Moonlight Beach Hotel Nilaveli- a story of triumph and tragedy

"We left the hotel for the last time in March 1983. 'Black July' of that year brought about a radical transformation in the once placid Nilaveli area. With the infiltration of LTTE elements and the brain- washing that took place the attitude of the people began to change. A tide of resentment and hatred started to creep in. Although on the surface life went on as usual the undercurrent of hatred and the desire to bring the Trincomalee district under Eelam was simmering below."

by Walter Rupesinghe

(September 27, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Some of the best beaches in Sri Lanka are found on the east coast of the country. North of Trincomalee are the fabulous beaches of Marble Bay, Sweat Bay and Dead Mans Cove, Uppuveli, Nilaveli and Kuchchaveli. South of Trincomalee are the equally beautiful beaches of Passekudah, Kalkudah and Arugam Bay.

The American consortium of travel consultants, Harris Kerr Foster who were commissioned by the government in 1966 to prepare a Master plan for tourist development in Sri Lanka visited the east coast during their assignment and were so fascinated by Marble Bay, Sweat Bay and Dead Man's cove, that they recommended an ambitious plan for the development of the area on a priority basis. However this did not materialize for various reasons and the Tourist Board's efforts were concentrated on the development of the south west coast of the island.

The beginning

In 1973 I resigned from my position as a director of the Tourist Board and accepted appointment as the Airlines Hotels and Travel Director in the prestigious firm of Carson Cumberbatch & Co., Ltd. Carsons decided to build a tourist hotel at Nilaveli some 11 mites north of Trincomalee and I was assigned the task of supervising the construction of the hotel and arranging for it to be brought into operation as soon as possible. Even though the site was almost 170 miles from Colombo I accepted the challenge with a great deal of enthusiasm.

When 1 mentioned this to my effervescent wife Siri, who had always been bitten by the travel bug, she was delighted and offered to help me in every possible way to make the hotel a reality. That gave me a tot of strength and courage.

We drove down to Nilaveli during the weekend to see the site of the proposed hotel. To say the least it was just fantastic. Miles of lazy spotless beaches, shallow blue green sea and the impressive form of Pigeon Island, the home of hundreds of wild pigeons, lying like a huge leviathan basking in the sun some 1/4 miles across the water, made this a dream site for rest and relaxation.

For both of us it was a case of love at first sight and out of that love was born a sense of dedication and commitment to make the venture a success. It has been said that nothing worthwhile was ever achieved without enthusiasm. How very true! That enthusiasm remained with us as we watched the hotel become an operational success during the ensuing ten years, by which time my contract with the company came to an end.

After a picnic lunch we toured the neighbouring villages of Nilaveli, Irrakandy and Kamburupiddi and were struck by the abject poverty that prevailed. People lived in dilapidated cadjan huts eking out a meagre existence. Siri and I made up our minds that through this hotel project we would provide employment opportunities and help to uplift the standard of living of these helpless people. The men and women of each village were summoned for a meeting at which Siri in her fluent Tamil which she had learnt from the many Tamil servants who were employed in her parental home, spoke about the proposed hotel and promised that unskilled labour for the construction of the hotel would be drawn from these villages and later some of them would be provided with jobs when the hotel commenced operations.

They were thrilled; to them it was like Manna falling from heaven. Some of the women complained to us that the men would spend the extra income earned by them on drinking and gambling. Standing tall on her beautiful physical frame she told the men that unless they agreed to give 80% of the money earned by them to their wives for domestic expenses and savings to rebuild their houses, they would not be given work. The men agreed and everyone was happy. The necessary rapport had been established and from then on the people of these villages worked very hard to complete the project. The contractors too were happy because we had solved the big problem of finding labour.

Ten days later we visited the site again to find that the contractors had moved in and construction work had begun with many of the villagers employed on various jobs.

Being a born gardener with green fingers Siri was already planning the layout of the hotel garden. She wanted it to be a riot of colour. Having driven around the area she decided that the hardy bougainvilleas were the best bet. She collected slips of various colours and with the aid of two gardeners whom she recruited, she made nurseries so that as each building area was completed she could set down the plants. She taught the gardeners how to make compost and insisted that they bring a big bag of dried cow dung at least thrice a week when they came for work.

Siri undertook the task of getting all the linen required for the hotel. These included bed linen, towels, bath mats, curtains, upholstery material, table linen, etc., Thanks to the handlooms of a variety of colour combinations available at Barefoot, she was able to make her selections to suit the mood of the Hotel. It was, of course, my job to recruit the staff, arrange for the furniture and equipment, cutlery crockery glass ware, kitchen and all other equipment needed for the operation of the hotel. In these areas too she lent more than a helping hand. The architects and contractors were amazed at her boundless enthusiasm and energy and they too caught the infection.

During these initial stages we had to visit Nilaveli once in ten days. On these visits she would go round the villages, find out from the women whether the men were honouring their pledge. It was obvious that these people had got a new lease of life. The children looked better fed and they dressed better. The women were quietly collecting the money to improve their homes. To both of us this was the most rewarding aspect of the whole exercise.

We were very very keen that everyone ultimately employed in the hotel should have a basic knowledge of spoken English and Siri organized evening classes for the workers. These were well attended. Whether this was because they were attracted by the irresistible charm and sense of humour of the beautiful teacher or the desire to speak at least a few words of English soon, they learnt fast. After a time Siri was able to give instructions to them in English and this helped them to attain some degree of proficiency.

On one of her visits to the villages the women folk had told her that they were amused to find their husbands trying to speak to them in English at home and that they and the children were also picking up a few words of English.

They had also mentioned that after they started earning a stable income their husbands were far better now and that they took a greater interest in the home and the children.

The Triumph

Thanks to the untiring efforts of all concerned the hotel was ready for the soft opening even before we knew where we were. The staff had moved in and undergone training. Siri had even made her way into the kitchen and explained to the chef and the cooks the finer points of cooking for tourists. As we expected a big demand for shell fish she joined them in the preparation of a variety of exotic dishes of shell fish.

The soft opening attended by travel agents and tour operators was a great success and bookings began to flow in from the word go. The hotel gained immense popularity and because of our inability to cope with the demand for accommodation work on the construction of another bed room block and several cottages commenced a few months later.

Some months after the soft opening we were able to recruit a General Manager who was very fluent in German. This enhanced the image of the hotel especially because many German tourists patronized the hotel.

The guests walked for miles all day on the golden beach, swam and sun bathed for hours with no beach boys or peeping toms to disturb them. Everything was quiet and peaceful apart from the whispered tapping of the gentle waves on the sandy beach. Some of them took day trips across the water to Pigeon Island to watch the pigeons and view the coral. On moonlight nights adventurous couples would take their bedding, food and drinking water and spend the night on the island under a wide and starry sky with a silvery moon watching over them.

What they did there 1 leave it to the reader to imagine! This could very well have been a wonderful setting for a racy novel like "Love among the pigeons" by D. H. Lawrence or Rosemary Rogers. Some tourists went on fishing trips around the island and proudly brought home the catch which we cooked for them the way they liked. Some joined us in catching prawns and Cray fish in the nearby lagoon and were thrilled to find them appear on the table cooked by our shell fish experts in the kitchen.

Meanwhile Siri's Bougainvilleas now full grown were vying with one another to reach the roofs of the bedroom blocks in a riot of colour. Her dream of having the entire garden ablaze with colour had been realized. Tourists went round the garden admiring nature at her best and took many pictures to adorn their albums back home. We had several repeat visitors who brought their friends along for a stay of a week or more saying that Moonlight Beach was their favourite "Home away from Home" because everything there was restful, pleasing to the eye and the palette. The credit must go to the General Manager and his staff who spared no pains to make the visitors happy.

I remember the case of the German banker who visited the hotel twice a year. On his arrival at Katunayake he would hire a car and make a bee tine to Moonlight Beach where he stayed for a fortnight walking miles on the beach in the morning and in the afternoon and swimming in the sea for hours. For some unknown reason we called him "Uncle". He had served in the German Army in the last war when the Germans steamrolled their way into Russia. In the evening he would sit by himself in a corner of the hotel bar downing one arrack cocktail after another. On a number of occasions 1 had seen him gesturing with his hands and feet. One day 1 asked him what he was doing. He replied that he was with the German forces who had reached the outskirts of Leningrad destroying the Russian armour which blocked their way. A few days before they were to break into the city the dreaded Russian winter set in with an unexpected ferocity and they were forced to withdraw. He ended by saying again and again that it was not the Russian army that defeated them but it was "General Winter" and that he could never get over what happened. He was so much in love with the hotel and the staff that he made a special trip to Sri Lanka to be the best man at a wedding of one of our hotel stewards.

By now the hotel was doing extremely well and I could proudly say with my energetic wife Siri, "Mission Accomplished." My contract was coming to an end and it was time to leave.

The farewell

Before we left the hotel in March 1983 we went round our adopted villages. The dilapidated cadjan huts were giving way to brick houses with cement floors and asbestos roofs and there was everywhere an air of new life and hope.

The simple villagers thanked us profusely with eyes filled with tears of gratitude. They had a special word for Siri and kneeling at her feet thanked her for her love, care and concern for them. It was a very emotional moment for the two of us because Moonlight Beach Hotel had helped in a very significant way to improve the living conditions of the people. We prayed that the hotel will grow from strength to strength and bring more and more benefits to the lovely people of this area, whom we loved so much.

As we looked at Pigeon Island for the last time a dark shadow from an unexpected rain cloud fell on the island. As we gazed intently at this phenomenon a strong gust of wind broke up the cloud and sunshine filtered through and lit up the island for a moment in a seeming gesture of fond farewell.

The tragedy

We left the hotel for the last time in March 1983. 'Black July' of that year brought about a radical transformation in the once placid Nilaveli area. With the infiltration of LTTE elements and the brain- washing that took place the attitude of the people began to change. A tide of resentment and hatred started to creep in. Although on the surface life went on as usual the undercurrent of hatred and the desire to bring the Trincomalee district under Eelam was simmering below.

Meanwhile 1 was informed that there was a new development. Service personnel from Trincomalee had begun to spend their Sundays at the hotel. After a couple of drinks they had begun talking indiscreetly about their plans for crushing the LTTE elements in the area. All this information had reached the ears of the paranoid LTTE hierarchy who had come to the mistaken view that the hotel was being used for spying and had become some sort of a planning centre. They watched the situation, bided their time, and in August 1985 they appeared in strength with bombs and hand grenades and destroyed the hotel. Then they cannibalized it and took everything away. Meanwhile the staff had fled.

Looking back on this senseless destruction 1 cannot resist the view that if the overall management of the hotel had been cognizant of the dangers involved in the service personnel coming to the hotel and discussing delicate political and security matters they should have advised these guests that in the interests of the hotel they should refrain from discussing these sensitive matters on the premises. After all every hotel has a code of conduct which guests have to strictly adhere to. Failure on their part to do so would make them unwelcome in the hotel. It must be mentioned that not all the hotels in the neighbourhood suffered this same tragic fate.

We had no heart to go to Nilaveli to see our beloved hotel which we built with so much of love, toil and sweat, in ruins. That would have been too much for us. Rather we wanted to cherish the memories of a vibrant and beautiful hotel that won the hearts of many visitors to Sri Lanka.
- Sri Lanka Guardian