Monday, November 18, 2013

MY BIG SRI LANKA WALK WITH BEEFY


I have always felt the best way to see a country is on foot, you actually get right amongst the people, hear the sounds, breathe in the smells, soak up the atmosphere, instead of catching glimpses as your tour bus hurtles past, racing to meet the deadline for the next five minute photo stop. I have just spent the past 8 days seeing Sri Lanka at its best, walking 250km with Sir Ian Botham and his crew, raising funds for The Foundation of Goodness and Laureus for Sports Foundation.

That 250 doesn't include all the rest of the kilometers I put into training, walking practically every street of Colombo in the preceding months. When we drive somewhere on the weekend my husband would question as to how I knew my way around so well, my answer would invariably be " Oh I've walked this way " .

Each day on my training walks I would always see something that would bring a smile to my face, or something that I would stop and think "Well that's different".

There's the man who sets up his personal Starbucks coffee shop on the side of the road each day, instead of selling coffee, its warm gruel that is ladled into the tin mugs and handed over to the morning commuters. There are always a dozen or more people standing around drinking their morning tonic,
enjoying the cool start before the sun begins its relentless march into the sky. They chat or just watch the world go by taking a few minutes before cramming themselves into the over crowded buses to start their day, just as we in the western world clutch  paper cups filled with our caffeine hit. They pull up on motorbikes or stop on their morning walk.

I've watched the man at the little corner store, which is really nothing more than a wooden shack wave his long handled pan filled with burning coals. The smoke fills his store  warding away evil spirits before he commences business for the day. There are no shiny shelves or soft lighting to showcase his wares, just upturned wooden crates to hold his merchandise,  and a single bulb to light his store. Still, he has what his customers are looking for and he always touches his left wrist with his right hand as he passes me my change from the bottle of water I buy from him each day. It took me a little while to pick up on this gesture. I first noticed it when our driver would give me the change after buying the morning newspapers. I asked David why he always held  his arm that way, then I noticed it again when the young girl at the local supermarket made the same gesture. Apparently this is a sign of respect to the customer, it can be as subtle as the tip of their  right finger  brushing their left forearm, as the change is held out in their left hand, right down to grasping their entire left wrist. I now look for the gesture each time and am slightly disappointed if I don't see it. I tell my husband I cant wait until the restaurant is open, so when I am returning change to our customers I can do the same. I suppose it is no coincidence that I have yet to see the staff at KFC or McDonald's use this traditional custom. It probably disappeared years ago in their pursuit of westernization.

Each day I see  the family of cows on Thalakottowa Road that  take their place in the bus stop, either sheltering from the sun or the rain, then casually stroll down the center of the road at 5.30pm, oblivious to the evening traffic having to weave  around them as they make their way home. I've watched the man on his bike with a board attached to the front filled with lottery tickets, selling the chance to live a dream for 5 rupees. He should have retired years ago but when a country has no pension scheme you need to keep working to put food on the table.

I would stop and talk to Nimal, the man who spends his life feeding the stray dogs that wander the streets. Each day I see him parked on the side of the road in his battered pick up truck, filling dozens of bowls from a huge pot filled with  25 kilos of red rice and cooked meat scraps. It took me a few weeks before I finally stopped and asked him his story.  I watched one day as he drove up, dozens of dogs running beside him knowing they were about to be fed. He was a softly spoken man and I liked him immediately, he has no job, no family and probably little for himself but it makes him happy to care for these strays. He relies on donations to buy the food and because he didn't ask me for money, something a lot of people here are not shy to do, I gave him what I had in my pocket. I wonder what he must think about the newspaper reports that the council are rounding up all the strays before CHOGM commences. It is said the dogs are being "re-housed", but in a country that has trouble housing it's own citizens, its one of those phrases that makes you go.. Mmmm

I've walked for hours down Lake Drive near our home looking for the elusive "lake", which is still to be found. The roads meander along weaving in and out of the jungle making no grid pattern at all. Most times they eventually lead back to a main road where with the aid of modern technology I Google map my way home, but sometimes rather frustratingly they suddenly stop and you have to retrace your steps and try a different lane, of course this generally happens when you're tired and just want to get home. I once came across an old red telephone box. A relic from the  British days. I haven't seen one of these since I was a kid. It was resting a little lopsided, the glass so weathered with time you can barely see through. The telephone inside long gone. Vines were weaving their way  inside slowly climbing up the side before they will eventually cover Her Majesty's Royal Crest. It is often said that if everyone were to leave Colombo and come back in a month, the jungle will have reclaimed everything that was taken. So fertile is the land, the sticks that are used to make front fences to peoples properties resprout and continue to grow making a living fence.

So after 4 months and countless kilometers it was time to head North to start " Beefy's Big Sri Lanka Walk". David was accompanying me, as the start of the walk  coincided with The Murali Cup.  An annual schoolboy cricket tournament run by the Foundation of Goodness to bring students from the North and South together.

It's an 8 hour train ride from Colombo to Killinochchi on newly laid tracks, one that luckily we didn't have to take. I had struck up a friendship with Sarah Botham, Sir Ian's eldest daughter when I had offered to help with preparations for the walk, by involving the local schools. She had taken me up on my offer and before I knew it was driving her around Colombo helping to map out the route for day 5 of the walk. It was a challenge to get the course to run past all the major landmarks, out past the new parliament and back into the finish at Premadassa Stadium...the home of cricket in Colombo......but 29km later we managed it, even got the course to run past the site of our restaurant so David could give me a wave.

She offered us a spot on the air force plane that had been specially chartered to fly Sir Ian and his crew North. It was rather surreal sitting amongst such elite company. How did a girl from Shepparton end up on an air force jet in Sri Lanka with Sir Ian and Lady Botham, Sri Lankan cricket legend Mahela Jayawardnene, and member's of the British Press. David was reliving his youth, having grown up with a father in the Royal air force he was quite used to hitching rides on military planes, we were both like kids again.
Arriving in Killiochchi at the Air force base to a traditional Sri Lankan welcome

30mins later we landed at the Iranamadu air force base in Killinochchci to a traditional welcome complete with Kandyan Dancers. The atmosphere was one of excitement and expectation from the military personnel all eager to catch a glimpse of Sir Ian and of course their own Mahela Jayawardene. We were now smack bang in the middle of former terrorist country. This base was once fully controlled by the LTTE  (Liberation Tamil Tigers Eelam) terrorist group. I found my eyes wandering across the airstrip to the tree line, searching, looking for a glimpse of movement, imagining them still out there, ...waiting.

We boarded the buses and were transported to our accommodation for the evening. Even though the North is undergoing a rapid re building programme, hotel accommodation is not high on the priority list, so with over 30 people needing a bed for the night it was off to the Army barracks at Mankulam for us.

Bumping along the narrow dirt tracks winding our way through the jungle. I stared out the window, you couldn't help but wonder how many lives had been cut short out here, these barracks had been captured and then fallen several times by both sides in the 30 year conflict. Soldiers were stationed at strategic points along the way directing the bus. There were dozens of tracks criss crossing each other and if you took the wrong one you could be there for weeks trying to find your way out. The huts were screened from above by the thick canopy of trees, only a sliver of light managing to filter through. The whole camp just melted into the surroundings, even in peace time it was well camouflaged.

We were shown to our assigned hut. Two letters waiting. One apologizing for the simpleness of the accommodation, reminding us this was actually a working training camp for the military. The other, an invitation to join Major General Udaya Perera for a "Jungle Dinner."  There was nothing simple about the meal. The army had pulled out all the stops and provided a banquet to feed .......well, to feed an army. With everyone  intent on carb loading to the max, we all ran around eating the traditional Hoppers, Kottu Rotti and Meat Bites. When I was finally done, I heard the announcement  "Please move to the tents for our three course banquet". Mmmm didn't see that coming. Might have gone out too fast and too hard, but Ehh! I'm about to walk 250km, whose counting calories now!.

Next morning we were up at the crack of dawn, acrobats performing somersaults in my stomach as I thought about the next 8 days. I slowly laced up my shoes making sure there were no creases in my socks, checked straps were flat, shorts weren't twisted, the slightest bump or scrunch in clothing now could lead to massive blisters or chafing once the sweat started flowing. I could already feel it trickling down my back, today was going to be a scorcher.

An hour later we were at the start line of 250km and 8 days of walking. The temperature for today would hit 40 and then hover around the mid thirties for the rest of the week with the humidity peaking at over 90%.  I ditched my sunglasses after one day when I looked in the mirror that evening and became slightly alarmed at the raccoon effect they had created on my face.

The guard of honor at the opening of The Murali Cup and then the beginning of the walk
Our first day was 29km, I had no problem with the distance, it was the relentless pace that I had been told Sir Ian would set. After the initial formalities had finished we lined up behind the marching band to start our first day. Various ministers and dignitaries were in the front row all clamoring to get the prized spot beside Sir Ian, his wife Kathy and Mahela. Then there were members of his crew, next were the walkers who had flown over from England and Myself and behind us were 3000 members of the military. The cheer went up, the band began to play and we were off. Starting with a casual stroll, smiling and waving at the crowd and the assembled media. I was waiting for the signal I knew was coming. After a few minutes I heard Sarah Botham yell out "OK we need to loose the band and start walking" Several people looked up, confusion on their faces, isn't that what we're doing?  With this, Sir Ian put his head down, squared his shoulders and cranked it up several notches, I knew it was coming and was ready, but the startled look on the local member's in the front row was priceless. They quickly fell into a trot, suddenly realizing their choice of long pants, business shirts and shiny leather shoes was not really appropriate for the day ahead. It wasn't long before they had been left far behind, probably already telling the story to anyone who would listen, how they had walked beside Ian Botham, England's greatest cricketer.

I chatted with Mahela for 6 or 7 kilometers before he too fell behind. The last I saw he was posing for yet another photo with members of the walking public. He sought me out at the finish line having been whisked away at one point to toss the coin at another of the Murali cup cricket matches. He had come to shake my hand and reclaim his phone that he ditched earlier in my hydration bag.

Arriving at the elephant orphanage (note the spelling on the sign), Children lining the streets and one of the walker's feet


Sri Lankan's love their cricket and if they can get up close and personal to a cricketer they will. It wasn't long before a protective barrier was set up around Botham. He had a minder on each side to shoo away anyone who tried to get too close and break his stride, from the moment he started in the morning until  he passed the finish line each day he stopped for no one. This included local Mayors left standing at the side of the road still holding the garland they had planned to place around his neck as he walked by. A look of disappointment on their face realizing they had just missed their big photo opportunity.

By day three I had earn't my place in the second row protecting Ian's personal foot space, one by one the walkers and crew were succumbing to the heat and were beginning to drop off, spending more time in the bus traveling at the rear picking up those lagging behind. If you didn't keep up with the main group it became too dangerous. Even though there were meant to be rolling road closures, that didn't stop the odd bus or truck from lumbering past so close you could feel the heat from their exhaust. This is Sri Lanka, land of organized chaos, the promised electrolytes only eventuated on the first day after that you had to supply your own. Easily remedied in Melbourne slightly more difficult  in the former war ravaged North.
Meeting the locals at Sigiriya, Botham relaxing after the heat..look at the size of those calf muscles and children receiving filtered re usable water bottles

We had our own ute traveling in the front handing out water, but  by the fourth day which was 40km I was beginning to feel the lack of salts and minerals taking their toll. The sweat just pours off you, I counted Ian drinking 23 bottles (600ml ) on that day, I drank 12....and you still didnt need to go to the bathroom, you just sweated it all out.  When the tarmac began to rise up and swim before me at 32km, I knew I had to admit defeat before it was too late and bang on the side of the dreaded bus. The door opened, a blast of cool air hit me. One of the boys who had already pulled the pin dropped a tablet from his private stash into a cold bottle of water instantly turning it orange and held it out for me.

I have taken part in a number of endurance events over the years and the thing I love most is the camaraderie that develops  amongst the competitors. Everyone feels the same pain, we all know what is hurting, how much effort we put in before we came. Its a time to prove to ourselves that we are not just "ordinary". We unite as one to push each other over the finish line at the end of each day. We compare blisters in the evening, exchange pain killers for anti biotics, trade sticking plasters for sunscreen. We always laugh at why we put ourselves though events like these, swearing we are getting too old and this is the last time, only to find ourselves trawling the internet a few months later looking for the next challenge.

So draining the last of my drink, throwing off the wet towel, 10 minutes later I jump off the bus. The boys move aside and let me back into my row, giving me a slap on the back and a smile.
Kumar Sangakkara and Ian Botham, that's me behind them on the right

So the pattern developed for all 8 days. The heat was daunting, the humidity oppressive and the crowds were debilitating. We passed through countless villages, the further South we walked the larger the crowds. The larger the crowds, the harder to walk. They all wanted to be at the front, you found them swarming in from the sides, walking so close you were constantly being tripped up, trucks would pull up and 50 people would jump out at a time and join the walk. You couldn't begrudge their excitement, the Botham juggernaut was rolling through town and they wanted to be a part of it. Each day there was a celebrity guest, usually current and former cricketers the likes of Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Steve Waugh, Alan Border, Saurav Ganguly, Sunil Gavaskar, South African Rugby great Mornay du Plessis even Murali on the last day. In fact Murali, Alan Border and Mornay  were the only celebrities to complete an entire day's walk.
Mornay du Plessis, Alan Border, Kushil Gunasekera, Ian Botham ,and Murali.
Sir Ian being interviewed by British Sky while soaking in the beach.
Sourav Ganguly , Sunil Gavaskar and Ian Botham

On the day through Colombo my son and his school joined us at the start. I quickly filled the teachers in on what to expect. This was no gentle stroll. The "Elizabeth Moir School" had been generous fundraisers for The Foundation of Goodness in the past so Sir Ian took a minute to pose for photographs before we commenced. I laughed when I saw the pictures on the coveted back page of the sports section the next day.  I rang my son. "Mum walks flat out for 5 days in the melting sun and nothing!!! You rock up for 5 minutes and you're on the back page of the paper...How does that work ?" He just laughed.
My son and his school, and Taking a dip after a long day's walk

I had spent most of the Colombo morning slowly jogging alongside the lead police vehicle through the city center. They had directions, but  seemed intent on  taking their own route. Finally I positioned myself right at the front directing the convoy which way to go. Next day all the kids at my sons school had said wow "Your mum was wining the race" When I asked if he had corrected them, it wasn't a race I was put in front to show the way, he just grinned, "Nah they think you're cool"...that's a first. When he originally found out the school was walking with us, he had asked me if I could dress "a little bit nice." 14 year old  boys ????

On our last day we walked from Galle to Seenigama. This is where the Foundation all began. Kushil Gunasekera had given up his job, his life and his family estate, to turn it into a thriving community workshop, intent on helping those less fortunate. After the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami, Sporting, Entertainment and Political greats had all given their money to Kushil knowing the funds would go directly to where they were meant to. Seenigama village now boasts the best self funded sporting, educational and training programmes in Sri Lanka. Tsunami orphans have gone on to lead  productive lives, guided by Kushil instead of their parents. Some are now representing their country at elite levels because of the sponsorship and training they have received at the Foundation. Parents were given the opportunity to pick up their lives after losing children, being re housed through funds raised by the Foundation.
Alan Border

Ian Botham
So as I pulled on my sneakers for the last day of walking. My shins were screaming from 7 days on the hard roads.The several toenails that had threatened to abandon me, had given up and decided to stay, attached only from the swelling holding them in
place.

The doctor came through for me and gave me what can only be described as magic pills. The atmosphere today was electric, everyone knew we were almost done. Even the water truck that for the past 7 days had been wailing Sinhala music from the loud speakers was playing Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. We danced all the way to the finish line.

Murali thanking Ian and Sarah Botham along with Kushil
The last kilometer was down a narrow lane where we would finish at the Seenigama Cricket Ground, built with funds donated by the MCC in England. It was lined with literally hundreds and hundreds of school children waving their Union Jacks high in the air in honor of Sir Ian Botham. They were cheering and clapping, willing us the last few hundred meters. The pace quickened, we started to trot, rounded the last bend, through the gates and then we were spilling onto the cricket ground.....it was over.
Raising the Union Jack, my team mates and Murali giving his thanks

I stood their searching for my family, they were proud of what I had been a part of and wanted to share the last day. I hugged my husband and buried my face in my children's hair. I had finished at last. Now it was time to soak up the glory, listen to the thank you speeches, pose for last pictures and go back to being ordinary.......not such a bad thing. I needed some time now to be a mum and a wife. I had been gone too long, walked too many miles, ..............maybe its time stay on the bus for a little while.
Finished up with a nice tan......not sure about the feet

FUNDS RAISED FROM "BEEFY'S BIG SRI LANKA WALK" ARE GOING TO THE FOUNDATION OF GOODNESS AND LAUREUS FOR SPORTS FOUNDATION.  

THE FOUNDATION OF GOODNESS ARE REPLICATING THE AMAZING WORK THEY HAVE ACHIEVED IN SEENIGAMA AND TAKING IT TO THE NORTH OF SRI LANKA, TO HELP REBUILD COMMUNITIES THAT HAVE BEEN RAVAGED BY 30 YEARS OF WAR.

PLEASE TAKE SOME TIME TO LOOK AT THEIR WEBSITE 

7 comments:

  1. Absolutely astonishing. Well done. I note your comment "It was rather surreal sitting amongst such elite company", but you undersell yourself. In that professional group you were the elite. You have a big heart.

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  2. Cathy - that was brilliant. You never fail to impress and inspire me. I'm waiting to hear what your next challenge is ;-)
    Donna xx

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    1. Thanks Donna, glad you're not getting bored. Coming back at Christmas we have to catch up !!

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  3. Have been following your posts and it is wonderful to read that you were a part of this great walk. I am a Sri Lankan living abroad and salute you. Great job !

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    1. Thanks so much. This is a great country and I'm lucky to be able to help.

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