Archives for posts with tag: people

I live not far from St Anne’s Catholic Church, Thalawila – the oldest Catholic Shrine in Sri Lanka. It is right on the beach, halfway along the Kalpitiya peninsula, on the west coast of Sri Lanka, 3 1/2 hours from Colombo. I have been there several times, but not seen anything like I did last weekend!

thalawila-5The history of the church goes back to the 17th century. St Anne is the mother of the Virgin Mary. One story claims a poor Portuguese man was travelling from Mannar to Colombo looking for work. He was not successful, and whilst walking back along the coast, stopped to rest under a tree which is now the location of the church. Whilst sleeping he had a vision of St Anne. Upon waking he could still see the image, and built a small chapel dedicated to her. The other story claims that a European trading boat was shipwrecked off the coast. The area was very arid and inhospitable but the crew took shelter under a large banyan tree. They placed an image of St Anne in the tree. The captain kept his promise to build a church there upon the success of his business.

thalawila-4Last Sunday was the one of the most important feast days of the year for St Anne’s church. It is known for many miracles and blessings. Families from all over Sri Lanka had been gathering in the 10 days leading up to the feast day. Many come hoping for their own miracles and blessings.

thalawila-3I visited last Sunday evening and spent some time wandering around chatting to people, as well as visiting the church itself. Some estimate that up to 400000 people had gathered for the event. People come by private and public bus, by car, by tuktuk, and packed into the back of flatbed trucks – with everything needed for their stay tied on! A makeshift town had quickly been established – with all that was needed to support this many people in a normally very sleepy part of Sri Lanka!! Food stalls, mobile phone charging stations, public showers, large tanks with water for drinking… Some families camped on the beach, others on mats in front of the church, many were in tents on the bare land in front of the church.thalawila-8

thalawila-1Everyone wanted to say hello. And even if we couldn’t say much more than that to each other, they wanted me to sit and meet their families. Fernando introduced me to his wife, children and grandchildren, as he very proudly told me, ‘I am Christian.’ A large extended family from Negombo had driven up 10 days earlier to be here for the entire festival period. Another man waved at me through the bus window with a big smile on his face, ‘I am going back to Colombo.’

 

praying hands-1As I got closer to the church, candles, tapers and other religious items were being sold; and people with various disabilities, others suffering illnesses, lined the paths hoping for alms. After entering the gateway, I came upon a large stone cross, on the way to the church. This was the scene of much activity. Some people were lighting candles and stopping for a prayer. Others were seeking to touch the cross which had had blessed oil poured over it. As I was watching, a man came with a new bottle of oil and began to pour it over the cross. The crowd surged forward to reach for the oil – and many were trying to capture some of the oil in their own bottles to take with them, to use for future prayers and supplications.thalawila-6

Despite the huge numbers that had descended upon this tiny, remote community, there was a sense of calm and a sense of purpose. I saw no other foreigners during the time I was there, although I did bump into several locals I know. I nearly didn’t recognise Sarath, a local fisherman – I don’t think I’ve ever seen him with long pants, a button down shirt, and his hair all slicked back! Looking very smart with his family and he stopped to chat with me. I was welcomed by everyone. I asked questions, and I had questions asked of me. And after we ran out of the few English, Sinhala and/or Tamil words that we had in common we just smiled at each other!

boy-1Just another one of those days where I felt blessed to be welcomed to an event that was so special for so many people. I’ve had some wonderful opportunities lately and continue to thank the people I meet along the way for their friendliness and openness.

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galle (1 of 10)Travelling by train is always an adventure! Even if it is just the slow train from Palavi Junction to Colombo!

This is a route that I’ve taken several times over the last few months, and it always starts the same way – with an apology from the ticket clerk because there is no 1st or 2nd class – only 3rd. Which is not a problem for me – but as I’m pretty much the only foreigner on these trips, I guess they expect that I would like to travel something other than 3rd class.

For 110 rupees (less than $1) I get at least 4 hours of entertainment, sitting on a bright orange, hard plastic seat in a carriage that has not been cleaned since the windows were left open during the last storm! It’s important to sit at a window that does open – this is the only cooling provided. It’s only about 120km but travel (by any means) always takes a long time in Sri Lanka – you really do learn to appreciate the journey rather than just thinking about the destination.

This is certainly no express train! With stops in every town along the way – and at least once each journey, because of the single track, the need to switch back to let trains going north through – it is very slow going!

The country side changes – from the lagoon views south of Palavi; to rivers and farming land; then as we get closer to Negombo and the airport, all the towns begin to merge into each other as we enter the sprawling metropolis of Colombo.

But it’s the people that are interesting to watch – and as the only white face aboard, I certainly know I am being watched too!

There is a large Muslim community in and around Puttalam where the train originates – there are always fully robed women with their children. The children are shy but interested – getting them to smile is a treat! Encouraging their mothers to smile is a small victory!

And then there are the other travellers – business men; families visiting each other; people with shopping or business to do in the bigger towns. I always seem to have more luggage than everyone else even though I’m only going to Colombo for a couple of days! As we near Negombo, the train fills up with school children – in pristine white uniforms and black shoes – and workers using the train for their daily commute. Some are ‘brave’ enough to sit next to me for a chat – always asking where I am from (Australia – ah! cricket!) and whether I like Sri Lanka.vardai-1

It is also interesting watching the various sellers and buskers/beggars make their way through the carriages. Peanuts, samosa, prawns, egg rolls, pineapple, vardai and water – all available in handy snack sizes. Blind people singing, people with physical disabilities begging, salesmen with toys and books – all trying to make their living day by day. For some reason on this train, all the doors connecting the carriages have been blocked and closed off – the only way to change carriages is to alight at a station and climb onto the next carriage – sometimes it can seem a long way between stations when the singing is particularly off tune!

It is never a very peaceful journey – with such old carriages and ricketty tracks, it is nearly impossible to read or doze. Once, the train was trying to make up time and we were all bouncing off the seats as we went over a bridge – I burst out laughing which brought out a few smiles from my fellow travellers.

The one thing I always find stressful about this trip – and I have to work out a way to manage it – is the arrival at the main Colombo station, Fort. As we arrive (always late) the platform is crowded with people waiting to board for the next destination. And the throngs begin pushing to get on as we are still trying to exit. I’ve been caught in many a tussle to and fro as the bottleneck quickly forms at the door . No matter how prepared I am for a quick exit, there seems to be no way to avoid it!

Once I make it through, slightly battered and bruised, and find my ticket to give to the clerk so I can exit the station, the next issue is to find a tuk tuk that will either use the meter, or charge me the standard price, not the inflated price! Ah, but that’s another story for another day…