“Trinco,” my brother said, “short for Trincomalee Beach, the newest tourist development in the country.” There was a reason for this. It was also home of the government’s military site that customarily battled the Tamil Tiger’s until their rebellion was put down only five short years before we planned to set foot in the area and also one of the locations hit heavily by the 2004 tsunami.
I was visiting my brother during his three month internship with the agricultural department in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon. We had already hit all the requisite tourist spots during his time off including Sigiriya Rock, Dambulla Caves and a number of white domed Stupas. His one request was that we make our way to the east and see Trinco, the only beach town he had yet to visit during his stay.
The problem was, no matter how often we looked online, it seemed there were no rooms available. We decided to throw caution to the wind and have our driver take us out there and find a room the old fashion way, by showing up and asking like Mary and Joseph, only, you know, without the birth of a messiah or being a couple, yuck!
Once we got there, we instantly knew why we couldn’t find a room. There were only four hotels total, in the whole beach town. No hostels and no rooms. We stopped at each one begging for a place to stay. We had come this far. We had a taxi to pay, we weren’t going to leave.
Trinco was the last place being developed with the new tourist boom and the rumors were it would be the next Cancun in a couple of years. We wanted to see it before that happened. We wanted the cred to say we were there first.
But what was this cred worth. I didn’t know anything about the civil war that tore Sri Lanka up for over 30 years before I set foot in the country (I’m not very good at doing my historical research ahead of time). This ignorance didn’t bode well for traveling to a destination where we discovered that the military still held customary drills, of which we could hear the echoes of down the beach at night. I also wasn’t aware the tsunami had hit Sri Lanka so hard, only hearing about the devastation in Thailand because of mass media coverage.
We finally found an available room at double the cost then my brother had wanted to spend, we dropped our meager belongings off, and hit the beach. Right away we could tell this wasn’t Cancun.
Trincomalee was originally a fishing village and fishermen still line the beach, their small boats pulled up onto the sand, nets tossed over the side. One fisherman was trying to disentangle small silver fish before a flock of crows could descend on them and consume them completely.
We began to notice that each hotel was blocked by a barbed wire fence. With the drills in the distance we weren’t sure if this was to keep people out or keep us in. Still further, we paused between a gap in hotels and fisherman and noticed a gathering of small wooden crosses, some riddled with bullet holes, a reminder that the tsunami and the war took so many lives. Suddenly our hope of a relaxing beach vacation was looking a lot gloomier and making us reflective, which leads to philosophical questions. What is travel really for? Is it always to have a good time? To see only beautiful things? Should we always just be having fun? This seems unfair, unrealistic. Shouldn’t we also be aware of how we travel across this planet in actions, consequences? Shouldn’t we be seeing history as well and learning from it when we can?
And perhaps Trincomalee wanted me to fully understand this lesson, that things can be easily lost, that everything isn’t pretty and perfect, that we travel to learn and sometimes to be so out of our element that we are truthfully fearful.
The next day my brother went out on a diving expedition with a local scuba club. He left at 1 pm and should have been back by no later than 4. I read a book, had a beer, got some sun. Four came and went. Five passed by. The sun started to set. I found myself so worked up with worry that I jumped out of my chair and took off down the beach without my camera or my shoes.
Right away something strange caught my eye. To not necessarily be crass, it looked like the beach was covered with hundreds of pink, used condoms. I peered down and realized they were small jellyfish. The beach was peppered with them. I almost wondered how I would even walk down the beach, there were that many. I tiptoed around the thousands of small venomous creatures, the sea’s lost soldiers, making my way towards the scuba club. But all was for naught, no boat, no Michael.
I made my way back and another hour passed. There were no restaurants in the area and you had to eat in the hotel by telling them what time you planned to dine. Our reservation was nearing and my brother was still not back. I was really worried now. Did his boat sink? Was he kidnapped by rebels still in hiding? My anxious brain spun out tons of scenarios, each more gruesome than the next. It didn’t help that I was reading Game of Thrones at the time. There was nothing I could do but wait. I walked down the beach again and asked the divers where they could be. A man told me that they had to go further out than planned due to the jellyfish, those little pink jellyfish that the tide had now sucked back out to sea. The man believed they’d be back in about a half hour.
I walked by those tombstones, the barbed wire, the bullet holes one last time. I went to dinner, hoping that if I willed it, he would come. It was officially dark, close to 8 p.m. There was one light out towards the gate separating the hotel grounds from the beach. And then there was a bobbing, a dark shadow blocking the light and from this space my brother finally emerged. I was so relieved, and then as I always am with my brother, irrationally angry. Where was he? Why was he gone so long? What was he thinking?
He held up his arm to me and showed me the raised pink flesh. Jellyfish burns covered his elbows, wrists, bicep. I was so happy he was alive and back that this seemed comical to me now. It wasn’t so funny to him, but who couldn’t laugh when you’d been imagining beheadings all day and instead it was only the small stings from condom-shaped jellyfish.
My brother was alive, while so many other souls whom I would never meet weren’t. So many fisherman, workers, Tamils and Sinhalese. All we could do was grab a glass of Arrack and pour some out for the lost citizens of Trincomalee.
Header image from Agarianna on MorgueFiles