The trip to Jaffna, the Northern most city of the island, was going to be interesting to say the least. We have all heard bits and pieces about the notorious Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and the war that raged in Sri Lanka for 3 decades, ending in 2009. So leaving from surf happy, Marley mania in Arugam Bay, to the once war torn and tsunami ravaged Jaffna was going to be an adjustment of sorts. We were not sure what to expect from Jaffna, as many Sri Lankans have never made the trip north and know nothing more about it other than, “LTTE stronghold, war, but now it’s ok”. Or, “Oh, there are Tamils.” Intrigued by these stories of “Tamils” as if we were talking about little green martians that had descended on planet earth and stumbled into a mormon gathering. It’s like coming to SA and saying, “Durban? Oh ya Durbs, cool spot. There are lank Indians there. And they are Hindu.” And the Dutchman hide in Bloem and Pretoria (usually wearing two-tone khaki short pant and shirt).
So the Tamils……. It’s hard not to feel a sense of pity or sympathy for the Tamils of the Jaffna Peninsula. They have had the shitty end of a very short, sharp stick for many years now. 3 decades of war, a Tsunami, a struggling economy, rising costs, frequent power cuts and now a so called peace that looks and feels more like a territory occupied, with Pres. Rajapakse’s military presence on every corner, block, road, rat tunnel and toilet. Holy crap. Is the man expecting an American invasion? Does he not know that they are busy with enough political in-fighting at the moment to keep them busy for the next generation. Military overkill.
The Tamils are mostly situated in the northern part of Sri Lanka (other than the tea pluckers on the plantations in the hillcountry in the middle of the island, who by the way got an even shorter, shitty stick, but more on them later). There are Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils. It’s a bit like calling yourself an African American. Or Italian American. WTF? Am I like a Semi-Dutch, Semi-English African? Or Euro African? How far back down the genetic foofie slide do you want to go to classify yourself? As far as I can see it – You’re born and raised in a country and that’s what you are. Pledge allegiance and get over your great grandfather’s sister’s half cousin who was once born in some shit hole in Europe, hence the Euro-trash African connection. So I find it a bit intriguing and a bit disappointing actually that there is this Singhala / Tamil differentiation, which despite many denials, it’s there. That’s why Raj has the military there. En mass.
I thought that it was only customs officials who hide their ignorance behind a super arrogant confidence, that borders on the sublimely ridiculous. But going through a military checkpoint to get onto the Jaffna Peninsula, a military road block stops all vehicles and Tamils are checked in and out, bags searched for illicit coconut smuggling, while the rest of us confused Euro-African American Asians are placed on a “in and out” list and our passports checked. I’m not sure what for. Just in case one of us decides not to leave and become a Euro Afro Asia-nerican Tamil. The others stay on the bus and wait, eating short eats in the baking sun.
The evidence of the war is still there for all to see. Deserted and destroyed homes and buildings are seen everywhere as you arrive.
There are still areas cordoned off on the outskirts of Jaffna with mine warnings. So I guess it’s reassuring if you’re one of those fearful fat tourists sitting in your air-conditioned coach, sipping your double purified water from a sterile straw while staring glibly out at the strange people out there. You’ll be assured that nobody will pickpocket you, grab your booby or heaven forbid, an obnoxious cow poops in your path and ruins your turquoise crocs. They wouldn’t dare. Raj’s military will gun them down. You’ll be safe. Just don’t tell them you’re an Euro African Tamil. That could also cause confusion that could lead to instant AK47 activation.
We initially tried to get motorbikes from Arugam Bay and even at one stage considered a tuk tuk so that we could have our own wheels to get there, but it didn’t work out, which is not necessarily a bad thing as it could have led to another war with a tussle between us as to who would drive the thing. I don’t make a good back seat driver and Griff’s navigation is shocking.
Besides I can only imagine the consternation at checkpoint Jaffna when they saw a mad Arrack fuelled woman tearing down at them in a tuk tuk refusing to hand over the controls. It may have been messy. So we bussed it North. A short 2 day stop in Uppuvelli for a swim and a coconut cocktail or 3, then on to Jaffna. A bumpy, potholed road with several road works. We were covered in dust by the time we arrived and after a short downpour on our way to the guesthouse, it turned to mud and we looked like contestants in a local mud wrestling tournament. No wonder there was a slight hesitation when we arrived asking for a room. I would not have let myself in. But after checking into our place, which had a neighbouring field on which cows grazed during the day, while kids played cricket in the evening, we secured a cold Lion and got to the serious business of trying to get to the heart of these Tamils and trying to get a grip on this war.
We found a dodgy place in someone’s home for a good rice and curry, washed down with a few cold Lions. A bit like arriving at a stranger’s house and asking for a meal, which they readily rustle up while you sit and sip your lager in their living room, surrounded by purple walls, floral curtains, fake plants and a shrine of sorts with burning incense. As we were leaving we bought a juice an walked out with it, only to be followed by a little old man chasing us down the drive way shouting “Sorry Madam, tomorrow, bottle is coming!” huh? Bottle is coming where? The penny dropped slowly due to the Lions and we were sworn to an oath on our lives that we would return the empties in the morning. Even the small things add up here.
We cruise around Jaffna the next few days on foot, tuk tuk and bicycle. Cycling about 70kms to Point Pedro along the coast. It’s a great way to explore and people stop to chat or invite you for tea everywhere. (Except the army who are mildly curious, but don’t always allow the strange palefaces on bicycles to distract them from the all important task of guarding a deserted beach or palmyra plantation.)
It’s a shame they ruin the peacefulness of this beautiful stretch of coast. Setting up barricades in some people’s homes, along the beach, near temples, positioning themselves strategically so that they are capable of dealing with a possible 5-pronged coconut attack from all directions. Even the lighthouse is off limits. No photos.
No taking of photographs at the lighthouse. Really? In case someone steals the unique state of the art, never before seen, design?The fishing communities have a hard life there. There seems little to no reconstruction after the Tsunami, but roads are now being worked on though. If the potholes get any wider they’ll lose a few tanks and goats. But there is a lot of talk about aid that was destined for the Tamils, actually never reaching them, but ending up in state coffers. There is a stretch of the coastline where Stingray fishing is common place. You see them drying along the side of the road, being covered by plastic UN aid, ground sheets when the rains come. I chuckle at the weirdness of it, but as a keen scuba diver I cringe at these beautiful creatures being slaughtered like that, but when you grow up in a fishing community and times are hard, what would be the difference between killing a fish or ray?
Do you eat chicken and not beef because the cow is cute and has big googly eyes? So again I can’t judge.
The 3 decade war between Tamil LTTE fighters and Sri Lankas Singhalese government killed thousands of people on both sides. While the government now tries to quietly brush the “incident” under the carpet and get on with the business of luring tourists and investors it could do with some meaningful restoration in the North.
While Pres. Rajapakse builds his empire in the South with massive infrastructure, roads, cricket stadia, convention centres, a chinese built and apparently owned harbour, plans for a new international airport, it seems he is keen to relocate the country’s capital to Hambantota. 3 years on, the Northern region still looks like a set from “The world is screwed and has ended” movie.Ruins of fishermen’s homes with goats, cows and crazy tourists seeking shelter from a lashing storm, are a harsh reminder of the 2004 Tsunami. In the city and surrounds there are deserted homes and buildings of Sri Lankans (Tamil and Sinhalese, I guess) who either fled the war, “disappeared” or are unaccounted for. Some may return, some have, others may never. In the mean time the lush tropical vegetation is doing its thing in hiding the horrors and burnt out shells of homes, while the Military have done their bit and taken over many others (although generally the more solid and well positioned homes), for essential peace keeping duties of course.
Nothing like a armed to the bollox , gun toting, camoflaged neighbour to instill a sense of national unity and goodwill.
The construction of the new harbour in Hambantota brought much criticism. NE sits the world’s 5th biggest natural harbour in the world. In Trincomalee. But it’s in Tamil area.
The north could use some infrastructure Raj, an international stadium there would do wonders to spread a bit of goodwill to the Tamils.
After getting caught in a downpour on our route and rejecting an offer for shelter in a military bunker, we find a small roadside store near the Point Pedro Lighthouse. I’m sure it had a great ocean view until the 10foot barricade went up in front of it. We’re invited into what we think is their home, only to discover a dark and wonderful smelling bakery, which is also someone’s home. We’re given a variety of snacks to sample. Very little English is spoken, but we manage. I’ve yet to come across a bakery in Cape Town that could rustle up what these guys were doing. By the time the rain had passed we’d almost worked our way through their extensive range and were fighting to leave. Can’t eat anymore. Please. Help. They laughed and refused any money. “Thank you for visiting Jaffna” , was all we got. Try that in Cape Town, you’ll be charged a fee by some car guard looking after a bus shelter. Why is it that often people who have so little are willing to give away so much, so openly and without any expectation of “getting something back”?
We managed to drag our pastry-filled bellies and saddle weary asses back onto our state of the art designer bikes and head back.
We spent a few days traversing the Peninsula, visiting the surrounding islands that are linked by various causeways and ferries, crossing the lagoons that link the mainland to the ocean. Met everywhere with smiling faces and welcoming gestures. “Come for tea! Meet my family.” I’d need 3months! I wish.Despite many (mostly Sinhalese) people’s vociferous denials that there was no longer a problem, we came across many people, who during our travels asked, “but are they Tamil or Sinhalese?”. It shouldnt make a difference – you’re Sri Lankan first, Tamil or Singhalese after, then not to mention, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian or whatever other god / idol fearing religious group you choose to follow or not follow….
Someone along the way said “There is peace now between Tamils and the Government (which are all Sinhalese), and that there is no more animosity between the groups, but neither group believes what the other says.” How can that ever be a great working solution?
The world as we know it is a fucking mess, but nevertheless, a head wobble and concerned face, “Sorry, madam, tomorrow bottle is coming”, will always make me laugh and remember the guys up North.
Please don’t feel sorry for them. Pity is an insult, do yourself a favour and go visit this incredibly beautiful, although neglected, Northern Peninsula of Sri Lanka. You’ll see a nation of proud and resilient people, living a hard life but still prepared to welcome strangers with open arms and a cup of tea.
I think we managed to get to the heart of the Tamils and it’s a warm, welcoming and endearing one. As for the war, I guess I’ll never figure it out. Other than power and greed mixed with a bit of religious and cultural intolerance equals a keg of gunpowder waiting for a spark. Aaahhhhhh, rest assured we humans never learn and are as predictable as monkeys (although even they learn from their mistakes!). And we do love a good battle. It keeps the world ticking.
We left Jaffna with a heavy heart, not feeling like we had done the place much justice and there was so much more to explore, but we hope to be back. At the same checkpoint outside of Jaffna, I was clocked out as “Ms Schengen” (from the visa that us “Euro Afros” and Africans need when going to “civilized” countries in Europe, which in itself is a procedure, I guess to prevent Euro Afros and Africans from getting to cosy and comfortable with running water and electricity in Europe and then eventually becoming Euro Afro Europeans, or Afropeans….? The world’s confused enough as it is – that would just cause unstoppable madness. )
I did not have the heart to tell Miss Efficious cadet that she was wasting her time and Raj’s money which should rather have been spent on more Tsunami and post war reconciliatory efforts than expanding his security core and building himself a Dogoba (even more on that later….), while his economy splutters along. So I entered as Ms Euro Afro and left as Ms Schengen. I hope they have not sent a search party to find me.
A few more PICS: