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SRI LANKA Nostalgic essays and stories.............We cross the border!..madpage

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I Crossed The Line or Island Paradise Lost
by Gyan Fernando
Only the beer was real.....

With the bleak British winter fast approaching the MadPage had an overwhelming desire to return to the island republic that we love. A beautiful island if ever there was one. Blue skies, ditto sea, green central mountains reaching up to 7000ft..Ahhh!. The only
problem as everyone knows is the tragic and traumatic division of the country. The Northern part of the island is a no-go area. There is very little love lost between the two communities. Years of communal riots since independence from the Brits, followed by a disastrous civil war, had seen to that.

Separate State
A disastrous attack on the country's only airport soon followed by an invasion of a strategic natural harbour in the eastern part heralded the final dramatic division of the country. The United Nations was called in and to cut a long story short the country was divided up on a North-South basis.
Just as the minority had wanted!
This of course meant that the minority community numbering 18% of the population inherited 33% of the land. The UN maintained the border (or rather the buffer zone) mostly for the exchange of refugees...and to prevent the diehards from either side starting another war.
The Madpage wanted to visit the north. As a token gesture. To remember the glorious past. A small island like that cannot be divided we said.
Well meaning friends and associates tried to warn us that it was not easy to visit the north. There is no public transport across the border. No cars allowed across the border. We can walk we said. You need special clearance they said. We are special we said. There is a risk they said. We are used to risks we said. You are mad they said. That's true we said.

Such minor problems never stopped the MadPage in taking part in dangerous expeditions especially where officialdom was involved. Why do we need passports. Surely the Portuguese, the Dutch and the Brits didn't carry passports when they visited other people's countries to set up trading posts and missions and invade!......

The Crossing
The day was a bright sunny day as almost all days are like in this paradise. By mid day the temp would be nudging 34 degs Celsius. We started early in the morning having first spied out the land on the previous day. It's a good practice to spy out the land first.
There was only one border crossing point along the whole 500 km of border. Easy to control a border that way.

At a very early stage Mrs Madpage had indicated that however
much she loved the country etc that there was no way she was going to the north. It was dangerous she said. So is crossing the road we countered. We had been through this sort of argument before.......

Our research had indicated that as long as one held a foreign passport and especially if it was a British passport the crossing was not too difficult.
We parked the car as soon as we saw the blue UN warning signs and walked the half a mile or so to the barb-wired border post. No need to get shot by trigger-happy border guards. Mrs. MadPage decided to sit safely in The South under a tree near a "Petti Kade" (shack) and have a Coke. Petti Kades with Coca Cola signs grow anywhere....

Trilingual and Triplicate
It was clear that the border guards didn't want anybody to visit the north.
These were the usual officious-looking non-smiling lot typically seen at airport immigration desks and tax offices. "Why do you want to...Have you got friends or relatives...Where were you born.....Passport!....No photos, no camera!.....Fill this form.."
The standard trilingual forms were produced.
Officialdom has always irritated the MadPage but we can be a diplomatic arsehole when we want to be. We smiled broadly. Turned to the only female border guard, turned on the charm (or what was left of it after 52 years) and asked for a pen!

Having found no fault with our passport and paperwork we were grudgingly allowed across into the No-Man's-Land.
It was a rather lonely crossing. Rusty barbed wire. Former houses now derelict buildings pockmarked with bullet holes. Minie-Mal (Vinca rosea) and Gandapana flowers flourished. Smell of blocked drains. A few flies.
We were now in the UN buffer zone designed to keep a healthy distance between the two factions. The UN had commandeered a tourist hotel and was using it as their base. Laundry was hanging out of windows. A few soldiers lounged around..We are only here for the beer.....The natives can kill each other if they want to....they seemed to say. They took no notice of the middle-aged beer bellied and balding MadPage, dressed in shorts and in trainers!..

The North
We walked the lonely quarter mile and arrived at the "other" border post and the other border guards. Slightly friendlier lot. Not many cross the border. We are bored!
Signs clearly indicated that we were now about to enter a new country. A new flag. More form filling and then we actually stepped into the North! We were in the newly created Republic!
Yes! We had crossed the line!

Another short walk in the hot sun along a dusty road. We were now in the north but it was not much different. A few derelict cadjan/corrugated iron (Takaran) huts with no signs of life. Battle scars. Dust everywhere. Beginning to regret having worn tight Y-fronts instead of boxer shorts. Sweat and dust and walking have an abrasive effect on the nether regions. Salty sweat poured down the forehead.
And then a red flash amongst the trees and YES! It is not a mirage! "Enjoy Coca Cola" the sign exhorts. The unmistakable, universal and internationally recognisable logo. Almost like the Red Cross. Probably more recognisable than the Red Cross. A welcoming sign!!

We sat down on a plastic chair in the shack (Petti Kade) Or rather outside and in the shade. Limited choice we thought. Probably lukewarm Coke or warm Coke we thought. Or no Coke! Pleasantly surprised to find chilled local beer and a clean glass.

"Any currency welcome, Sir!" said the dark swarthy moustachioed bare bodied man who was obviously the owner of the shack and who was rather reluctantly taking time off from the card game he was playing with his cronies to serve the MadPage. We probably paid over the odds for the beer but who cares. A clean ashtray appeared.
The beer tasted great! We had crossed the line! Mrs MadPage was probably only half a mile away from where we sat but was in a different country. We were in the newly created Separate State with its own economy, own currency, car number plates and even their own beer!. What a world!
What a tragic world! Only the beer is real...we thought.

A lean, sleek, non-potbellied stray cat scratched its right ear vigourously with its right hind paw, looked at the MadPage curiously but briefly, sniffed the air in the immediate vicinity of the MadPage, found the bouquet uninteresting and then got to work on the left ear. With the left hind paw.
The cat could cross the border if it wanted to we thought...without paperwork...cats can't write and therefore can't fill forms....its only the humans who have problems...
A mistake to get down from the trees..but then if we had stayed up on the trees we could have fallen out of them.....on the other hand if we had asked the Americans........Perish the thought!.

Only the beer was real!
The crossing back was uneventful and boring. Mrs MadP was still sitting under the tree. The guards completed their paperwork. One MadPage in one MadPage out.
Historical note: On the 20th of September 2001, the MadPage crossed the so-called "Green Line" which divides Cyprus. The northern half is Turkish Cypriot and the south Greek Cypriot. The only crossing point is in Nicosia at the Ledra Palace Hotel crossing. The Ledra Palace Hotel is occupied by UN soldiers. The crossing is not sign-posted, not easy to find and for all intents and purposes does not exist! The officialdom in the south was rather formidable. The crossing is dusty and the derelict buildings show battle scars. Wild flowers of the types seen in Srilanka and as described above, cover most of the scars. The above is a fairly accurate account with very little poetic license...
Cyprus was "sold" to the British in 1925 and was later bought back in the form of "Independence". Communal problems started off as soon as the Brits said Bye! Bye! Turkey invaded the north on the 20th of July 1974. Within days the country was partitioned off. UN soldiers were inserted between the battle lines. In 1983 the Turkish North declared itself the TURKISH REPUBLIC OF NORTH CYPRUS. Familiar story!....A lesson too late for the learning....

©Copyright Gyan Fernando 2001 First written on the 23rd of September 2001
Chandrika and I | Erik Solheim & I | My Part in the Census | Census Again! | Not Cricket! | My Part in my Funeral | The Gamarala and the Temple | Gamarala and the Puhul | Two men and the bear | Incense and Candlewax | Fasting & Feasting | My Father & The Devil

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