continued from [Part 01/02]
This was easily one of our most anticipated mornings in a long, long time. The breakfast leg of the Jaffna curry night is successfully concluded, aptly with some milk tea laced with rush inducing proportions of sugar, pretty much how tea is done in Sri Lanka. We chatted around with the staff for a bit while waiting on our guide/tuktuk driver to arrive. Shokkiss made an attempt to discuss Wi-Fi connectivity with a staff member but the language barrier contributed to one of her trademark episodes of comical human interactions that leaves all involved parties bemused and observers amused.
The man arrived at 8.30am, in a squeaky clean, white colored trishaw. I felt my mind generously granting points towards the subtle aesthetic appeal of it. Not only were we going to have a merry bumble around Jaffna, but we were also going to look pretty cool doing it. The famous Jaffna library is first on our list but sadly, we weren’t allowed in as the visiting hours are later in the evening. We bundled back in and set off to Point Pedro, a town in the north-east of the peninsula. The plan was to get there, and then make our way back to Jaffna central for sunset, stopping at as many interesting spots along the way as possible. Special mention must be made of our guide/tuktuk driver whose name unfortunately evades me. He was a cool cat, informative, not too chatty or nosey, and very patient. He mentioned that his wife was originally from India, at which point I made a possibly inappropriate reference to Chris Browns’ ‘International Love’. We even waved hello-goodbye to his little son on the way out of town.
The roads are good, making for a smooth ride, and amplifying the spellbinding effect of the beautiful and varying landscape. Shallow lakes, vast areas of bush and scrub, flocks of fishing birds, banana plantations, tobacco farms, temples and ruins had us constantly craning our necks at all angles to catch the incredible sights as they flitted by, like somebody cycling through TV channels. It’s a visual spectacle that you are unlikely to find on an organized itinerary or trip advisor. Point Pedro is a little fishing town about thirty-three kilometers from Jaffna central, located around the northern most tip of Sri Lanka. We found this little geographical/cartographical detail quite intriguing and felt it was bucket-list-worthy to make it to one of the extreme points on the Sri Lankan map and gaze valiantly beyond the frontier. As we got closer, we could the see the Indian Ocean unraveling in the distance, in all its majesty. Itching to get out, we stopped at the Point Pedro jetty at around 10.00am where a few larger fishing boats were docked. The fishermen were happy to have us on board the vessels, explain some of the workings onboard and one of them even tried to make conversation in some terrible spoken Hindi. Our secret hopes of getting a little ride didn’t survive long as the boats weren’t going out anytime soon and we felt they had already been nice enough.
Eastward from the jetty is the lighthouse and the fisher-folks settlements. We started that way but had to make a short stop to pay some attention to Shokkiss’ heel as the dressing over the wound had come undone from all the sauntering about. Equipped only with toilet tissue and band aid, Z went about cutting, folding and sticking in a manner that would’ve made her arts/crafts tutor proud. First aid tutor I am not quite so sure. It was only a minute back on the road before we spot a ruin that had us spellbound, we absolutely had to check it out.
Catman (our guide will be henceforth referred to as Catman for no apparent reason) who by now had acclimatized to our frequent bouts of fascination and curiosity slowed to a crawl, and then stopped to unleash us. The house was a medium sized one with four chambers, two on each side and a hall area in the middle. You didn’t have to be an architect to appreciate the symmetry, the details on the columns and the mystery of trying to imagine how it may have once been, when it was a part of people’s lives. Decay had taken over, in a subtle way, over a long period. You could almost see the process when you looked at the peeling, discolored walls, the floor taken over by vegetation to the point of almost resembling a carpet, an incredibly beautiful one at that. It seemed almost hard to believe that the building had naturally arrived to this state, hard to believe that it wasn’t curated to appear so. We hung out and explored a bit, sparking off a discussion on how tempting the idea was at this juncture, to actually settle down right where we were and lay claim to the title of worst fishermen in town. Feeling enchanted, we moved on reluctantly.
As we moved further towards the lighthouse, the road got closer to the beach and we were now motoring on with the serene, glistening ocean to our left demanding our complete attention. Boats, palm trees and little huts dotted the beach. The days catch was laid out to dry by the road and fishing nets and equipment were strewn around. We got off and loitered along the beach, hardly coming across any people, which gave us a greater sense of liberty than we probably should have had. Most of the human activity at this time was happening across the road where there were many little stores and homes. Inevitably, Shokkiss and Z get on a peculiar, rather primitive looking canoe on the beach, shrieking in horror when it tilted slightly under their weight. Luckily for us nobody came to investigate, so we stuck around and waded in the water for a while, the calmest we have ever seen in Sri Lanka. It was barely even lapping the shore, almost still, the bed shallow and flat, a dream beach, if your tastes align with mine.
The lighthouse, defunct for a long time, is surrounded by barricades and guarded by army personnel. We weren’t even allowed to get near it, let alone go inside. It was all a bit baffling, with the war being over and all that. But as it so happens, the lighthouse is now part of a little harbor/naval base operated by the SL navy. In addition, a large telecommunication tower has been erected a few meters from it, adding to the strategic importance of the site. Any charm we expected to find did not exist, that was except for a bunch of kid goats bleating and bumbling about just a few feet away, a cute lot they were.
We scoot back west in our sparkly white tuktuk to a village called Sakkottai, about two kilometers after the Point Pedro jetty. This right here is the actual ‘point’, a protruding bump north-west of Point Pedro if you observe the map. This is the official northern-most point of Sri Lanka as indicated by a little concrete structure bearing the Sri Lankan flag and denoting the distance from the southern-most point, Dondra Head. The beach itself is rocky, with coral strewn everywhere, all the way to the shore, very different from any beach I’ve ever been to. We had the beach all for ourselves, except for the camouflaged little crabs scuttling in and out of our sight into little crevices in the coral. The scorched blanket of broken coral and placid expanse of ocean in the distance was a sight to behold, and behold it we did. I even found myself adjusting the tones in my mind and looking away from anything that suggested human presence to imagine the landscape as being that of another world.
Our itinerary, if you could call it that, was a hastily compiled list of spots that tickled our fancy, scribbled down on scraps of paper and/or saved on mobile phone notes. The next major waypoint on this formidable list was the Keerimalai temple and Keerimalai mineral water springs. We were elated at the experience of Point Pedro and re-unite with Catman on the road to move on. As we are scooting westward, Catman drops the P-bomb into our casual chat. Prabakharan.Apparently, the LTTE leaders’ childhood home is nearby and we could take a look if we wished so. Of course we did, we were always excited about LTTE related sites but chose not to be overly inquisitive because we weren’t sure of how the locals would react. So this was good. On getting there however, we find absolutely no trace of a structure, just barren land in the process of being taken over by bush (no, not George W.). The army had demolished the house, presumably to deliver some level of psychological defeat to whatever remained of the enemy. The only evidence of what once stood here is a painted sign on a little wall section that announces in Tamil, something to the effect of ‘Home of Our Great Leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran’, and of course peoples memories.
The next stop was once again one that we were compelled to make. The Thondaimanaru bridge has breathtaking views that are and completely worth at least a few minutes of stoppage time. The bridge is built across a lagoon, allowing traffic to flow from east to west and vice versa. The town of Thondaimanaru hugs the northern coast on the eastern side of the bridge. North of the bridge, the lagoon runs out into the sea and south of the bridge, the lagoon snakes its way inland. A feature that we found fascinating is the narrow strip of beach jutting out from the east, almost all the way to the other side, just at the point where the lagoon would meet the sea, making for very interesting landscape, and very interesting real estate too. A pity we didn’t have the time to get ourselves there. With all that going on, one may expect to be forgiven for failing to appreciate the lovely breeze that was blowing across the bridge, causing our clothes to billow and create the illusion of some unwelcome extra pounds. With the midday sun beating down on us at this point, we savored the breeze as much as we could.
The sight of a little banana plantation by the road at half past midday was enough to trigger the opening pangs of hunger. We made a stop, and Shokkiss and Z being the law abiding citizens that they aren’t, made a vain attempt to pluck some bananas off a tree. Luckily for us, there was a little shop nearby where bananas and other goods could be lawfully procured. I took the opportunity to restock on liquids while the re-energized Shokkiss and Z subjected a poor old lady to some barely intelligible Tamil for conducting a business transaction with them.
Figuring that we were doing fairly well on time, we made another short stop to check out the fabled Nilavarai well, which again didn’t require any major detour from our route to Keerimalai. Catman seemed rather keen on taking us to this location. He disclosed that the Nilavarai well is believed by locals to be bottomless. It is also said that the first forty meters of depth consists of fresh water, while the water below that point is salty. The well itself is a large, roughly round, natural structure with the dark aquamarine colored water lurking about twenty feet down. Like several other famous natural sites in the region, the Nilavarai well has been linked to stories from Hindu mythology. We hung around for a bit, staring into the well, throwing the whole concept around in our minds and trying not to be too skeptical. I asked Catman if anyone ever did a documented dive to verify the claims of the depth, he wasn’t too sure about it. There wasn’t much information available and nobody else around, allowing us or forcing us in a way, to better absorb the mystical aura of the well.
Forty-five minutes of motoring along fairly deserted roads, mostly flanked by vast areas of untamed bush, dotted by the ubiquitous palmyrah trees brought us to the Keerimalai Naguleswaram temple premises. Just about a kilometer or two before we got there, Catman pointed out to us a large industrial building in the distance, apparently a pioneer of large-scale industry in the country, partially destroyed during the war and abandoned. The Keerimalai springs first are considered sacred by believers and is said to have healing properties. The large, curved pool sits perched on a little hill just a few meters away from the beach, making for some impressive views. The edges of the pool are terraced, kind of like a stepped well, and the ladies pool is in a separate, enclosed area. We hung around and took in the views and whatever information we could. Shokkiss and Z reported that the ladies pool seemed to be in a state of neglect and hardly inviting. We weren’t keen on taking a dip, although the guys who were doing so, mostly young kids, seemed to having a pretty good time. A great way to beat the Jaffna heat and get some healing and spirituality on while you are at it I guess.
As you could imagine the Keerimalai Naguleswaram Kovil too is steeped in lore. Catman related to us the story of a sage, who had a face that resembled that of a mongoose. The sage one day goes for a dip in the springs and his face is magically transformed to that of a human form. Out of gratitude, he builds a shrine, and the kovil is born. The name itself reveals a bit of the story, ‘keeri’ in Tamil means mongoose, and ‘malai’ means hill. These origins reportedly date back centuries, one of the oldest in the region. Over time, the original temple has been destroyed while under colonial occupation and more recently due to the war. Construction of the new temple was going on during our visit and there wasn’t much to see there. We did witness a ceremony and chatted with some of the devotees. The ruins of the old kovil was something else, however. The structure that remains, forms some kind of rough outline of what the kovil would have been. Some of the ornate carvings still survive, and for a temple that has such a long history, it certainly feels more like it when you are standing among the ruins, rather than in a freshly built and painted structure. Unfortunately, and inexplicably, some vendors have been allowed to set up stalls inside and right next to the ruins when there is plenty of available area away from the site.
We head out of the temple area at around 02.30pm, keen on exploring a little stretch of the beach nearby. The lovely weather called for a round of Jaffna ice-cream, made possible thanks to a truck that lies in wait near the ruins. Catman led us to the beach, where we saw some of the most severely damaged structures, during our visit. This area was clearly a hotspot for activity during the war. About a kilometer away from us, we could see a beached shipwreck in an advanced state of decay. Catman tells us that it is the carcass of a navy patrol boat that was captured by a single LTTE female cadre, who unsurprisingly, acquired legendary status after the feat. As we were discussing this, he pointed out an active version of the same boat that was patrolling in the distance. Jaffna seemed to have calm, quiet beaches by the bagful, this was another one, and we weren’t getting tired of it one bit. We hung around by the destroyed building and in the shade of a few large trees growing just outside. The trees shed leaves and twigs into the roofless structure, carpeting the floor in layers of rustle.
In need of some rest, a proper meal and also fuelled by curiosity, we headed next to Casuarina, probably the most well known beach in Jaffna. The beach is located further west on the island of Karainagar that can be accessed by causeway if you are driving along the northern coast. This was once again a great drive, miles of open fields, saltpans and large bodies of water with plenty of birds. It looked like there were plenty of herons and other smaller fishing birds but what fascinated us the most was the number of eagles that were also present, soaring and diving with authority and grace. I imagined birdwatchers could easily spend days admiring the abundant birdlife that is present in the area, attracted most likely by the ample fishing opportunities.
Food is number one on our minds, when we arrive at Casuarina beach. But the water however, was as expected, a major source of distraction. After a hurried meal of some uninspired rice and curry, a few stale but rather large and flavorful prawns that Z and I treated as a guilty pleasure, we moved closer to the shore and chilled out for a while. It is probably the most popular of the beaches in Jaffna, plenty of locals were there, chilling out and having a good time in general. The crowds unfortunately do inevitably give rise to the problem of litter, attracting a number of crows and some stray dogs. A few cows too were hanging around, making it a rather unusual beach experience. There was still plenty to like about this beach. A recurring feature is the calm water ever so gently lapping the shore making it feel almost lake like. The sand is soft and feels great under your feet. Then there are the strange looking trees dotting the beach, the casuarina trees that have apparently given the beach its name. The best part of the beach is the shallow water that keeps going for at least a couple of kilometers from what we could see. This could very well be one of the best spots on the island for sea bathing or just lazing in the water for hours. After some relaxation, we took a stroll away from the shore to get some thambili, or king coconut, an absolute must-have when travelling in Jaffna. Not only is it a life saver in tropical conditions but it is also deeply embedded in Sri Lankan culture under the ‘street food’ tab, for lack of better tab. It is at this point that we discovered the palmyrah fruit. It is almost round with brown colored shell, kind of like the thambili but smaller, the size of a big fist. None of us had ever seen this fruit before and embarrassingly, needed much assistance and instructions from the thambili guy, much to the amusement of his little son and frustration and/or bewilderment of other customers waiting to be served. In our defense, we felt that consuming the fruit does require a fairly nimble set of fingers. The top of the fruit is cut open to reveal three openings inside which lie fleshy, translucent, gelatinous sacks of juice that have to be pried out, preferably without any rupturing. None of that however, prevented Z from running amok and gobbling down more than her fair share of the juicy stuff.
After concluding another cycle of sea gazing and putting the digestive system to work, we headed south, back to Jaffna central, determined to catch the complete sun down show this time. Shokkiss got Catman multitasking with some basic Tamil lessons for us during the drive. It is a different dialect from the Tamil that we often hear spoken in Colombo making it all the more interesting. Enthusiasm however, got the better of us, or Z rather, who animatedly belted out her rendition of a popular Tamil song, corrupted almost beyond recognition. The frenzy had us all in fits of laughter and Catman had to take his eyes off the road to shield his embarrassment.
Having successfully avoided the inexplicable scenario of traffic accident due to bad singing, we arrived in town at just past 05.00pm. That left us sometime to explore the market a bit and haggle for some little red mangoes and juicy black Jaffna grapes that looked tempting. Catman was keen on having us taste some jackfruit but we didn’t really fancy it. We made it to the fort early this time, ambling around and watching as most people obediently made their way out of the area. Even the cows hanging around in the premises showed a greater degree of adherence to regulations than we did. We however, had the sunset, once more before we moved on, the prettiest goodbye.
Back at base, we bade farewell to the cool Catman, to conclude what had been a mind-numbingly awesome day. After some rest, we agreed to hoof it around the neighborhood in the quest for a decent place to get some grub. The area around the guest house has minimal street lighting like most parts of town. It’s quiet and a flash light can be very handy. We met some stray dogs that needed a little negotiating, but nothing serious. The stark interiors and strange smell in the air was enough for us to make a U-turn for the exit at our first stop. Stop no. 02 too didn’t qualify as we couldn’t locate any staff in the all but abandoned dining area. A little impatient now, but still enjoying the stroll in the cool of the night, we continued until we got third time lucky. It was a new restaurant with some flashy neon signage, oddly named the ‘U.S. Restaurant’ if my memory serves me well. The service was friendly, the food was alright and fairly priced. We dug in, while keeping ourselves entertained by going through the photos and videos from the day and eavesdropping on a bunch of old ladies who were having an animated session of gossip at the next table.
Jaffna has been an extraordinary experience for us, beyond what we could’ve imagined. It was time to pack our bags though, and our memories too as we looked forward to our journey to Trincomalee the next day. The manager was kind enough to help us figure out how to get there. We agreed on getting to Pallai first, the nearest railway station, which is about forty-five kilometers south, to catch the Colombo bound train to Vavuniya. From there, we would be able to catch a bus to Trincomalee.
Morning comes, and we have missed enough of it to rule out a bus journey to Pallai. We need to get a tuktuk ride if we are to catch the train which departs at 06.45am. The blast of the cool morning air as we sped towards Pallai got rid of any lingering sense of lethargy. About halfway there, we made a much needed stop for some hot tea and snacks. Morning tea was a ritual that Shokkiss wasn’t going to abandon, regardless of which corner of the planet we found ourselves in. Happier and warmer, we realized that catching this train is going to be a close shave. With fifteen minutes left to departure, we weren’t even in Pallai yet. The tuktuk guy speeds up, and we get there eventually, ten minutes late, the train already moving as we approached. We wave and scream frantically in chorus, trying to get anybody’s attention. The tuktuk stops right outside the station and we grab our stuff and make a run for it. Incredibly, the train stops, thanks to the commotion that we created. A great sense of relief takes over us, but the adrenaline is still pumping, several of the officers are urging us to hurry up and all eyes are focused on us. Unfortunately, and unexpectedly, the ticket officer informs me that we have to purchase full journey tickets, even if we are getting off at Vavuniya. It would push the cost well over our budget, especially considering that we hired a tuktuk to get to the station. Understandably, the staff at the train station found no joy in our decision to not take the train. The train departed once again amidst much shaking of heads in disapproval and looks of agitation shot our way, while we remained on the platform feeling awkward and a little disappointed, but also victorious deep down at having actually hauled the train down.
We trudged out of the train station, where our approval ratings had clearly taken a dive, trying not to look anywhere near smug as we made our way to the bus stand nearby. Contrary to any plan we had, we now found ourselves in a little known town, waiting for a bus to Vavuniya, with no idea of when we would actually get a bus that we could ride on. All the buses that passed by for the first half hour either weren’t going to Vavuniya, or were packed like a can of sardines. It was time to gather some information from the locals and brace ourselves for what lay ahead. Game faces activated, Z and Shokkiss hunker down in the bus shelter with the luggage while I make a supply run to a little store across the road.
Feel free to holla in the comments section for any extra info.
HERE’S A LITTLE VIDEO OF SOME OF THE HIGHLIGHTS FROM OUR CRAZY TWO DAYS IN JAFFNA.