping, or the great outdoors generally, but somehow I have found the one person on earth worse at coping with the outdoors than I. As we walk, the branches Suruthi pushes out of her way snap back to hit me viciously across my face and body.

I was the caboose, being left behind to take photos as Boat Anna spoke in low tones to Suruthi, no doubt hoping he would lose me along the way and be able to really turn the charm on, if you know what I mean.

We finally come up to the top of this small hill, the highest part of the mountain. Boat Anna explains that someone had an idea to put a bar at the top, so vaguely weary hikers (let me stress that this was a tiny ascent on a miniscule island) could grab a beer and watch the ocean below. For one reason (the war) or another (the war), this was abandoned and now we are just standing on a stone floor. Suruthi is taken by the view, and sits on the edge.

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Boat Anna disappears. I knew it, he’s just left us. I sit down next to Suruthi, and all of a sudden we see something below us. Walking along the steep, rocky cliff that goes straight down into the ocean, is Boat Anna, barefoot and grinning at Suruthi. He leaps from rock to rock like a goat, each time shooting Suruthi a pretty loaded look. “Oh wow, he’s so good at rocks! Look at how good at rocks he is!” I sarcastically say to Suruthi, having had enough of Boat Anna’s shit. She thinks it’s adorable.

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Not pictured: Boat Anna, I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction

We decide to go back down, this time along the rockier part of the island. Suruthi’s shoes cannot handle it and she decides to go barefoot like Boat Anna and I have. As soon as she puts her feet on the hot, rough rocks, she decides that it’s not a good idea. Boat Anna suggests that she wear my shoes, as they are “better for rocks”. Now at this point, Boat Anna is carrying Suruthi’s shoes while she wears my flip flops. He’s also holding her hand, guiding her up and down the terrain.

At one point, I don’t think I can make the jump from one rock over and up to another, especially while carrying my camera. Boat Anna helps Suruthi over and starts walking. I have to ask for him to stop. He reaches out his hand as if I am about to give him a snotty tissue, but I grab on, and as soon as I have one foot on the top rock, he lets go. I stumble, and my knee buckles a bit, but I manage to steady myself and get on the rock. Boat Anna says something to Suruthi, a few feet ahead, and she giggles. “He said you’re like a real Sri Lankan, because you’re so sturdy!” At this point, I want to throttle Boat Anna. I keep going.

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There is no way to push Boat Anna off. He is just too good at rocks.

We finally make our way back to the coral beach. Boat Anna, reluctant to leave his beloved, asks casually when she’ll come back to Trincomalee. She, just as causally, gives a vague answer. He asks again, a bit anxious. She gives the same answer. He finally says that he hopes she comes back, and soon, and she comes looking for him. Because, well, let’s just put this one down to Bollywood’s influence. That, or a green card.

We pad down to the beach,  get down to our bathing suits, put on our snorkels and get in the water. Boat Anna takes our stuff to the boat for safekeeping, and then goes to wait near the first-aid/lifeguard/naval station – or what is otherwise a small wooden shack.

We go in at the appointed area, where tons of lifeguards are guiding the tourists to the correct path around the coral. Cautiously, we start swimming. This is easy and peaceful, staring down into the water while gently carried closer to the coral. As I swim closer to the reef, a thought occurs to me – what if I see a fish?

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Who, us?

Pause. I am deathly afraid of fish. I don’t know why, but I have nightmares about fish. I have actually ran out of aquariums as an adult, and have heart palpitations near fish tanks in houses. Why did I agree to go snorkeling?

A) Because the photos of doing it always look so beautiful.

B) Gotta try everything once #yolo.

C) Apparently you can see sharks, and I do love sharks. This is also inexplicable.

I decide that if I see a fish, I will just not freak out. That’s easy enough to do, I am an adult in full control of my body and mind. I know they are here, and they won’t come up to me. If I can just get to the far end, there is a good chance of seeing sharks.

Then I see a fish. It’s a small thing, as long as my finger. It darts out of some coral, about a foot away from me. I think do not freak out.  I immediately proceed to freak out. I start choking on water, and a huge wave comes down on me as I get my head above water, pushing me back. I’m slammed onto the coral, half thinking I am going to die among these fish, while also being freaked out by the amount of fish swimming in the general proximity.

A hand grabs me and throws a lifesaver around me. Once I’ve gotten all of the water out of me, and am breathing normally, he says in broken English “Come miss, I take you to see more fish.” I say no, and he thinks I’m still a bit scared from the big wave, so he starts swimming further out, pulling the lifesaver that I’m trapped in. I keep saying no, and finally, I slide out of the lifesaver, pull my snorkel off and throw it in his general direction and start swimming towards shore.

Once I get close to the shore, where the threat of fish-sighting subsides, my mind clears and I realize I have left Suruthi in the choppy water. But as I turn around, she’s behind me, holding her hand up and looking like she is about to cry. The lifeguards hovering around the shore crowd around her and I run over, still in the shallows of the water.

It’s a bad gash on the heel of her palm, pretty deep, and the blood is not stopping. I am instructed to put pressure on it to stop the bleeding, and hold her hand above her heart. I do so, and we walk onto the coral beach. After getting messed up by the ocean, Suruthi’s body can take no more, and there is no way her feet are going to make it to the first aid station on this spiky coral beach. As I am made of sturdy Sri Lankan goat stuff, I tell her I’ll get her shoes. Instead of a teary but grateful thanks,  she says “Oh my god your legs!”

I look down to see that apparently I have been attacked by a shark. At least this is what it looks like. My legs are cut all over and bleeding profusely. Perhaps due to the shock, but what I like to think of as my high pain threshold, I don’t feel it. I make my way over to the boat, and root around for our shoes and clothes. I bring them back to Suruthi, legs dripping bright red globules of blood all over this white beach.  I put pressure on her hand and walk her to the first aid station. Boat Anna notices us first, and takes Suruthi from me, leading her into the one chair in this tiny shack. I wait outside, leaning against it, watching as they pour all kind of solutions from bottles that look like they have been there since the 1950s onto her wound.

Some older local men yell at me, telling me that I got cut up pretty badly. I thank them for their keen powers of observation, and with piling annoyance, I realize my snorkel is still out in the water.

Perhaps the shock has also produced some sort of idiotic bravado, as those fish and a few stormy waves couldn’t kill me – maybe I’m indestructible? Maybe M. Night Shyamalan made that movie Unbreakable about me!

So I walk towards the ocean, pulling my shirt off and thinking that I would swim back into the ocean to find my snorkel. I don’t want to be liable for the 2000 rupees (roughly 20 USD)! Thankfully, the same lifeguard saves me from this act of stupidity by recognizing me and bringing me my snorkel, which he had brought back to shore with him.

Finally, Suruthi is bandaged up. I ask for something to clean my cuts. Boat Anna visibly rolls his eyes. The first aid attendant cleans a few of the cuts, but everyone is happy to send us on our way. I decide not to put my pants back on, because they are leggings and there’s still a lot of blood. Boat Anna takes us back to the mainland, where Suruthi tips him 300rs ($3) and walks away as quickly as possible. We get into a tuk, though I sit with my legs slightly out, blood flying off my legs onto the traffic behind us.

We get to the hotel and collapse, exhausted from our non strenuous hiking and not-at-all bad injuries. We didn’t go on any more adventures for the rest of the trip, spending every evening with drinks and food at Chaya Blue.

Suruthi and I went to Trincomalee to experience a part of our heritage, as Sri Lankan Tamils. We ended up hungover, bleeding, and exhausted. We learned though, that despite everything Trincomaleeans have been through, they are talkative, sturdy of both foot and heart, and so very kind. In fact, I may actually go to Trincomalee again one day. But I will never go snorkeling.


[1] Sri Lankan Coconut Arrack is not to be confused with Indonesian sugarcane Arrack, nor its etymological cousin – the Middle Eastern Arak. The word is traced back to Sanskrit, and thus the process for making the alcohols of these different regions are not always the same. Unlike most liquors, the name does not denote the particular ingredients or distillation process, but instead that all of these drinks bring about the same intoxicating feeling.  For any word nerds like me, the wikipedia entry on Arrack is quite interesting.

Nayantara Premakumar

Nayantara considers herself a modern O. Henry without the embezzlement charges. In her downtime she enjoys delving into ideas of identity, community, and diasporic narrative, or just baking cardamom cookies. With degrees running the gamut from Filmmaking to European History and Anthropology, she is something of an academic flâneuse.