Sunday, 26 August 2012

Low Cost Diving Trip to Trincomalee

Low cost diving trip to Trincomalee

I love to dive...This year I had only one dive this summer in Unawatuna on the south-west coast of Sri Lanka, during the monsoon. A very unsatisfactory experience with high waves and strong underwater surges, 5 feet visibility... Yuk!  With a few free days left and a hunger for the deep I decide on a diving trip on the east coast, at Trincomalee, sheltered from the monsoon, and one of the "pearls" of South Asia. And because the family holyday trip had made a serious dent in the "entertainment and other" budget envelope I decide to do it "low cost".

Somebody mentions that travelling to Kandy by rail first class is quite OK so I decide then to go by train. I make my reservations ten days in advance, the earliest possible. It is full season now on the east coast and I expect a crowd. I find out I will do the 300 km to Trinco overnight, in a 9 hour trip, but I WILL have a coach and berth and I can sleep!! What a joy! Lucky boy! The cost is very low, less than the taxi fare to the railway station... I cannot get a return ticket. No way! Reservations only in Trinco, in person.  I book a room at a hotel that has a promotion through an on-line agency... It's the Shahira Hotel. Remember it: 'SHAHIRA'. I also book a diving package with a dive center about 3km down the beach from the Shahira. It will be just the right morning walk before the dive.

So I arrive late evening at the Fort railway station - ugly, dirty, busy, many uniforms...the train pulls-up 20 minutes before departure and I just cannot believe this. A large digit 1 is painted on something that looks like a 19th century wagon with very small barred windows similar to what they used on convict wagons for prisoners in communist Romania. I have a clear conscience so I get in. And I am shocked. Not by the accumulated dirt because by now I am used to that. But the compartment looks like a grade 7 school project...plywood sheets fastened with screws, unevenly cut. Everything painted in a dirty green color reminescent of  public toilets of a past time and place...The visual is strengthened by the olfactory as I feel the smell of  stale piss coming from the "private" toilet. There is no water to flush it, of course.

"Well, this is it boys...just tighten it, shut off your smell and bear it!"  I let myself fall on the berth and my backside, otherwise well padded, protests! Between the board and it there is only something like a folded blanket and a well used but clean sheet. At least... "Let's be thankful for small mercies!" In my time I have slept in much worse conditions, on the ground in huts in the mountains, etc.  Still, the really bad part was about to begin at 9.00 pm and it lasted until 6.00 am next day... It started like in the movies with an extraordinary concerto: SCÎÎÎÎÎÎÎÎÎÎRRRRrrrrrțzțzȚzȚzȚzȚzȚz!  Bang! Hiiiiii!! SCÎÎÎÎÎÎÎÎÎÎRRRRrrrrrțțȚȚȚȚȚ! was the prelude by the school project superstructure! Then entered the bogies: ZDRANG! ZDRANG! ZDRANG! from time to time there was coupling solo: GLONC! GLONC! GLONC! And from time to time something was making a DUM! DUM! DUM! But I am a Stoic. I also shut off my hearing and I immerse myself in my book. All smells, colors and noises fade in the background. I will not let them in the universe I make up for myself reading. And then, perversely, the first class coach strikes! I am boldly thrown up and against the side and from there I ricochet outwards. I do a tactical withdrawal and I bunch myself but the malicious spirit of the train cannot be fooled so easily: my head hits the upper berth with a sound BANG, adding to the noise...  I won't bore you with the rest...Suffice to say that finally, exhausted, I felt asleep. I know that for sure because I was brutally awakened when I was thrown out of the berth.

Arrived in Trinco I say hi to a couple of tourists debarking from second class, where I see some padded benches: 'How was it?'' Not too bad...Rather long though!' I run to the station-master to get return tickets second class. Can't be done. Only from 8.00 am to 12.00 am and only in person...

I arrive at the Shahira, Nilavelli Beach, a small hotel surrounded by rural Lanka: adobe huts with asbestos roofs, cows, fields of onions and rice, small sandy lanes... maybe , toute proportion garde, like what sea side villages which today are resorts in Spain Languedoc or Midi looked a century ago without the bohemian atmosphere. However I am met with real hospitality and warmth when I get there: 'Your room will be ready in 20 minutes, sir. You can have a coffee in the garden in the sea breeze...Do you want breakfast, sir?'  I think that maybe last night must have left some traces on my face... The room is not great but reasonably clean for the region but at 60 USD a night in SL you cannot expect much more. Shahira proves to be a welcoming place but with some serious problems...No AC, and the fan cannot be turned down. So you either sleep in a real jet stream or you bake and sweat. In the afternoon there is no power so even if you can stand the fan joy. But the worst feature is something they cannot be blamed for, I suppose. Each morning at 6.00 am a shrill, penetrating voice starts hindu chants relayed by megaphones which seem glued to my window ( which has no glass panes, obviously). The noise overwhelms even Vivaldi through my earphones.

I set out for the Dive Center but I only take a few steps on the beach and I am abruptly stopped by a sentry and a series of warning signs: this is a military installation of the SL Navy. And yes, I can see a few radio masts somewhere in the distance. Another sign on the road,  says it more candidly: it's actually the navy's resort and bungalows,   about one mile of the best beach in SL. No morning walks...

Of course there are many other hotels in Trincomalee and in Nilavelli. The small cheap ones are all Shahira-like the others all start at at least 250 USD/day. The beaches are OK. Nothing spectacular...but OK. The diving is nice, too. The dive centers' management could be improved but the nature has been generous, even if not spectacular. But there are some nice coral reefs, fauna, a wreck or two... Diving here is no Red Seas or Maldives but for a recreational diver like me it's a nice trip and I don't cry over spilt milk (or money) because there was little of that...

I visit Trincomalee and I am deeply disappointed: the old Fort looks better from a distance than from inside where it's just a short street with cheap kitsch plastic flowers  or local foods covered by flies and a hindu temple which may have religious significance but little artistic least for me. The harbor is pitiful: one empty jetty and 40 bored policemen. And this is it. The town is small and dirty, it looks desolate and seemingly poor... a junk. And I am told it's more energetic and better than before the tsunami.

I can't help reflecting on the strategy of this country which focuses its budget revenue on tourism. To achieve this the Government has set very high mandatory limits on luxury hotel accommodation all over the country. Most of the tourists I actually see are young backpackers looking for hostels or cheap guest houses. Not much income revenue from these guys...The decision makers seem to be totally opaque to the infrastructure needs of the tourism industry as well as to the training and qualification rating of the staff. Neither do they focus on the need for urban planning and policies to get rid of the dirt and ugliness and attract turists.  I keep thinking that killing off the competition between the hotels catering for the rich may just as well kill the proverbial goose. The comparisons I hear between Sri Lanka and Malaysia or Vietnam are unfavorable to the first. The Government should wake-up while it's not too late. A compromised brand is difficult to revive.


I came back also by first class but in a different, marginally better wagon. But I am saddened by the news that a ship that has laid arrested at anchor for four years off the tourist resort of Panadura has sunk at anchor with 200 tons of oil in her bunkers because of the incompetence or disregard of the bureaucracy.

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