The Sunday Leader

Trip To Trinco

By Michael Hardy

Trinco offers stunning sights but harassment of females is a big issue

Every year the Stri Kamkaru Madyasthanaya Women’s Center, a non-profit organisation based in Katunayake, plans a weekend trip for garment factory workers to a different part of the country. For this year’s trip, the first since the end of the war, the Center chose to visit Trincomalee and the surrounding areas.
Because my fiancée Nimanthi is conducting research in the free trade zone, the Center invited both of us to tag along with the 75 or so women as they journeyed by bus across the island. Never having visited Trinco, I gladly accepted the offer. We wouldn’t be taking the shortest or the most comfortable route to the east, but the trip would be free and I would get to meet the subjects of Nimanthi’s research.

Because the garment workers weren’t able to take any days off work, the entire trip had to be compressed into two days, which meant leaving from Katunayake at 4 in the morning last Saturday and arriving back late on Sunday night. The workers, all women, mostly in their twenties, had worked the night before until 10 o’clock, as they had every night that week. The women had been forced to work mandatory overtime — from 7 in the morning to 10 at night — because their previous batch of clothing had been rejected by quality control. Despite this grueling workload, the women chatted excitedly as they boarded the early morning buses. Their anticipation of the trip was obviously stronger than their fatigue.

After our bus departed Katunayake I immediately dozed off. When I woke up it was 11 a.m. and I was covered in dust. As I brushed off my clothes Nimanthi told me that we had driven through a stretch of dirt road that had sent clouds of dust swirling through the bus. “I don’t know how you slept through it,” she said enviously. Soon after I woke up our bus arrived at Seruvila Temple, near Muttur, the first stop on our itinerary. The women fished brushes out of their bags and began combing the dirt out of their long hair in preparation for their visit to the repository of Buddha’s brow. “Of course, nobody really knows if the brow is there,” Nimanthi made the mistake of saying to one of the women. “Of course it’s there!” the woman exclaimed. “It’s a historical fact!”

At the temple, Nimanthi and I relaxed in the shade of a bo tree while the women walked around the stupa and explored the temple grounds. “Are you a Christian?” one woman asked me in Sinhalese. Through Nimanthi’s translation I replied that I wasn’t. “Why not?” the woman asked. I’ve been asked the same question before in Sri Lanka, often by complete strangers. As usual, I didn’t feel comfortable answering honestly. “I don’t know,” I said. The woman walked away with a look of disapproval.

We lingered at the temple for about an hour, waiting to rendezvous with a bus from a free trade zone in the south. This bus had left even earlier in the morning than we did, and would be arriving home even later on Sunday night. When it finally arrived we headed off together, convoy-style, towards the coast. Our route took us along uneven dirt roads through villages that had formerly been LTTE strongholds. A temporary bridge had been built across one river since the LTTE had destroyed the original bridge during their retreat.

Although there was some evidence of reconstruction (we saw an enormous new school for Sinhalese children that was unoccupied because of the inconvenient fact that there were no Sinhalese people in the area) most of the areas we traveled through seemed like they hadn’t changed in decades.

After a time-consuming wrong turn, we finally ended up at the coast in time to catch the 2:45 ferry to Trinco. It’s possible to drive or take the train directly into town, but the Women’s Center members who organised the trip wanted to go by sea. The harbour and its green islands were a stunning sight as we motored through them in our small vessel. We passed an enormous ocean tanker docked next to the factory that supplies grain to all of Sri Lanka, and we spotted a gleaming white yacht filled with tourists.

By the time we finally made it into Trincomalee town it was too late to visit Nilaveli Beach, so we camped out instead on the city beach. Here, the garment workers were plagued by the same problem faced by all Sri Lankan women on all Sri Lankan beaches (and not just on the beaches): sexual harassment. Aware of this, Nimanthi and a friend chose a deserted section of the beach to go swimming. But no sooner had they entered the water groups of men began wandering in their direction, as if drawn by an invisible magnet. “How are you doing?” they shouted. “Want to hang out with us?”

Even after I chased them off, these men simply retreated about 50 feet away and continued to stare at the women. Another garment worker, we learned later, had been accosted by men in a truck while she was walking along the road. “Jump in!” the men urged her. Naturally, she declined this lewd offer.

The harassment was even worse the next day at Nilaveli. Even with me next to them, Nimanthi and the other women continued to get lewd comments from the men who kept us constantly encircled. Once, when I was away for a few minutes, one man grabbed Nimanthi’s breast while she was underwater. Furious, Nimanthi chased the man down and slapped his face. Unbelievably, even this did not deter the pervert. I had to confront the man myself before he slunk off to harass some other woman. Why do grown Sri Lankan men feel they have the right to lurk around beaches all day, harassing random women?

On Sunday afternoon the garment workers boarded their buses and began the long drive back home. Wanting to stay longer, Nimanthi and I checked into the Nilaveli Beach Hotel for the night. The original hotel was almost entirely destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, but the rebuilt facilities were, according to Nimanthi, an improvement on the original. After two days of travel and stress, we spent a postcard-perfect Monday swimming in the ocean and tanning by the hotel pool. Traveling with the garment workers had been interesting, we both agreed, but we also understood why the Women’s Center only organised one such trip a year. I had learned a lot of things over the course of three days; one of them is that it’s a lot easier traveling with one woman than with 75 of them.

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