Thursday, April 30, 2009

April 26, 2009 - Galle, Sri Lanka

We had a very early start this morning so that we could reach the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage in time for their morning feeding and bathing. Unfortunately, our hotel's restaurant was a bit understaffed so Sampath had to make up some time on the drive south. He got us to the orphanage with minutes to spare.

We didn't really know what to expect of the elephant feeding, but quickly realized that it was not something that we needed to see. Three baby elephants were chained in a pen, waiting to be fed from bottles. The chained babies were rocking back and forth, straining against their chains, displaying the kind of behavior that one sees in an animal shelter where the animals have been waiting too long to be adopted.

Under a sign that clearly read
"Baby Elephant milk feeding is done only by the Orphanage Staff. Visitors are not allowed to feed the Elephants. Keep off from (sic) the Elephants. Please refrain from giving tips to the Staff"
tourists were tipping elephant handlers in exchange for the opportunity to have their picture taken while feeding a baby elephant from a bottle. We told Leel that we didn't need to see any more of that and headed across the street to a cafe by the river to wait for the elephants to come down to bathe. Leel and Sampath went off to have some complementary rice and curry (their reward for bringing tourists to the cafe) while we sipped overpriced sodas and waited for the elephants. Once the elephants arrived we spent an enjoyable hour watching them bathe, drink from the river, tussle, and feed on the vegetation lining the banks of the river.

We were in no hurry to leave Pinnewala as we knew that the rest of our day would basically be one long drive back to Galle. But the drive was broken up by stops at a bakery for some short eats, in a rubber tree plantation for some drinking coconuts, and at a roadside stall to buy some rambutans (furry red skinned fruit the flesh of which tastes like lychee). But the most interesting stop of the day was at Sampath's house. Sampath lives just across the street from the ocean. Or, I should say, before the tsunami he lived just across the road from the ocean. Now he lives in a new house built behind the wreckage of his old house.

Tsunami memorial in Peraliya, where 1270 passengers on the Galle to Colombo train were killed when the wave swept the train off the tracks.
Over the weekend, Sri Lanka's ruling party, the force behind the two year old military offensive against the Tamil separatists, won a landslide victory in the Western District elections. The victory speech called it a vote against terrorism and separatism. Basically, the Sinhalese Buddhists who comprise the majority of the population here just endorsed the government's recent actions in the north. Tamil Hindus, 18% of the country's population, are so outnumbered as to make them politically powerless in an electoral process.

It has been so interesting for us to compare the foreign press coverage of the situation up north to the local coverage. The local newspapers and television have been publishing the government's statements that there are only 15,000 civilians left inside the Tamil Tiger's stronghold, even as tens of thousands of refugees pour out of the conflict zone. The math just doesn't work. At our hotel last night we were finally able to see some international news coverage of the crisis and learned that the United Nations is estimating that the current numbers of trapped civilians are closer to 50,000. But how would the average Sri Lankan voting in the recent election know that? There are no international newspapers available here, except in some of the tourist hotels or online. The state controlled television news is basically one long commercial for the current administration. After showing footage of the President greeting well armed troops and sharing some rice and curry with them, the nightly news closes with a three minute long music video showing the President kissing lots of babies. Frankly, it makes Fox News broadcasts during the Bush years look downright unbiased by comparison.

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