Yours truly was in Jaffna last weekend, backpacking and camping. And it was awesome. There is no other word to describe the experience. It was my first time in the fabled peninsula famed for its Palmyra trees, grapes, terrorists and friendly people.
Ever since I was a kid I wanted to travel to the country’s formerly war torn North, and when I finally got around to doing that last week, it was truly a rewarding experience. I couldn’t help but feel it was worth the years and years of waiting. It was that good. Even after decades of conflict, Jaffna didn’t disappoint.
The train ride from Colombo to Vavuniya was fast and uneventful, but it was a pleasant one nonetheless. As the train was whizzing through the outskirts of the North Central Province, I took a quick peek outside the window, just to have a look at the night sky outside. What I saw blew my mind.
The sky was crystal clear and was littered with hundreds and hundreds of the brightest stars you could ever hope to see with the naked eye on an earthbound location.
If you’re into astronomy like me, it’s worth taking the Vavuniya train just for this. The cold wind hitting your face while you’re traveling at 60 miles per hour with your head sticking out the train window only adds to the overall effect. It’s out of this world.
Getting back to the story, Vavuniya is where the journey to Jaffna really begins. The town doesn’t look very different from towns closer to home, like Kurunegala or Ragama.
Take out the Sinhala signboards and replace them with Tamil ones, add a little more heat, and also a few extra pinches of salt to the food, and you have Vavuniya.
It doesn’t look like the three decade war has had much effect on the place. If there is a strong military presence in the town area, it is hardly visible. The people seem to get about their business unhindered and happy. We didn’t get to spend much time exploring the neighbourhood, though. We had a bus to catch - the Vavuniya-Jaffna bus plying on the famous A9 highway.
Using the bus is the way to get about when you’re in the North. I spent almost the entirety of that three and a half hour bus ride from Vavuniya to Jaffna on the footboard of the crowded CTB bus and I’m glad I did.
The footboard offers the best possible view of the beautiful landscape on either side of the nearly uniformly straight A9. Barring a stretch of about 15 kilometres where it gets a bit jolty due to a few scattered pot holes, the road is mostly well carpeted and is super flat. You can easily hit a 120km/h here. It’s every driver’s dream.
The bus was stopped at the Omanthai entry-exit point for checking. It was surprisingly quick, but very thorough. The soldiers who checked my backpack were pleasantly surprised to hear that me and my ragtag band of friends were from Colombo and wanted to know about the eclipse we were going to see. They were a friendly bunch, I thought.
Passing through Elephant Pass and getting into the Jaffna lagoon was one of the highlights of the trip. There were no elephants, but the sheer vastness of the open terrain with water on either side of the road was mesmerising. It’s enough to take your breath away.
By the time we finally got to Jaffna Town we were all hungry and exhausted but immensely satisfied.
The peninsula itself will take a few pages to describe, what with the friendly people, the colourful shops and Kovils, Point Pedro, the beautiful beaches on the west coast of the peninsula and a host of other sights that could probably fill a book. I shall not attempt to do that here.
But let me try and describe what the town is like.
The average Jaffna citizen’s preferred mode of transport seems to be the bicycle. I think there are more bicycles here than there is any other type of vehicle. I could be wrong, but there was a bicycle everywhere I looked. The town is reminiscent of towns like Wellawatte, but there is something uniquely different yet very familiar about the place. It is abuzz with activity, but not so much that it suffocates you.
Shops and street vendors that sell all sorts of food items, toys, coloured papadam, etc. line up Jaffna’s busy streets, occasionally interrupted by a saivar joint.
And these saivar joints are where it’s at, so to speak. You have just got to try them out.
The food is nothing mouthwateringly exotic, but eating dosai or string hoppers off a banana leaf in a crowded Jaffna restaurant is an experience worth having. Just make sure you throw the leaf into the dustbin before you go. If you don’t, the waiter will ask you why.
There is much, much more to be said about this amazing place of course. But I have to say, the trip taught me a lot of things. The most important lesson I learnt was that there is still hope for this country. Peace IS possible. The war is no longer there and the people in the North genuinely want to live peacefully with the rest of us. It shows when they help you pick the right mangoes, when they stop to give you directions to the bus stop.
They’re as sick of this meaningless conflict as the rest of us. Now is the best time to visit Jaffna and other places in the North and East. If you have the time and the ability to make your way there, please do so. It will go a long way in building peace and harmony. You owe it to this country. Think about it.