How did I end up in a hotel room with a Swedish missionary lady! I must add, rather quickly, that my wife Christine was also present, and that we slept the night fully clothed. Things started going wrong when we discovered that the plane which was to take us back to Colombo had been hijacked by a bank for their own use. We had no option but to travel back by car. We arrived at Vavuniya late at night and found a Sri Lankan “rest house” with only one room available for the three of us.
The travel company which should have provided seats on the aeroplane, said that they would do their best to get us back to Colombo in time for us to get a flight home to United Kingdom. They hired a local taxi and we sat in rather cramped conditions in an overcrowded car, with a driver, the travel representative, Christine, myself, Anita (the Swedish missionary), and a newly married couple on their honeymoon!
Now before we moved to our present house, we lived in a unmade-up road which put considerable strain on every car we owned. When our Sri Lankan friends saw our road they nicknamed it “Jaffna Road”. However, 25 years ago, the real road to Jaffna was considerably worse, with enormous potholes. Because the car was so fully loaded, several times we all had to get out and walk, while the driver picked his way around, or across, the potholes.
The town of Jaffna is on the Jaffna peninsula, which is almost an island, joined to the rest of Sri Lanka by a causeway known as, “Elephant Pass”. Across this causeway went the road, and a railway line which unfortunately was longer in use. Because of its strategic location, Elephant Pass has been fought over several times between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army.
After a very uncomfortable ride, we arrived at Vavuniya just as it was getting dark. Because of the political tension, there was a curfew in place, so we needed to stop there for the night. Vavuniya forms the boundary between the Tamil North and the Sinhala South. As the taxi driver was from Jaffna he was unwilling to drive us any further, so we would have to find new transport to take us the rest of our journey.
The taxi driver took us to a rest house having told us that there was no other alternative. They had a room available for the newly married couple and just one room, with three beds, that we would need to share with Anita. The room, to put it bluntly, was rather grim. There was bottles of water on the side for our use, but there were no top on the bottles and the water looked stagnant! The “bathroom” had a cold water shower and a filthy sink with no plug.
The hotel staff asked us whether we wanted anything to eat, and we all said in unison, “No thanks!”. Anita had been in Sri Lanka for many years, and was more used to being prepared for every eventuality. She opened her bag and produce some egg sandwiches and bananas which she shared with us along with a flask of hot coffee.
Anita, Hannah and the Elim Children’s Home
Anita Vorde was a Swedish lady who had lived in Sri Lanka as a long-term “missionary”. Amongst other things, she looked after the Elim Children’s Home in Jaffna. When I visited in 1988 there were about 100 children being cared for in the home.
The home was originally started by a Swedish lady called Hannah Larsson. As well as starting the children’s home, she was involved in other humanitarian work and founded many of the churches in the Jaffna region. She is still remembered fondly by everybody I met. A few years ago I met her as she made, what was to be her final visit to Sri Lanka. She was a very gracious lady who was genuinely glad that we were involved with the home and helping people in the Jaffna area.
Most of the funding for the children’s home came from Sweden but we were able to send a small amount of funds to the home over a number of years.
I was later to discover that the Sri Lankan church and its people owed a great debt to the Swedish missionaries who came not only to found churches, but to care for people living in poverty as well. I found churches in Colombo, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Killinochchi and Jaffna had all been originally founded by the Swedes. But wherever they went they spread the whole gospel including “good news for the poor”.
On to Colombo
The next morning, after a breakfast of egg sandwiches and bananas again, the travel company representative told us that he would arrange a taxi, later on that morning, to take us on to Colombo, in time to get our flight home. Looking out the window of the rest house I could see the railway station at the Vavuniya. The train line that originally ran all the way to Jaffna, now terminates at the Vavuniya. Now my confidence level with the travel company was rather less than 100% so I decided to walk to the station to find out about trains, so now I had a plan B, in case the company couldn’t find somebody to take us all the way to Colombo. However, we didn’t need to take the train option, because later on that morning a car arrived to take us the rest of our journey.
We stopped at a place on the coast called Chillow and had some lunch. When we were within striking distance of Colombo the car broke down! I think that in Sri Lanka at that time, the concept of preventative maintenance was unknown. Basically you drove a car until it packed in, then you fixed it, and then carried on driving. We stood by the side of the road for some time while a spare part was obtained, the car was fixed, and we could continue our journey.
This journey was fairly typical in my travels around developing countries. Things seldom go like clockwork and yet God has always protected me and I have had a lot of patience to learn. In a sense such experiences are good in that life in poorer countries is not straightforward and learning to cope with pressures and difficulties is one way I can relate to the lives of people who live elsewhere in the world.
- Visiting Jaffna (georgedowdell.org)
- My first visit to Sri Lanka (georgedowdell.org)