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LIFE AFTER LIFE

Living in Spain after surviving 24 years in prison. Here I will be sharing my experiences as a writer and journalist, travelling all over the world interviewing dangerous people in dangerous places.

TIGERS - part 2
07 February 2013 @ 00:45

  Firmly in ‘work mode’ now, I was soaking up every detail of my environment. As a city, Colombo seemed to be mostly a slum. Ramshackle, two-storied buildings lined the sides of roads full of potholes. All progress, vehicular or otherwise, was hindered by hundreds of cows. They wandered on pavements, in roads and even into shops, as if they owned the place. Which, it turned out, they did. The cow is holy to Hindus, and Sri Lankan Buddhists refuse to kill any living thing, (except the occasional Tamil, that is). Ergo the cows, everywhere!

  Fort railway station was straight out of the films set in the days of the Raj. Old fashioned steam trains puffed and whistled alongside platforms that couldn’t have changed much in fifty years. All that was missing was Sir Ralph Richardson and a detachment of red-jacketed British troops.

  I was already attracting many curious stares and a couple of people actually stopped me and asked if I was English, before welcoming me to the country. I was impressed both by their impeccable manners and their excellent English. However, once again I was concerned about attracting attention. I quickly took my place in the ticket queue.

  I bought a ticket to Anuradhapura, 200 kilometres to the north. This was the site of an ancient city and the temples and ruins were world famous. It wouldn’t be unexpected for a tourist to want to go there, I hoped. There were two surprises. A second class ticket cost me only the equivalent of £1.50 for the 200 kilometres. I reflected that, back in London, £1.50 wouldn’t take me one stop on the Underground.

  When I saw the carriages though, the ticket price made sense. They were dilapidated to the point of being nearly derelict. There was no glass in the windows, no curtains either and the wooden benches were without cushioning and hadn’t been painted for many years. Every carriage was thoroughly overcrowded. Even here though I was given privileged status. Two young men stood up from a bench seat and allowed me to slip inside and sit by the window, before re-seating themselves.

  The six hour journey took me through dusty, tumble-down towns and villages separated by vast expanses of jungle and scrubland. On the train or at any of the stations we passed I didn’t see so much as one European face. Seated in the window, curious faces stared at me from platforms and level crossings. I felt about as undercover as Madonna.

  The further north we went, so the carriage emptied out a bit. After one stop though, a young guy got on and sat next to me. He engaged me in conversation, then showed me his Army identification card. It did wonders for my paranoia.

  Either I was wrong about him however, or Sinhalese agents aren’t up to much. Suddenly a ticket inspector appeared. On inspecting the Army guy’s ticket it turned out that he was traveling in the wrong class and he was unceremoniously ejected from the carriage.

  I arrived at Anuradhapura, my face roasted by the sun and sandblasted by the dust. As I alighted onto the platform, I was nearly rugby-tackled by Raja, the local equivalent of wide-boy, Arthur Daley. Raja professed to be a taxi driver, but hastened to assure me that he was also a tourist guide and could get me whatever I wanted. The wink isn’t part of Sri Lankan culture, but his ‘knowing look’ was international. All the time he repeated, mantra-like, “wonderful people the British, wonderful people the British. I was tired, didn’t want to attract any attention and was longing to sleep. Against my better judgment I got into his taxi.

  The Milano Guest House was a slur on the good name of Milan and had no Italian connection that I could discern. The room for one was barely tolerable, even if the only air conditioning was an ancient rotating fan set in the ceiling. It was the bathroom for five that I had a problem with, especially as the other four were cockroaches. After a brief two-step with a couple of them in the shower, I retired to the bed, silently cursing Raja under my breath.      

  After 24 years of eating prison food, I had thought that I was beyond being upset by a ruined meal. Breakfast at the ‘Milano’ though was a culinary experience too far. I had only asked for chicken and rice, for God’s sake, yet the rice was soggy and stuck together in lumps and the chicken was all skin and innards. I seriously considered punching Raja full in his fat, smiling face when next we met.

  In the event, I resisted the temptation, rationalising that such behaviour would certainly bring me a whole lot of attention, probably from the police. When he arrived to take me sightseeing though, I had paid for my room and was waiting with my bag all packed. I cut through his obsequious, “Good morning sir”, with a steely, “Take me to another hotel immediately.”

  The Tissawewa Rest House was a quaint leftover from the colonial days. Its genteel decay was more than compensated for by scrupulous cleanliness and excellent service. I secreted the copy of ‘Front’ I was carrying beneath some cushions lest it’s contents outrage the servants.

   The large house must have been very beautiful in its day and, even though the white paintwork was peeling, there was still a feeling of sumptuousness about the place. The house stood in it’s own gardens and grounds, which were extensive. Hundreds of small, and not so small, monkeys roamed freely. Most had absolutely no fear of humans. In fact, the one caution I had from the staff was to make sure I closed my windows, otherwise monkeys could enter and steal things.

  In such an idyllic setting it would have been very easy to forget what I had come for and just lounge around for a couple of days and relax. However, I was on a tight schedule. I would want to spend at least a couple of days with the Tigers, should I manage to contact them. That was why it was so frustrating to have to pretend that I was a tourist. I would have to waste good time doing ‘touristy’ things. Ergo Raja.

  Later that day he took me on a tour of the ancient city. The temples were magnificent, their time-worn facades testimony to the architectural excellence of a bygone age. It must have been some kind of holy day, because thousands of pilgrims, wearing only white, sheet-like clothing, swarmed everywhere.

  Outside every temple were rows and rows of sandals which the faithful had removed before entering. Mine were the only pair of shoes. I still hadn’t seen another European since I had left Colombo.

  At the entrance of one temple stood three uniformed soldiers carrying machine guns. Raja informed me that they were guarding a special temple, inside which stood a holy tree. This tree was supposed to be thousands of years old and had been closely linked to one of the original prophets. I felt that this was worth seeing.

  It didn’t look like much, just a gnarled, thin old trunk, bereft of leaves. It was surrounded by a circular railing, through which the faithful reached to touch the tree. Right next to it stood another soldier, also carrying a machine gun. Raja explained that the guard was necessary just in case the Tigers tried to damage the holy tree. I couldn’t help but reflect on the ridiculousness of a situation where people would fight and die over an old tree.

  A couple of hours in the heat and the dust was quite enough for me. I got Raja to take me back to the Tissawewa for a mid-day snooze. Later, he had organized a safari for me. I wanted to establish my tourist credentials as soon as possible, then move on to other, more serious, things.

 The Habarana Wildlife Park was so absolutely massive that I was sure it didn’t have a wall around it and was, in fact, just a part of the countryside. The gate-complex was impressive, with large, barred gates and armed guards in uniform, but I guessed that was for the benefit of the tourists. I signed up for the basic 50 quid tour.

  I have a theory about wildlife and safaris. I feel that any responsible parent would warn the cubs that the upright, two-legged creatures might pull out a camera and take your picture. On the other hand, they also might pull out a gun and shoot you. So, to be on the safe side, whenever you see one, HIDE!   

  For the next two hours, with Raja sitting in the front of the open-topped jeep next to the driver and me in the back, we drove along the bumpy, dusty trails of the wildlife park. Every living thing hid from us. On one occasion, far in the distance, we did see what looked like a water buffalo beside a lake, but when we finally got there the creature had disappeared.

  I was quite unconcerned. I was content to go through the motions of being a tourist and safaris had never appealed to me anyway. But you could tell that Raja was deeply embarrassed. For a start, his incessant chatter had diminished to barely a trickle of half-hearted encouragements that there would be something just around the next corner. By now it was growing dark.

  So far, I had been completely relaxed. It was just a safari and I didn’t consider myself to be in any danger at all. The dangerous bit would come next when I tried to contact the Tigers. Further, I had assumed that, for all his insincerity, Raja knew what he was doing. I was just about to be rudely disabused of that notion.

  Exiting a small forest of trees onto another large plain, we could see, a short distance away, another clump of trees. Amongst these were several elephants. I don’t know if they tried to hide, but, as all the trees were quite small, perhaps they just weren’t successful.

  Seeing his chance to redeem himself in my eyes, Raja ordered the driver to get close to the herd. On the fringes, just outside the tree line, stood a very large elephant that I took to be a male. In fact, it could well have been the bull, for it was much larger than any of the twenty or so others in the herd. 

  At first the elephant ignored us. It continued to pull clumps of grass from the ground with its trunk and stuff them into its mouth. At Raja’s insistence, the driver drew closer. From 200 feet away the animal looked big enough: from 100 feet away it looked enormous. It completely dwarfed us and the jeep we were sitting in.

  By now however, although it was still chewing the last mouthful of grass, it wasn’t intent on pulling any more from the ground. All its attention was on us. Suddenly, it started to paw at the ground with one of its front feet. At the same time, a deep growling sound came from its head, which it was now swinging from side to side.

  Up until this moment, I had been merely a complacent observer of events. However, I was aware that elephants killed many people every year in Africa. It was just beginning to dawn on me that, should the beast charge, we could be in danger.

  I might have read its mind. With a piercing squeal that immediately morphed into a full-throated bellow, it charged. Temporarily, the deafening sound paralysed all movement. I remember mentally remarking to myself how swift it was for such a large animal…....

 

 



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