Jaffna

A combination of my ignorance and blind stubbornness got me to Jaffna, the main city on the Northern-most tip of the island, through three of the soggiest most dismal days I can remember.  Along the way I purchased the largest rain jacket I could find – Sri Lankan size medium – and a grocery bag to cover my camera gear which I carried under my shirt like a pregnant belly, and I deemed that to be adequate protection to ride under a perpetual waterfall deluge for three days straight.  As rain pelted my face to numbness my mind often drifted to those lovely beaches in the South where I started; calm water, blue skies, tons of sensible tourists relaxing and sipping refreshing drinks.  Why was I squinting into this relentless rain again?  It felt much more like stupidity than adventure.  But I had already made my bed.

The rain did afford some nice moments, however.  During particularly intense downpours I would try to pull over and find some cover until it eased up a bit.  This is where the warmth of the Sri Lankan people would really shine.  Everyone who had a piece of shelter would offer it freely, move things around to make room for my bike under some dilapidated ‘car port’, and offer me warm tea.  The North hasn’t seen many foreigners in recent years and I got the sense that people were quite happy to make my experience as welcoming as possible.

Although the war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military has been over for a few years, there is still a large military presence in the Northern cities.   But it isn’t intimidating in the least.  Generally, these forces consist of baby-faced soldiers in camouflage uniforms playing on their cell phones or waving and laughing at the white guy on the motorbike.  The only ‘official’ checkpoint I passed required me to sign in before entering the Jaffna area.  I told the 20-year-old looking kid my first name, which he repeated awkwardly and wrote in his book (phonetically I assume, as I didn’t spell it) then he gave me a head wobble and I was on my way.  No passport check, no photograph, no inquiry about my license or motorbike, not even a last name.  Just a head wobble.  And to think, I had been worried about bringing a vehicle through Jaffna security this entire trip.  I arrived in Jaffna short after, completely saturated and elated that the guesthouse I found had a heated shower.

Jaffna is a lovely, strange place.  The city centre looks more like a small bustling Indian city, with strange sites and smells and confusion, but all at a slightly slower Sri Lankan pace.  A colourful treat.  It is as if they are particularly proud of their Hindu heritage; this is the largest concentration of Hindus in Sri Lanka (although there are still Christians and Muslims in the mix), so they go over the top.  The temples here are huge, their exteriors striped red and white as if located on airport runway, their interiors are bright yellow and red and every colour inbetween.  And strangely, upon entering the temples, men are required to remove their shirts. That was an unusual first.

The highlight of my trip to Jaffna wasn’t any particular temple or monument, but some extended walks though fishermen neighbourhoods that were particularly affected by the war which only ended about 4 years ago.  The people here are extremely poor, many still living in crumbed homes riddled with bullet holes or missing entire walls.  But despite these conditions they are incredibly warm and smiling, often running from their homes to catch me in time to say something like, “Good morning, sir!  Welcome to Jaffna!”.  After almost 30 years of fighting, the recent arrival of tourists in Jaffna must be a very welcome symbol of their new stability and hope.  Everyone wanted me to take their photo or their child’s photo; I’ve never really experienced this widespread openness and warmth before.  Without question, this was worth the three days clinging to a drenched motorcycle to get there.  And the two more to get out.