I’m looking out upon a place that could lose its remote status fast.
The view from my window is a beach. A big beach with nothing on it but some fisherman huts and boats. I get up in the morning and walk down it.
This is Hambantota, a place that the Sri Lankan government has been trying hard to change by any means necessary, sparing no expense for the past five years.
It started out as the dream of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa: to transform his remote, feral home region into the country’s number two city. A massive deep sea port would be built, an industrial zone delineated, an international airport would be dropped between two wildlife preserves, a massive conference center erected, a cricket stadium thrown up, hundreds of kilometers of new highways laid, and a hotel and leisure area planned. It was to be a completely new city built out in the jungle — an entirely new economy — almost completely financed with Chinese money.
But I look out of my window it is clear that the Hambantota dream is still a work in progress. The massive infrastructure projects have yet to have any real observable local impact in terms of business development, seemingly operating in virtual isolation from their surroundings. All of a sudden there was a deep sea port, an international airport, a massive conference center — life goes on.
The deep sea port is located in a place that the locals now call China Harbor. There is no subverting the fact that what started out as a local president’s vision that was financed with Chinese money has become a Chinese project, more and more owned and operated by China. Sri Lanka couldn’t pay their debtor, they couldn’t properly develop their projects, so China is slowly taking over. Hambantota is to become a major station on China’s Maritime Silk Road.
The local reaction?
“We don’t want to see it like Dubai, with big buildings everywhere and no trees,” said a local man who works at a small hotel. “This is Sri Lanka, we like green. All of this development, I’ve seen it since I was a kid. They make some new buildings but the city, the city is still the same.”
When asked what he thinks of China Harbor he just shrugged, as though it was something remote and irrelevant, far removed from his life and hometown, rather than the fortress right down the beach.
“The old government they start something then the new government they are slow to keep doing it.”
He shrugged and walked away. It had nothing to do with him.
I walked down the beach and was waved over by some young fishermen. They saw me taking photos of their boats, which they painted up in many different colors — one being done up to look like a Jamaican flag with a Bob Marley head.
They were sitting in a circle under a shoddily assembled stick and palapa hut. They had bloodshot eyes. The port had nothing to do with them, either. The only impact that it had was that they can’t fish in some of the places they used to and they now have to dodge the occasional freighter. They looked at me and smiled, invited me to sit down. I asked them questions. They just smiled.
I came upon a thatched hut that two fishermen were sitting in front of. I asked about the port — the impact it has had on their lives and livelihood.
“They make it fail,” he said, pointing out the fact that very few ships actually come into the port.
“Is the fishing worse now?” I asked.
“Yes, very worse.”
“Can you fish by the port?”
“No, they have navy. Very dangerous.”
I walked to town and flagged down a tuk-tuk. I wanted to go into the port. I was chased away by a security guard after I walked in through a construction area earlier, so I made to go in through the front door. I’ve been vising ports all across Southeast and South Asia during these research travels, and it is usually a rather involved process to get the proper accreditation to get inside. Not really complicated, just time consuming. I didn’t bother setting this up for Hambantota — my biggest interest here was the local impact. But the locals seemed to give me favorable odds at getting in.
“Can I visit the port?”
“Just go in.”
So I tried it. I got off the tuk-tuk at the administrative office, introduced myself, told them what I was doing, and asked if I could have a tour of the port.
The big, mustached man behind the desk shrugged and nodded. “Sure. What is your license plate number?”
“I don’t have a car.”
He looked puzzled, and said if I had a car that he could give me an entrance permit without any difficulties. I kept pushing the matter, asking for other options. He told me that I could sit outside the office and ask to tag along in the car of another visitor. However, he had no idea when another would show up.
I grabbed a chair and set it up in the shade outside, faced the parking lot, and waited. I fell asleep. When I woke up I noticed one of the office workers and the guards were flagging down cars as they passed by on the road. Were they helping me? One of the guys glanced back at me somewhat purposefully. They were.
Eventually, they found a guy with a car who had nothing better to do. I ran over and jumped in, accompanied by a port administrator.
We drove into the port through the phase II section, which was currently under construction. There was hardly even a road. I asked my questions, received answers, and got the photos I wanted for articles, the book, etc.
Life goes on in Hambantota as though the international port and the airport and all of the other big development projects didn’t exist. The rural status-quo churns onward in spite of the landscape is physically changing. This is an attitude that I’ve seen along many stops of the New Silk Road. These massive infrastructure projects are often happening without much local engagement, as though somehow encapsulated, removed from the local ecosystem.
But this is only the first act of a very, very long show. The infrastructure framework is what is being put together now, and this is something that rarely produces immediate returns. However, after these pieces are in place, slowly, slowly city grows up around them. Slowly, everything changes — often to the extent that we will forget that the little village, the stoned fishermen and their Bob Marley boats, and the empty stretches of beach were ever there. We will then just take it for granted that the city has always been.
The events described here occurred in March 2016.
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