Just like any other Asian city, people are all out to rip you off. The advantage of travelling with my family is that I can let them do all the talking. Besides, they have much more experience at negotiating prices than I do. Sri Lanka has a bad reputation as well for ripping off tourists, even if you look Sri Lankan, they will still try. Money is well-sought after being a post-war developing nation. The greed is understandable but not completely acceptable.
After an 8 hour bus ride from hell which we paid 650 rupees for (less than $6) along the bumpy road north, we finally arrived in my hometown of Jaffna, the capital of Jaffna province (the northern point of Sri Lanka) with a swollen foot and a case of food poisoning (both of which I survived).
The first thing I noticed was that Sri Lanka is not as war torn as I anticipated. Tamils abroad love to rave and roar about how our homeland is destroyed. My mother did complain about how it is different; businesses aren’t the same and there aren’t as many street lights as there used to be but it’s hard to believe that just a year ago, bombs were being thrown and people were running for their lives. The only evidence of this are the abandoned and half broken buildings. These are scattered far and in between in Jaffna, at random corners and people use them as a hang out spot, along with the goats and dogs.
It is essential to know Tamil in Jaffna especially when it comes to meeting family. Everyone speaks a little bit of basic English, but to really get to know people you need to speak Jaffna Tamil which means annunciating your words.
I met more family who have known me as a baby but I was meeting for the first time. We spent all day Saturday exploring the island west of Jaffna – Kayts. This is also the hometown of my grandfather and the family I was visiting are the cousins of my grandfather who had now moved to Jaffna and Colombo due to the war. We were all going back after numerous years. The island was pretty abandoned since most families had fled overseas (like our own). Being a Catholic family, we made our rounds to ALL the churches in Kayts and Karampon (a small village on the island) and I also got to see the school my grandfather and my uncle went to. We also tried to find my uncle’s dowry house and my grandmother’s (my grandfather’s cousin’s) house; one was broken apart and had trees growing in it, the other we were unable to get to since the path had been blocked by overgrown plants. With the absence of a community, the village is unkept and becoming a jungle. Karampon is overwhelming Catholic but the churches give it a peaceful vibe and its remaining citizens lead a breezy and simple life, away from the hustle and bustle of the town.
After hitting up St. Ann’s church, St. Sebastian’s church and Vellangani church we finally had some down time at Vellanai beach which is breezy and a great spot to relax and eat. We also noticed heaps of Sinhalese tourists at the beach and around which is pretty peculiar, but I was told that the president is paying the families of soldiers to hit up the north in order to promote tourism and harmony. So far I suppose its working well; I didn’t feel much animosity although there are a few who feel threatened that the Sinhalese people might take over businesses and the whole unfair advantage might rise up again, creating a pre-war tension.
Sunday was spent in my grandmother’s village – Earlalai, the village of red soil. A few of my grandmother’s cousins are still living there so it was really nice to see them and see the village where my grandmother grew up. This place was a real village, with loads of jackfruit, papaya and mango trees, rattan fences and even some straw huts. Earlalai is about 30 mins by auto from Jaffna but my mom used to take the bus in her days with her mother, which took her about an hour plus they had to walk into the village from the bus stop which was about another 30 mins, and don’t forget to add on the intensity of the sun.
My aunts house had chickens and roosters running around in the yard along with the dogs and the cat. I loved that this mini farm was their home, and they had fresh eggs daily but without as much work as a real farm.
After visiting these villages it was easy for me to understand where my mom’s values came from. It’s true that you do need to go back to your roots to understand yourself and I’m very grateful for having met the people I have and seen what I have. No one in my family is very rich, they all live a modest life which they have worked their whole lives to achieve. At certain points they were all poor, as in watching their rupees and saving so they could pay their tuition fees for school. Education has always been the key to success (specifically in English medium) and this shows in the numerous tutoring centers located all across Jaffna town. Studying is a full time job, one that parents invest in with loads of hope. Talk about pressure for their kids!
But if it wasn’t for this education people like my mom and her sisters wouldn’t have been able to have a successful future in Canada, and for that they are forever grateful to my grandparents.
Jaffna town is the city center and it really is just a town than a city. The main market is located here along with streets lined with jewelery shops, clothing shops, bus stands, movie theaters and restaurants. The city center is compact and walkable yet the heat does persuade otherwise. The town is loud and can be overwhelmingly busy at all times. It’s only about a 10 mins auto ride from the residential part of Jaffna, which is lined with all the houses and smaller scale stores. Much like Colombo, Jaffna also shuts down by 7 or 8pm. At night you spent all your energy fighting off the mosquitoes and watching tv, before eating a good meal and getting to bed by 9pm for your 5am wake up.
Simple yet satisfying.