Jaffna, or Yaalpanam/Yapanaya as it is known in Tamil/Sinhalese had for the longest time been a pseudo-mythical land. This rings especially true for most of my generation, those born in the 80’s, 90’s and thereabouts. It is a part of Sri Lanka that most of us never really saw or travelled to, gathering what morsels of information we could from second hand sources and by lending a keen ear to exaggerated tales of ever-willing, older relatives and the extra adventurous types.
Come 2009, the war ends, the LTTE forces are defeated, the war is over, and most people, in addition to being very relieved, were a little confused as well. The war was such a pivotal part of the Sri Lankan story/identity that now that it’s over, much of the populace didn’t know what to do with themselves any longer. Politicians are looking for new angles to project their usual sack of horse-feces to the masses; mothers are worried that they can’t worry about their children anymore without appearing mildly psychotic, older men are in dire need of new topics to discuss at arrack-fuelled chat sessions. But I guess it’s safe to say, everyone was glad that it’s over, I know I was. It was now a trip just waiting to happen.
The trip, it happened, in early 2014, it just f**king had to. The year I reunited with two of my equally afflicted companions after almost 3 years of hibernation in South East Africa. Collectively, we decided to throw caution over-board (with a life-raft) and tick ‘bumbling our bloody way to, from and around Jaffna’ off the bucket list. The idea was two days and two nights in Jaffna, and then move on to Trincomalee. Essentially, this is me having a good ramble but you could also think of it as a narrative with some useful facts thrown in, a short story or it could even work as a handy travel guide for anyone who braves the mind-spew.
Luxury, or rather not-so-luxury bus services are available most days of the week from Colombo. These can be booked over the phone. Our journey, somewhat ominously at the time, started off close to 10.00pm at an ill lit, seedy looking street on the Marine Drive, Wellawatte where the bus picks up the majority of its passengers. I did secretly relish the tacky/mysterious vibe of the whole situation, my mates Z and Shokkiss not so much. None of the others on board really looked like they were travelling for recreation, which of course lost us some points in the ‘blending in’ department.
We really kicked on only after the bus made a stop at the Lake House building in Fort, Colombo for inexplicably, close to an hour which seemed like an eternity to us. The journey to the heart of Jaffna takes approximately nine hours, with my favorite stretch being the part where the Wilpattu national park flanks the road. I was half expecting an elephant or two to pop out of the bush and observe what it could possibly deem to be a mechanized version of itself, whizz past, without even saying hello. I felt it was only appropriate to poke Z out of her slumber and convey above-said sentiments in return for her murmurs of appreciation. This section is also a fair indication of halfway point, where you could and maybe should assess your mental state and that of your buttock muscles.
There is an army check point, at Omanthai, about a hundred and twenty-five kilometers before Jaffna, a bit of a reminder of the past if you will, where army personnel boarded the bus and checked passengers for identification while interrupting sleep cycles. We noticed, also on later occasions, that they didn’t check any of the female passengers. It did spark a little blurry-eyed discussion among us as to ‘why’ and ‘what if’ which luckily didn’t spiral into a debate on sexual discrimination.
It is almost sunrise when it dawned on me (pun intended) that my plans of getting some shut eye on the journey are very unlikely to materialize. We are nearing Killinochi and I had barely gotten any sleep, thanks mostly I must admit, due to excitement/adrenalin and with notable mention to what was probably one of worst Tamil movies or movie of any language for that matter, to be unleashed on a reluctant audience that was being screened at a volume beyond optimum. Well at least I think it helped me subconsciously brush up on my spoken Tamil. I can’t, in retrospect complain about having been awake at this point however as we witnessed what was probably the most interesting sight during the inbound journey. The twilight combined with the blanket of mist that covered the fairly thick bush on either side of the road to create an eerily beautiful picture. It seemed very much like a scene out of the Sleepy Hollow movie, most enchanting.
Carry some music.
If you are travelling with company, it will help if you are fond of these fellow beings.
Carry a blanket or a hoodie (proven sleep-enhancing device), the air will be conditioned.
Earplugs/muffs, unless you happen to be the hardest of core fans of Indian/Tamil cinema.
NOT so good ideas:
Go ape shit on dinner? Don’t. Keep it sensible, with minimum proteins, or anything that is bound to mess with your bowel movements and carry some crackers and/or fruit in case of the munchies. This is a long journey, with one or two very uninviting loo/tea breaks. Releasing weapons-grade gasses in an air-conditioned bus will not win you any friends. You need friends more than you need enemies in a strange town/bus.
[YOUR ASS IS IN JAFFNA NOW]
It’s around 09.00am, the sun is out, beating down on our air conditioned senses, officially signaling the beginning of adventure and the end of anything even remotely resembling a comfort zone. We disembark near the Jaffna Fort and after mandatory high-fives and other expressions of great excitement; we proceed to get some lodging.
The closest thing we had to a reservation was a short telephone conversation that I had a few days prior to our departure with the owner of the Sarras Guest House. It’s an old move to show the management that we were open to the idea of looking around for alternative options. You are almost always going to get a better deal if you just show up and haggle a bit on room options and prices rather than book in advance and make a commitment. Sans any douchebag vibes and with the right attitude, this technique is proven to assist with wallet-damage-control.
A five-minute tuktuk (three-wheeler) ride through town got us to the conveniently located guest house where it took only a matter of minutes to confirm that this would be a smart choice. The Sarras Guest House is a charming, old mansion with a large garden, complete with a couple of vintage cars parked there to bring home the vibe. The owners, a middle-aged couple seemed genuinely nice people. While we were in the verandah/lobby holding negotiations with the manager, each of us observed the wooden, spiral staircase at one end and we knew we were not going anywhere. We took the room upstairs, lured by the mysterious charm of, I never thought I would say this, this gorgeous, polygonal-spiral-shaped staircase. Safe to say it was and probably will be the most enamored any of us could be with a staircase.
We changed, fairly pleased at how well things are already going for us in Jaffna. The room was spacious, with a separate dining area en suite, an outdoor balcony overlooking the garden with little antique pieces of craft and other curious trinkets adorning the hallway.
At just past 10.0am we make our first foray into town, having by now cooked up quite an appetite for what was going to be brunch. The town is dotted with little restaurants, vegetarian mostly. We entered one that was quite busy, a fair indicator that decent service could be expected. The ‘ulundu vadai’, which I sometimes refer to it as the savory, South Indian cousin of the revered donut, was the main constituent of our meal. It was fresh, crispy and satisfying but I, perhaps unjustifiably, expected it to taste different, maybe even better than what we were used to in Colombo. My palate detected no such thing. The waiter serving us was a curious old man who got down to customary ‘where are you guys from?’ without much hesitation. He also went MIA for a while when we found ourselves in need of extra dip/gravy to facilitate our ulundu-vadai-binge. Shokkiss at this point decided it was an opportunity to get hands-on (or more likely exhausted her supply of patience), left her seat, picked up the abandoned little steel bucket of gravy and ladle and proceeded to serve us like a pro. When the amused and slightly embarrassed waiter hurried back, the consensus was that she is a natural.
As we headed back through town by tuktuk (our most favored mode of transport), we observed several interesting looking Hindu temples and churches, the new Jaffna market, painted a somewhat peculiar yellow color. There were signs of the past, the odd abandoned structure, damaged, roofless and taken over by vegetation. The mysterious and often haunting air of structures lying in ruin and decay has always aroused my curiosity. There were many signs of modern development as well. We spotted a big, glossy chain supermarket, a cinema complex, which was surprising, and also confirmed our limited knowledge of the goings on in J-Town. Notably, we saw at the most, only a couple of other travellers/tourists around town during our time there. No qualms about that though, as it only lent to a more authentic ambiance.
With hunger out of the way, we are back at the room, to unpack, freshen up, and ready to head out in explorer mode, until we decided to lie down for a bit of breather. The breather as it turned out, morphed into an extended episode of narcolepsy. Quite the anti-climax, I know, but yeah, should have seen it coming. I had barely gotten any sleep at all, Z slept only briefly and has a reputation for her sleeping habits and little Shokkiss wasn’t going anywhere without us. Add to this the copious amounts of ulundu vadai that we had just consumed and the result is a sleep inducing cocktail comparable to a lecture on accounting principles.
Fresh, a little guilt-ridden but happy, (I mean there’s nothing like taking a siesta in a strange town with no real obligations to wake you up) we could feel our sense of adventure peaking again. Bring out the bicycles! I exclaimed. The plan was to pedal our way around Jaffna town and check out the sights that fall within a manageable radius. Out came the bicycles, ladies bicycles, slightly rickety, brakes a little loose, yes, not as planned but that’s the beauty of it I guess. Also not planned, Shokkiss, after several years of clever deception, reveals her inability to ride a bicycle. I found myself designated ‘Shokkiss-carrier’ for the cycling leg of our great Jaffna bumble. On the bright side, she happened to be, most likely the most portable little 26-year-old in the peninsula and we now had a cycle-cam operator.
As you ride into town, you would immediately notice that there is no better way to soak in the atmosphere. The Jaffna sun beating down on you, the cacophony of sounds that include traffic, temple/church bells, people having loud conversations and vendors shouting out their offers and the scent of street food wafting through the air, mixing with the fumes, you don’t escape any of it. Furthermore, bicycles happen to be a very popular mode of transport unlike most other major towns in Sri Lanka, so it also helps to blend in while giving you a great perspective. You are in Jaffna and Jaffna is in you.
Our first stop is the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, probably the most important temple in Jaffna. We stop to ask for directions from a bunch of curious, chirpy school boys who are not just happy to guide us but were also willing escort us for part of the way. Surrounded by a formation of all these kids dressed in white, it felt, in a sense like we were a flock of migratory birds, gracefully gliding over the tarmac. Reality check soon arrived as I found myself striving to keep up and not expose my limited cycling prowess to a bunch of 14-15 year olds.
The Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil/temple is a very impressive and imposing structure, with the intricately carved and very colorful tower (or gopuram), catching your eye while you are still a distance away from the premises. The current structure was originally built in 1734, with renovations being made over the years, of which the last significant work was done in 1964. It’s a great place to visit even if like us, you aren’t too crazy about the history. We absorbed the zen-like vibe as we strolled around the large hallway, observing the beautiful arches overhead, a pool in the center and appreciating the calm and quiet of the surroundings, a welcome change from the hustle outside. We also a noticed a tree in the courtyard that had golden colored strips of cloth with coins bundled inside, tied on to its branches. Turns out it’s a sacred tree where you could say a prayer and then proceed to tie the strip of cloth to the tree. One of the priests informed us upon inquiry that a pooja ceremony would be taking place in about 30 minutes, just enough time for us to take a quick ride out and grab bite.
Cycling away from the kovil premises in a random direction, we noticed a sprinkling of fresh fruit juice stalls in the area. Thinking this is probably a great way to beat the heat, plus seemingly a popular choice for the locals, we decide to check out a fairly large, shiny, restaurant like operation about five minutes away from the kovil. The bright illustrated display of juices, faluda and savory snacks nearly has us drooling. The next twenty minutes or so were spent devouring a plate of typical savory, vegetarian snacks and sipping on some cool, fresh juice to replenish energy and fluid levels. Satisfied by another fairly good chow down, we arrive back at the kovil, only to find out that we have missed the pooja ceremony by a few minutes. We aren’t heartbroken, although it would have been a pretty cool thing to witness the ceremony. As consolation however, Z takes the initiative to conduct her own pooja, one of dubious nature and unknown origins. It was a swift affair, pretty much her marking the tilaka, the hindu forehead marking, on my forehead with some yellow and red powder from the temple, and then gleefully proclaiming us man and wife. Shokkiss in the meanwhile reluctantly settled into the role of maid of honor/wedding photographer. I guess it was a good thing that our little ‘ceremony’ was conducted just outside the temple.
It was time to move our mickey-taking elsewhere. There’s only one way to follow a dodgy, Vegas-like marriage ceremony in a strange town on such a lovely day. Ice cream. One does not simply come to Jaffna and not take a lick of the legendary Rio Ice cream. Even though it felt very cliché on some level, we couldn’t help but feel the magnetic pull of the neon/unicorn poop colored globs of sweetness serenading our taste buds and our minds. As the bright red font came within eye shot, we prepped ourselves for another little feast. The place was packed and buzzing. It’s a fair opportunity to do some people watching as the citizens of Jaffna come and unwind in the company of family, friends and more-than-friends while treating themselves to a wide range of these lovely little diabetes inducing concoctions. While unlikely to please the connoisseur, the ice cream isn’t bad, it’s cheap and it’s fun, especially the more tricked out options with the smarties, nuts and what have you. It’s literally the sweetest part of life in Jaffna.
Next stop on our vague, hand scribbled list is the Naga Vihara Buddhist temple. As we meander along the road with little idea of where we are actually headed, a couple of ladies give us a hand with some directions. These two were a smiley duo, very cool people and very amused I suspect, in my terrible spoken Tamil. Escort service is once again on offer if we could keep up and/or not get killed by moving vehicles. Riding around town and interacting with people has so far been a major win. We hardly saw any tourists at all and all the people we talked to were friendly and very willing to help out, making it almost hard to believe that their lives were not long ago, uprooted and entrenched in the brutality of armed conflict. It also made the civil war seem a greater tragedy than it already was. I pondered, if maybe people travelled more, they would surely be more inclined to actively oppose the ideals of war, oppression and conflict.
The Naga Vihara is more or less 2 kilometers from the Rio Ice Cream joint, heading back in the direction of our temporary abode, the Sarras Guest House. It was just past 05.00pm when we arrived there. The Naga Vihara Buddhist temple is only a few decades old. Buddhism however is said to have had a presence in the region for centuries. This is a small temple area with the usual white, dome structures and peaceful vibes. There are some cobra sculptures just outside the room that houses the Buddha statue, which is what fascinated us more than anything else. After all, that is what the temple is named after. The murals in this room depict a story that as you would imagine, involves a cobra snake. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any further information or find anybody in the premises to give us the lowdown on the depictions. So that kind of remained a bit of an unsolved mystery. Interestingly, there is an enclosure near the entrance that houses some Hindu deities as well. From what I know, there is definitely some ideological overlap between the religions. Cultural and regional influences too are sometimes integrated into traditional beliefs, so that may be a fair explanation as to the presence of the Hindu deities. Again, this is an area where we have limited knowledge, but it was a pretty cool thing to have seen and to think of as a symbol of co-existence.
Sundown is around forty-five minutes away. We instinctively know that it is going to be quite a show and we know the best seats are to be had at a carefully selected vantage point in the Jaffna fort. We set off towards the fort immediately, observing many of the stores winding up for the day as the light faded. We had completed less than half the distance when we faced a setback, also known as a major bummer. The rear tire of my bicycle went flat under the not so great combined weight of Shokkiss and myself. It was decision time, we had about a kilometer and a half ahead of us and not much time till sunset. We agreed deal with the flat tire later, getting to the fort was our priority for now. Z and I walked the bicycles with our stuff loaded on them like mules being walked along an ancient trade route. Shokkiss fluttered alongside us, intermittently hobbling from the discomfort caused by some stitches from a recent surgery just above her left heel. Massive props to her, for some real wanderluster spirit and big cojones for having been absolutely keen as mustard in spite of her health situation.
We arrive at the fort with the sun already very close to the horizon, a large, gleaming, amber disk, bathing the town in its warm glow. The fort is majestic but unfortunately, not as enchanting as it could be, destruction is visible in almost any direction, more reminders of the war. Originally constructed by the Portuguese in 1618, the fort stood strong for centuries before the recently caused destruction. Nevertheless, there is much of it that is intact and some restoration is taking place. Interestingly, the hangmans tower still stands, right in the middle of the fort. The views are as expected, incredible, exceeding our expectations in fact. It’s a truly amazing sight to look out towards the sun sinking into the horizon, above the causeway that leads to the town/island of Kayts. Any lack of enchantment is more than made up for as the sky takes on different hues that softly blend into each like a masterpiece. An almost metallic grey-blue that softens into a pale orange before turning into a deep crimson- amber. And this is reflected off the calm waters either side of the causeway. Words can barely do justice. We sat on the rampart, taking it all in, while munching on some fried snacks including a mini version of the fabled ‘isso-vadey’ and occasionally waving to people below, getting on with their daily routine, seemingly oblivious to the visual orchestra reaching its crescendo in the background.
Through a combination of lack of information and being too caught up in a feast of the senses, we proceed to unknowingly violate the curfew/regulation that restricts anyone from remaining in the fort after sundown. One obvious reason for this could be that it was, by then, fairly dark and there is no lighting in the fort. Our bicycles parked outside were the only real evidence that we were still in the premises. The one man search & rescue (more like search and ask to gtfo) party who came to get us, vaguely and with some reluctance explained that it was due to snakes as he hastily guided us out of the deserted fort in near darkness. As credible as that explanation could be, I felt it was most likely designed to deter us from another such escapade. We trudge a few hundred meters to the massive commotion created by some sort of show/rally taking place at the Thuraiyappa Stadium next door. Many hundreds of people are in attendance at what could have been a religious or political program. It’s getting harder to tell the difference these days. The program has also attracted many tuktuks and ice-cream trucks, dotting the periphery of the grounds, keen to cash in on the crowd. We bundled the bicycles and ourselves into a couple of tuk-tuks and headed back to base.
Excitingly, dinner was next on the agenda. After some asking around, we settled on Green Grass Restaurant that happens to be conveniently located less than a kilometer away from the lodge. We were greeted by friendly staff at the tiny reception area and shown inside. The place doesn’t really have much of an ambience, but that doesn’t really matter when the rest of the experience is solid, especially the food, as were about to find out. After the customary debating and much deliberation we agreed on the Jaffna prawn curry, butter chicken masala and Jaffna brinjal curry. To accompany these main dishes we got some poori and naan bread. The Jaffna dishes had generous levels of chilli, but not overbearing. All the dishes were well flavored, the breads were fresh, the portions were generous too. We cut loose, going on to decimate the prawn population on the table. All this plus fruit juices, mineral water and service charges cost us a total of LKR 3,652/- (approx. USD 28/-). Pretty good deal for a crazy Jaffna curry night if you ask me. And did I mention we had enough remaining to have it packed up for the breakfast leg of the Jaffna curry fest. It was a victorious feeling, complete satisfaction but also a slight, lingering fear that we may have overeaten to the point of a bad bowel situation. Luckily, our fears did not materialize, collateral damage not incurred.
It’s almost 11.00pm when we get back to base. Having taken day one in Jaffna at a leisurely pace, we felt the need to speed things up a bit the next day and cover some good area. After some discussion and negotiation, the owners agree to hook us up with a tuktuk guy who usually acts as guide for their guests. My intuition told me that it was a safer bet than some of the random tuktuk guys that we chatted to on the streets. It’s been a super day, acclimatisation is complete and we cannot wait to see what tomorrow will bring. But for now, it’s activate sleep mode.
Things are about to get crazier on [DAY 02]
OH, AND *DRUMROLL* HERE’S A LITTLE VIDEO OF SOME OF THE HIGHLIGHTS FROM OUR TWO DAYS IN JAFFNA.