Tag Archives: inspiration

Boobies!

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Blue footed boobies in the Galapagos Islands. (source: dailymail.co.uk)

Guys you can put away the lotion/olive oil. It’s not what you think. But if you read on I guarantee you will garner some very useful knowledge that could probably change your mind about sending me death threats.

Yes they are boobies, but the flying and furry kind. As you may imagine, I’ve already lost sleep trying to make sense of the thought process that led to this rather ambiguous naming of a bird specie, not that I believe it to be intentional. One popular theory is that the name evolved from the Spanish word ‘bobo’, suggesting the unintelligent habit of the birds being consistently oblivious to human presence and thereby becoming a regular feature in the dinner menus of colonial seafaring types. If they only knew of the ramifications that it would have in the age of the internet.

Anyway, now that we have extinguished any confusion, here are some fast facts on boobies:

– Scientific name: Nevermind. When do they ever come in handy.

– Boobies are fishing birds that hunt by diving into the sea, much like seagulls.

– Boobies are large, in comparison to many other seabirds. Most species can grow upto more than 2 feet long with a wingspan of nearly 5 feet. Adults easily weigh more than a kilogram.

– General physical features of boobies are that they are thick-bodied, with a long bill and large webbed feet.

– Booby species are easily found in the tropical regions of the oceans. They often travel long distances to fish.

– Boobies live up to around 20 years of age on average.

– Boobies have breeding colonies, kind of like penguins.

– Hunting can be a spectacular sight, with boobies diving from up to 95 feet. (That’s the height of the famous ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue in Rio de Janeiro.)

– The most visually appealing kind is undoubtedly the blue-footed booby, with it’s contrasting, blue coloured feet. They are found mostly in and around the coastal regions of Central America.

– The peculiar colouring of the blue-footed boobys feet seem to mainly serve the purpose of attracting a mate. Females are attracted to the brightest coloured feet. If only we had it that easy. The coloured feet also make their mating ritual dance that much more interesting.

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A red footed booby in flight. (source: adventurersclub.org)

Little doubt that boobies are in general pretty cool. I love em. They are very interesting and amusing to watch; under unavoidable circumstances, they would be a great substitute to KFC; they have generally been nicer to humans than we have been to them; and watching a flock hunt is like watching an aerial bombardment over water. Unfortunately, even though they are doing alright in the wild, they aren’t faring too well on the internet, due to reasons that I am sure you can figure out. Let’s just say it can be very inconvenient to google them. In addition to their online presence being severely encroached on, they have also been often ridiculed for their behaviour and of course their name, adding insult to injury. This is a tribute, overdue to these wonderful creatures, the ‘real’ boobies.

And just when you thought they couldn’t be any cooler, they offer you guys the ultimate get-out-of-jail card for those occasions when you forget to delete your search/browser history or for when someone overhears your discussion with the fellas. You are welcome.

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A flock of blue footed boobies diving in the Galapagos. (source: brettwhysel.com)

Sources:

Info: http://animals.nationalgeographic.com

wikipedia

Header image: http://likka-photos.com

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Jaffna Calling [Part 02/02]

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Stitch Jaffna - Copy (2)

continued from [Part 01/02]

[DAY 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.

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Got ourselves slick ride for Day 02.

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.

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A tobacco field. The ironically beautiful birthplace of a cigarette.

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.

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Views from the Point Pedro jetty.

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.

Love at first sight.

Love at first sight. It redefines flaw and perfection.

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.

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Boats on the beach. Point Pedro.

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The Point Pedro lighthouse. Off limits. A retired beacon.

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.

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The frontier. The ‘Point’.

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.

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Looking out from the Thondaimanaru bridge.

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.

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A couple of pigeons take shelter in the well, just above the murky water.

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.

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The scared Keerimalai springs.

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Ruins of the old temple at Keerimalai.

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.

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Ruins near Keerimalai

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.

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Fishing hut in a lake by the road. Alternative living spaces.

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.

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The lovely and stroll-worthy Casuarina beach.

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.

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Grapes à la Jaffna.

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.

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A deserted road, with electric poles standing tall, like sentinels watching over the vast beauty.

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.

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Scene from a bygone era, Keerimalai. Until next time Jaffna.

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.

Jaffna Calling [Part 01/02]

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Stitch Jaffna - Copy (2)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.

[DAY 01]

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Road to Jaffna. India is just a skip away.

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.

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Excuse me Ma’am, we don’t wanna see your ID.

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.

Good ideas:

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.

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Charming old lodge and THE 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.

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The knockout combo of ulundu vadai and milk tea.

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.

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A vendor in town, displaying stocks of dried fish, a local delicacy.

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.

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The Jaffna market, more yellow than you would find at a Borussia Dortmund game. (external source linked)

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.

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The vibrant Nalllur Kandaswamy Kovil. Note: No photography allowed inside. And no shirts either, for male visitors.

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Sneakpeek into the beautiful interiors of the kovil.

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.

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A little festival of colors just at the kovil entrance.

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.

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One of the many structures around town that lie in ruin.

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.

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A view of the Jaffna clock tower from across the Pullu Kulam lake.

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.

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From the interior on to the ramparts of the fort.

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.

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The closing minutes of a spectacular show.

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.

continued…

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.