Roads less travelled
Exploring the Northern Sri Lanka
Expedition: “The Nandus” – Exploring the Northern Sri Lanka
Expedition members: Dulith/Ashan/Nishanthan/Laroshi & Usman
There are places in the world that speak of times gone by and the north is one them. It is a different world compared to the rest of the island and rightfully so. Imagine quaint cities, with small colourful houses neatly stacked by the roadside, colossal temples jutting out to the sky and colourful sari-clad women on their bicycles going about their daily life. Then there are the pristine beaches…
Exploring the Northern parts of our island is always exciting and we often end up discovering new things. We have never done a backpacking trip in these parts of the island before and the very thought of it seemed quite intriguing yet daunting at the same time.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the north is that it is a living monument. Families who have lived here for generations and tasted the bitter outcomings of a civil war that lasted for nearly 3 decades, will continue to inhabit the fortified streets. They are resilient, inspiring and hopeful for a better future. The days we spent navigating through the north was an invaluable and rewarding experience for all of us as it was not just a trip we planned to go “look for things” but it was more engaging on the levels of connecting with the surrounding, people and places. Wherever we travelled, we travelled with all our heart. It made us think, what you get from your journey depends on what you bring; if you never stray away from your mainstream hotel comforts and the conventional tourist attractions, you could drown in boredom in a few days. Travelling would give much more meaning if you’re ready to step out of your comfort zone and be interested in getting to know the people, history, nature and art – all the things that really matter. It is safe to say that lifetime is not enough for this!
We meticulously planned our seven-night journey. We researched information on the internet and made several phone calls to cross-check what we had at hand with our colleagues. We made a list of all the places that we were keen to visit. Included new visits like “The Sinking Church” and “The Donkey Clinic”. We were also intrigued to meet outstanding personalities in the local communities and learn their stories. Through our contacts, we arranged meetings with possible hosts for future experiences. We absolutely looked forward to the sit-down session with the ex-LTTE child soldiers. As expected it was completely mind blowing to be able to converse with people who have been at the forefront of a devastating civil war that tore numerous families. For most part, due to these terrible events, the two cultures that onced lived in peace and harmony, drifted apart. It resulted in each of us looking at one another in utmost doubt and hesitation. Now the remnants of the war are slowly deteriorating. Thus learning about their point of views and lifestyle was definitely an eye opener.
We travelled in loud and crowded buses, cramped up tuk tuks and rode on the back of trucks. We were also able to try out a not so common mode of transport as well – a tractor. Even Though the roads were bumpy and the terrains were hard, our trip was a memorable one every step of the way.
Although we were on a tight budget, we were able to enjoy some delectable local meals during our trip. We had meals at humble homes, raggedy road-side cafes as well as a popular villa in the area. At times we were quite concerned about getting indigestion but we had a local Ayuruvedic remedy at hand – Asamodagam. We were able to taste some amazing Jaffna crab as well as spicy prawn and cuttlefish too. We were humbled by the hospitality of the local community and how welcoming they were. We learned how simple life can be in these parts of the island and we will definitely travel to these parts of Sri Lanka again.
Day 1: Saturday, August 8, 2020
We had discussed meeting at the Colombo Bus Station in Fort at 6 AM. The three of us were excited to embark on this adventure, exploring the Northern Province of the country. Even though we had visited these areas many times, we were sure that this experience was going to be one of a kind. We packed our bags with clothes and essentials that would last us for a week as we had to carry the luggage on our backs throughout the journey.
It was early in the morning; the sun had not come out yet but the Bus Station was busy and we quickly managed to find our way to the bus taking us to our first location – Udappu. Loud music being played in Sri Lankan buses is quite common, and none of us could squeeze in a decent nap. We were mesmerized by the towns we saw along the way. In the fishing village of Negombo we saw the beautiful churches as we drove by. By this time, the roads were not that deserted anymore as people had started commuting to work. We passed the town of Waikkal, which is popular for its tile kilns. These tiles are commonly used on the roofs of Sri Lankan houses as it helps to keep the home cool during the hot weather.
After a 2.5hr bus ride, we reached the ethnically diverse fishing community of Udappu which is made up of 2500 families. This was such a close-knit community where everyone knew one another. It made us think how different things were back home as how we sometimes did not know who our neighbor was. We hailed down a tuk-tuk to get into town as we were backpacking and this ride was a bit of a tight squeeze since our bags were quite bulky. The skies were cloudy and it was not as hot and humid as we expected. Majority of the population in Udappu is Tamil, and we could see many majestic and colourful Kovils or Hindu temples in the area. We decided to visit the two most important ones – Sri Parsarathy Draupadi Amman Temple and Kali Amman Temple.
Sri Parsarathy Draupadi Amman Temple is known to be one of the oldest Hindu temples in the country and was built by the early Indian settlers who first arrived in Mannar and then eventually settled down in Udappu. During every month of August, this temple follows a ceremony which requires all worshippers to abstain from eating meat and fish. We then walked through some lively local fish and vegetable markets. The vendors were selling a great variety of produce which had vibrant colours – from avocados to prawn to corn. The next Hindu temple we visited was Kali Amman Temple which is known to possess cleansing powers. Back in the day, this temple used to be a small shrine on the beach covered by a humble hut made of coconut leaves. The ancient rituals performed at the temple were used to protect the fishermen that went to sea. The visit was followed by an interesting chat with the Iyer (Hindu priest) at the temple.
Prawn farming is quite popular in this area, and we were eager to learn more about it. During our chat with the friendly Iyer outside the kovil, we asked him if he knew a prawn farm we could visit. He nodded and with a quick clap of his hands he caught the attention of motorcyclists driving by. The motorcyclist stopped and came up to us and the Iyer instructed him to take us to his prawn farm. Siamurthi has had over 15 years’ experience in this field and was very eager to show us around his farm which spans over an acre of land.
He was kind and very proud of his farm and explained all the small details about prawn farming. His farm was spacious and well maintained. Siamurthi explained that he travels to Chilaw (which is about 45 mins south) every 3 to 4 months to purchase about 250,000 to 300,000 prawn hatchlings. As the prawn hatchlings have a 90% survival rate, he is able to generate about 3000KG of prawn in 4 months. In Colombo, prawns are not a novelty and we consume it on a daily basis but it never really occurred to us, how complex the farming process was and how dedicated these farmers are.
Before we stopped for breakfast, we also visited a local school in the area – Udappu Tamil Maha Vidyalaya, which has just under 600 students. This rural school has poor infrastructure with very few facilities – their computer lab does not have a single computer. As the schools sits by the ocean, the sea breeze tends to damage any equipment in the computer lab. Recently the school constructed brand new toilets but unfortunately due to the thunderstorms and strong winds, the roof of this unit was blown away. It is always heartbreaking to see how difficult it is for children in these areas to receive a proper education. When children are faced with such hurdles early on in life, it always hinders their interest to learn.
By this time, our stomachs were rumbling and we decided that it was finally time to grab some food. We indulged in some hot vadey (balls made up of chickpea) and paratha (type of flatbread) and we washed it all down with a cup of hot tea. We then hopped on the number 87 bus that took us to Meddawachchiye and this ride took us 2hrs. This bus was quite crowded and we found it difficult to breathe. It amazed us that this is the way that people in these villages travelled on a daily basis. Once in Meddawachchiye, we waited for the number 4 bus which was coming from Colombo to take us to Mannar – our overnight stay. The landscapes were different from what we initially saw on our way to Udappu, the land was quite barren and deserted. Then suddenly we saw an iconic Palmyrah tree. This was a clear sign that we had entered the infamous Northern Province of the island.
We arrived in Mannar by 05.15 PM and as we had not eaten for a while, we decided to settle down for a quick lunch. The closest place for a bite was called Private Bus Stand Canteen – which did not look very appetizing. Much to its disappointing name, they served us an equally disappointing beef fried rice. We ensured to gulp down a couple of sips of Asomodagam (herbal remedy for indigestion) each to prevent any future stomach upsets.
We took another tight tuk tuk ride with our big bags to our overnight stay – Hotel Ahash. The hotel looked clean and decent and for dinner we have ordered Prawn Noodles and Chicken 65 – after that fried rice earlier today, we really do not have high expectations for dinner. Here’s to hoping…
Day 2: Sunday, August 9, 2020
As expected, last night’s dinner was not impressive. The prawn noodles did not really have prawns as it should have been but instead it had koonisso (miniscule version of dried shrimp). It was a bit of a letdown, as we had visited a beautiful prawn farm earlier that day. The Chicken 65 dish consisted of seven small pieces of chicken tempered with onion which we divided justly between the three of us.
This morning we woke up early as we had quite a busy day ahead exploring the ins and outs of Mannar. Since we had quite a number of sites to explore, we figured that if we used public transport today, we would have not been able to complete all the visits. Therefore, we rented out a van for this particular day, as it would reduce our time spent on the road. This was somewhat of a luxury for us after roughing it out the first day in buses and tuk tuks.
Before we left the hotel by 7 AM, we decided to have breakfast as we were not too sure when our next meal would be, because the day was going to be swamped. We were quickly served a meal of idiyappam (rice noodle dish) with some dahl curry, boiled eggs and spicy coconut sambal. In Colombo, idiyappam is usually eaten for breakfast or dinner and it is quite filling. So, we were happy to start the day with this.
Once we started our drive, along the way we saw the big baobab tree, which Mannar is famously known for. These trees are not native to our island but were introduced back in the day by Arab traders.
Our next stop was the Dutch Fort which was built by the Portuguese and handed over to the Dutch colonies later on. Compared to the other forts around our island, this one is relatively smaller in size. It has not been preserved well over the past years, however there was some repair work going on today. Hopefully this will help restore some of the damage that has come over the years through erosion as well as the 30-year conflict. As this fort is bordering the lagoon, from December to April, this is a magnificent location to take pictures of flamingos and other migratory birds.
We then drove along the Eluwamkulam Road around 08.30 AM to visit the Doric Bungalow which used to be Sir Frederick North’s residence. Later on, this bungalow was used to revive and supervise the pearl fisheries in the area. As the bungalow sits just by the beach, it has been exposed to extreme weather conditions, and due to lack of maintenance the bungalow is now mostly in ruins. We tried to imagine how this historic residence must have looked like back in the day – it must have been glorious! And when guests were invited over, they must have been in awe when they saw the stunning views of the Indian Ocean.
The village of Kunchikulam is about 20 minutes’ drive from the bungalow, through a thick forest which was quite striking and adventurous. Legend has it, the local villagers back in the day used to be all quite mighty and most of the men were 6 feet in height and the ladies were considered to be the prettiest. When the Yodha Wewa or Giant Tank was being built in the ancient times, the king back then sought help from the village of Kunchikulam.
When we visited this town, we met a young and enthusiastic guesthouse owner. His place has basic rooms and a hall facility for meetings and functions. During the brief chat we had, he mentioned that before the pandemic, he had been receiving guests all the way from the US, Australia and even Estonia. It brought us such joy to see how determined and motivated he was and the way he has established himself, even though the country went through two recent disasters. Amidst all this, he was kind enough to treat us to some freshly plucked wood apple from his garden.
Hanging bridges are a rarity in Sri Lanka. However, we stumbled upon one of the most well-kept hanging bridges, the Hanging Bridge of Kunchikulam, which is suspended over the Aruviyaaru River. If you are not scared of heights, then this 100-meter bridge is a great place to take some lovely pictures.
After walking on the wobbly bridge, we realized that it was time for another snack – and pol roti (coconut flatbread) with lunumiris (sambal paste consisting of shallots, lime and chili) did the trick! Back in Colombo, lunch time involves a heavy dose of rice and curry but today as we were on a tight time frame, we all agreed that a couple of pol rotis would suffice for the time being and we had a quick round of Asamodagam again just to be on the safe side.
After our simple “lunch”, we drove on to the Nambikay Farm House which was 15 minutes away. This is a wonderful organic farm as well as a goat farm bordering the Giant Tank. On the rooftop of this farmhouse there are stunning views of the surrounding paddy fields and the tank. We also learned that the farmhouse serves lunch and at this point, we wished that we had waited to arrive here and not eaten those measly pol rotis. This farm also caters to the rehabilitation of the people that were directly involved with the conflict that spanned for 30 years, by offering them a sustainable livelihood. It is always such a delightful feeling when businesses are eager to give back and support the needy people in their communities.
We returned to our accommodation and collected our big bulky backpacks and proceeded in our van to Talaimannar towards our hotel for the night. On the way we noticed that the land on both sides of the road was quite desolate but there were plenty of donkeys, most of which were injured. It was a heart-wrenching sight to see that these innocent animals were hurt and helpless.
We arrived at the Donkey Clinic by 02.30PM and were greeted by the manager. He was very happy
to explain to us in detail about how this donkey welfare all began. After the civil war, a Sri Lankan born Australian was keen to give back to his motherland. He noticed that there were numerous injured donkeys in the area and the people in the villages were not too fond of them, as they were causing road accidents. After a few hurdles and not getting any local support, in 2016 he managed to set up the Donkey Clinic in Mannar. The clinic has a fully functional medical operational unit, separate enclosure for injured animals and three separate pens. All the donkeys have names and their own separate medical files. We were very lucky to meet a few of the popular kids on the block – Museaus, Ronaldo, Mathilda & Jo. They snacked on corn and chickpea and it was such a treat to be at their presence. The manager continued to explain that apart from donkeys, they sometimes provide their veterinary services to cows and dogs from the surrounding area.
By 04.30PM, we reached our hotel for the night – Vayu, which is located right at the North Western tip of the Mannar island. On the drive here, we came across two young children playing with marbles by the road. It was such a lovely sight and it made us understand how simple life is in these parts of our island. As we walked into the lounge area, we saw the breath-taking views of Adam’s Bridge. We truly felt disconnected from the rest of the world at this point. While we admired the scenery, we realized that we were quite famished and that those pol rotis we had earlier were wearing off. So we decided to feast upon some rice and curry. The food was out of this world and we enjoyed it thoroughly – we were served 3 vegetable dishes, a chicken curry and poppadom as we gobbled down greedily.
To beat the ever so fading sunlight, we took a quick stroll to Adam’s Bridge. It took us 45 minutes to reach the first island. While we were standing there we practically saw the tide coming in and because of that, we could not proceed any further. Walking to the second island on Adam’s Bridge was on our bucket list so we decided to attempt this walk again in the morning.
For dinner, we were surprised with a delectable treat – crabs! It was served with fried rice, coconut gravy and pittu (steamed cylinders of ground rice layered with coconut shavings). Needless to say, we finished everything off with a few pints of Sri Lanka’s favourite lager! We now look forward to a good night’s sleep and off to the Adam’s Bridge in the morning.
Day 3: Monday, August 10, 2020
It could have been the comfort of this luxury room at Vayu or the exquisite meal we had consumed last night or just a combination of both, we woke up this morning well rested. We felt refreshed and recharged.
By 0615AM, we set off on our morning exploration of the islands of Adam’s Bridge, as we had expected low tide in the morning. The skies were clear and the views were spectacular. It was such a magical place to be in. As we were walking on the sand, two friendly dogs joined us and they seemed to know their way around the area. Unfortunately, when we reached the edge, we realized that the water had not receded from the previous night and the water level was a bit high. While we were contemplating on what to do, one of our new canine friends jumped into the water and led the way to the first island. We decided to follow him and we crossed over in waist deep water. We really wanted to proceed onto the second island as this was our goal, but unfortunately, the sea level was too high and we decided not to risk it. We were carrying quite expensive camera equipment along with us and we decided it would be best not to try our luck. We headed back towards the hotel with the dogs happily tagging along.
For breakfast, we had a scrumptious meal of kiribath (milk rice) with lunumiris (a zesty local sambol or a paste served as a condiment. It consists of dried chilli flakes, Maldive fish, sea salt, onions, and lime juice usually ground with a traditional grindstone or an electric grinder). This is a very conventional breakfast dish in Sri Lanka, and it is usually eaten during important auspicious times too. Along with the kiribath we were served, chicken sausages, tempered kidney beans and toast. The morning walk had got all of us quite hungry and we cleared everything on the table!
We needed to travel to Mullaitivu today and we would be taking the local bus. The only possible route was taking the bus from Mannar towards Vavuniya and then taking a different bus to Mullaitivu. There was no direct bus from Mannar to Mullaitivu at this time. We departed Mannar at 12PM on the local bus. The ride was loud and bumpy and we reached Vavuniya by 0230PM. We changed buses and arrived in Mullaitivu by 0430PM. We were quite shaken up at the end of the bus ride.
In Mullaitivu, we met a local graduate from the University of Jaffna. She was very kind and hospitable and she invited us to her humble and colorful home in the village of Kallapara. There, we met the rest of her family – her father and brother who were involved in fishing. Her mother had prepared a wonderful meal of rice and curry for us and we were very touched. They had gone to the extent of preparing different curries to indulge us – cuttlefish, prawn, fish AND crab curry! We felt thoroughly spoilt and looked after in her home.
After spending some time with this lovely family, we explored the Mullaitivu fishing beach. Before we checked in to our accommodation for the night, we had plans to meet with some ex-LTTE child soldiers in the area to discuss their life and transition from the war. As expected, this discussion turned out to be a very captivating experience for us. The stories that were shared, muddled our emotions. At times feeling sad, angry or disappointed, we felt as though we wanted to have all the answers to all the questions and problems that came to be. Instead we could only sit in utter silence and listen. We’d like to think it helped. The conversation opened up a lot of people sitting in the circle to share their peace.
We reached our accommodation quite late and as we have packed day tomorrow we decided to share our fascinating chat with the ex-LTTE child soldiers tomorrow. This will give us time to quickly have dinner now and get some much-needed shut eye. Off to Jaffna tomorrow!
Day 4: Tuesday, August 11, 2020
Last night’s intimate discussion with the ex-LTTE child soldiers had a great impact on us. It was truly fascinating to learn about these people and how they were recruited by the LTTE at such a young age. We met up outside our new friend’s house and sat together on the beach and enjoyed a few drinks. They reminisce about their childhood and how they came from humble families. They told us how at the young age of 15, the way they were groomed to join the Tamil militant organization and how they continued to fight for their cause for another 15 years. Through the LTTE they learnt how to be disciplined and orderly and they managed to continue their studies as well. However, they were presented with certificates issued by the LTTE for their studies, which in today’s society, are not recognized. This made it very difficult for them to apply for jobs and they find themselves doing common day to day labor work or fishing instead. Their rehabilitation process was not an easy one, as it was such an arduous task for the four of them to come out of the war mindset they were used to, but taking each day at a time helped them come this far.
Waking up in the morning, we felt truly blessed for having such a wonderful childhood like we did. We did not have to worry about guns or fighting for a cause we may or may not have believed in. During our childhood we concentrated on our studies and who batted first during cricket or who could run the fastest. Simple yet amazing experiences like this force you to think differently and they definitely make you count your blessings.
While thinking back about last night however, we were not too grateful about the meal of kottu (local street food made out of strips of a type of flatbread mixed with chicken/fish curry, egg and vegetables) we had. We drank copious amounts of Asomodagam afterwards. We really needed to purchase more bottles of Asomodagam as we did not know how many more dodgy meals we would be having this week.
We started this morning at 0745AM, which was quite late compared to the previous mornings. We had a very simple breakfast of parata (Indian flatbread) with coconut sambal, dahl curry and omelettes. We washed it all down with a cup of hot tea.
After last night’s session by the beach, one of our friends from last night, was very keen to show us around Mullaitivu before we set off for Jaffna. It was great to have someone who knew around the area, as we were eager to learn more about this place. Vattarappalai Amman Kovill which is one of the biggest Kovils we’ve visited, and is nestled right alongside a lovely lagoon which is also home to some beautiful migrant birds. There are many unique rituals and beliefs that are followed by the locals reflecting on this Kovil. During its dedicated ceremony, sea water is gathered and passed through 2 other Kovils in this area within a matter of a week before ending up at this significant Kovil. Once the lamp is lit with the aid of that sea water gathered, blessings are evoked on the 1000’s of pilgrims that gather for the ceremony.
After the visit to the Kovil we stumbled upon another fishing village, only to realize that this community was hailing from the very first place we visited – the coastal village of Udappu. These seasonal fishermen base themselves around the Mullaitivu area along with their families for around 6 – 8 months a year to capitalize on the bounty of the east coast during this time of the year. Once September kicks in, marking the end of the eastern fishing season, they move back to their native home town of Udappu & Chilaw. We kept thinking how difficult it must be for them to uproot themselves and travel across the island. Their families must be so grateful for the sacrifice and commitment made by these fishermen to provide a better life as well.
At 1120AM, we got on the local bus from Mullaitivu and it was a three-hour ride to Jaffna. The roads were dry and dusty and it was such relief that we had our masks on. The bus ride was not too bumpy and it was a great opportunity to have a quick snooze. Once we reached Jaffna, we stopped by a local fruit vendor and each enjoyed a refreshing thambili or king coconut – a remedy to battle any hangover!!
Our friend Nathan met us in the busy town in a rented van. We had a few visits in the outskirts of Jaffna today and if we took the local bus, we would have spent a lot of time on the road. Our first stop was St. Anthony’s Church or better known as the Sinking Church. This church has been named so because back in the 1990s it was entirely submerged by sand. With the changing seasons and wind patterns, the level of sand changes as well. This church, once would have been very glorious but now for the past few decades, it has been abandoned.
One of the most distinctive features about this area is the abundance of Casuarina trees. Planted in the 70’s, the purpose was to prevent the soil from erupting and secure the beach and the nearby settlements. The patch of trees is an unfamiliar sight in Jaffna especially because you won’t spot it in any other parts of the north.
After a 30-minute van ride, we reached the town of Point Pedro at about 4PM and we realized that we had completely forgotten to have lunch. As we were starving, we stopped at a restaurant nearby and we happily gourmandized on Mutton Fried Rice, Seafood Noodles, Beef Biriyani with a little paneer mixed into it. It was such a feast!
We were eager to explore further and we proceeded to the topmost tip of the gaping dragon’s mouth formed by the Jaffna peninsula. We took the obligatory picture under the big plaque with the national flag. It always feels like an accomplishment when you are standing at Point Pedro. We also visited the Point Pedro Lighthouse which is manned by the Sri Lankan Navy – a couple of kilometers away.
On our way towards our accommodation for the next few nights, we passed by the former LTTE Commander’s neighborhood. We immediately thought of our new friends from last night and the encounters they had meeting the leader of the organization – for example, at victory dinners!
For dinner, we decided we would be adventurous tonight. We plan to do a 10-minute walk to a nearby restaurant to enjoy some local food and hopefully it will not be anything dodgy. Nevertheless, we always have our handy bottle of Asamodagam.
Day 5: Wednesday, August 12, 2020
After yesterday’s heavy lunch, we were not too hungry by dinner time. We did a short walk to the restaurant called Rice & Spice and we all decided we would have a round of pittu. We ate this with some spicy mutton curry and coconut sambal. Once we got back to the hotel, we were quite tired so we were ready to get some sleep… that was when we suddenly realized that our tiny room had these flashing lights with different colours. It made us feel like we were in a dodgy club.
To our surprise, we were served pittu for breakfast as well, and we decided we would not have pittu again for a while during our stay in Jaffna. We had to try some authentic crab curry here before we left!
This morning at 9AM, we witnessed the ceremonial unveiling of a Baobab Tree in the village of Punkuduthivu. This beautiful tree stood alongside a Kovil against the emerald ocean. Back in the day, when the war was tearing up the north, most people fled the country and sought refuge overseas. Several villagers from Punkuduthivu found refuge in Switzerland, and now, there is a thriving community from Punkuduthivu there. Wanting to support their hometown and to see to its development, this community decided to have fundraisers in Switzerland and have collected donations too. These were then sent to their town for the upkeep of the Kovil as well as the rest of the village.
We then proceeded to visit a nonprofit organization in the area. The foundation aims to create job opportunities for the locals as well as providing fresh water for this village. After raising funds and collecting donations back in 2001, the foundation was able to purchase two water bowsers to provide fresh water for the village. The water to date is sold at LKR 1 per liter and that has been the price since the very beginning. This generous deed really helps the people in the village, especially when they are struggling to find fresh water which is a basic need.
By 1230PM, we stumbled upon a quaint juice shop about 4KM away from the Nallur Temple. We were amazed to see the variety of the juices that were available and some of the names were unheard of! The owner of the shop was an ex-LTTE soldier from the town of Mullaitivu who had travelled to Jaffna looking for work about four years ago. During the war, he had lost both his legs but he was determined to turn his life around. Through hard work and determination, he has developed this shop and now has about 15-20 staff working with him. We all decided to try soursop juice this time. The quantity as well as quality of the juices was fantastic and we definitely recommend this to anyone visiting Jaffna!
We then walked to the loud and vibrant Chunnakam Market which is housed in a building which dates back to the time of the Dutch occupation. The market was very busy and there were many stalls with almost everything – from vegetables, to fish, textiles and palmyrah products. Watching the people move around in the market looking for good deals and trying to haggle, was quite fulfilling especially after witnessing the country going through the recent pandemic.
Kadurugoda Viharaya is an ancient Buddhist settlement that is in the town of Chunnakam and it is located in a small hamlet called Kandarodai. It is one of the few Buddhist temples remaining in Jaffna. Kadurugoda is a Buddhist burial ground with over 36 different stupas in the area. It was an amazing sight to see all these various sized stupas all in one place.
Once we got back into the Jaffna town, we met with our friend Nathan. While we were waiting for him at the fort, we managed to sneak in our second tuk tuk lesson from a nearby tuk stand. Even though it is a common mode of transport in our country, driving one is quite complicated. The shifting of gears and managing the pedal, makes it a bit tough as it is a combination of a car and bike. Regardless, with this crash course, we sort of managed to get it right this time. There was also a tractor in the vicinity and we felt adventurous. We tried driving this as well! It is such a bulky piece of machinery and driving it for the first time was exhilarating!
Then we rented out 3 scooters and rode them around town. The roads were busy and the heat was impossible but overall it was a different and exciting experience. We ended up at the Archeological Museum of Jaffna. It contained different artifacts from the early settlements of Sri Lanka up till the British period.
Lunch was vegetarian again today. We stopped by a small restaurant called Akshathai at about 4PM and we had dosai (rice pancakes) with sambar (vegetable stew with lentils) and some ulundu vadey (special lentil donuts). Dinner definitely needed to have some meat tonight and we were all looking forward to it.
Afterwards, we did an extensive walk of the Jaffna Fort. During the walk, we noticed that the Fort Bastions were very well preserved, even though the interiors were in ruin – mainly because of the conflict. This fort is beautifully shaped into a pentagon, a view only visible with an aerial shot. We ended the walk with a drink of local toddy (palm wine). This popular white drink is quite sour in taste, and we enjoyed small snacks of masala vadey (small spicy cakes made out of chickpeas) with it.
We returned to the hotel pretty knackered and decided to have a light dinner of some egg paratas from Rice & Spice as we have an early start tomorrow. We go to sleep tonight excited about our visit to Delft island in the morning!
Day 6: Thursday, August 13, 2020
We had to be at the Kurikattuwan Pier early this morning as we had to take the public ferry to Delft Island. We left the hotel by 6AM and took the bus from Jaffna to the pier. We reached the pier by 0730AM. Our stomachs were rumbling but we were determined to get to the local ferry on time. We patiently waited in line to board the ferry.
As we boarded the crowded ferry, we secured our face masks a bit tighter. The ferry was packed with people all wearing their facemasks and life vests. As we all sat on the floor, we realized that it would not be a very comfortable ride. An adventure nevertheless. Not for the faint heart as it gets extremely uncomfortable with tightly packed bodies of humans and sometimes animals that invokes a mix of strong odor. We departed sharp at 8AM. The seas were not rough so we reached Delft island in about 50 minutes. During the journey we cracked up a conversation with a Navy serviceman who was on his way back after his entitled leave. He gave us some valid information about the island, its residents and the neighbouring islands. The skies were clear and the sun was out. It was a perfect day for exploring!
When we got off the ferry, the local authorities were there to take down our ID details and to check our body temperature. We were impressed that a small island like this has good health and safety precautions. Before we started off, we quickly had a bit of breakfast. We enjoyed some hot rotis with spicy omelettes and lunu miris.
We then met with our local contact in Delft. He was born on the island and used to be an English Teacher. He had also worked overseas in Singapore and Saudi Arabia. He went on to tell us about his family and how he had six sons. During the first few minutes of our conversation we heard a different perception of the war compared to what we heard in Mullaitivu where his son was abducted by the terrorist organization against his will. There must have been so many more instances during the war, where innocent lives were just lost and families torn. It is always so heartbreaking to hear these stories. As the civil war continued, his children were not able to proceed with their studies. Therefore, they ended up working as fishermen and daily wage laborers.
Delft, originally known as Nadunthivu, is the biggest island (48sq Km) compared to the neighboring plots. We travelled around in a truck with benches fixed to it at the back. The roads were quite bumpy and the terrain was quite tough. We just wished that the road network around the island could have been better to make logistical sense. There are many places to see on this island. We stopped at the Delft Fort first. It was constructed by the Portuguese with limestone and coral. It sits under many Palmyra trees and we stroll around the ruins.
There is a huge Baobab tree on this island that was planted in the 16th Century by the Arab traders. The base of the tree trunk has an opening that is big enough to fit a few people inside. We also did a quick stop at the Old Dutch Hospital which was
obviously built by the Dutch and then later it was converted into an administrative center in the 1900’s. The British coat-of-arms is also visible here. In the gardens, there are some unique units built for messenger pigeons that were used back then to carry messages between Delft and Jaffna. There is a huge human-like footprint embedded in a rock, and the locals believe that it belongs to Hanuman. We drove by plain grasslands where we saw wild ponies in their numbers. Even though they always ran away from us it was such a delightful sight!
By 1PM, we had visited the main sites of the island and we were ready to head back, as we finished ahead of time and the local ferry wasn’t departing anytime soon. Our host was very helpful and he asked his sons to drop us off in their “plastic” boat. We reached Nagadeepa and visited the Hindu Kovil there. We also had a quick vegetarian meal at the Kovil of red rice, dahl, pumpkin curry & sambar. We quickly headed back to the boat and made our way back to the pier. This kind gesture saved us about 1.5 hours and we were able to reach the Kurikattuwan pier earlier than expected.
After the bus ride back to Jaffna, we stopped to buy some cold beers. We are currently sipping the cold brew and pondering what to do for dinner. Do we visit Rice & Spice like every night or do we venture elsewhere…
Day 7: Friday, August 14, 2020
Today we were going to explore Jaffna in depth. We were not planning on visiting any main attractions, but were looking to meet interesting people in the community with exciting stories.
We had had string hoppers for dinner the previous night and we were served string hoppers for breakfast too. How disappointing! It was unbelievable how this kept happening to us! Just like the pittu earlier this week, we agreed that we would not have string hoppers again for a while. We hoped lunch would be better.
We left the hotel by 9AM today in our friend Nathan’s car. We enjoyed the late start. Our first stop was very close to the Nallur Kovil. Here we met up with some wooden artisans and were able to witness the carving of beautiful statues and images. This entire village specializes in wooden crafts and they are the master of carving out the chariots that have been used for the Kovil processions. They carved the wood with such precision and confidence. It was very fascinating to watch this.
Next, we had a short stop at the Jaffna Railway Station where we purchased our train tickets to Colombo. Today was our final day in Jaffna. It was difficult to believe that seven nights went by so quickly.
Moving on, we met a Palmyrah Craftsman in the suburbs of Jaffna. He is a retired CTB (Ceylon Transport Board) Bus conductor who is turning 70. He started working with Palmyrah as a hobby and turned it into a small thriving business. Within 10 minutes he was able to make us a small souvenir. It was remarkable to see this trinket being made. We continued our drive to Casuarina Beach which is a popular place to enjoy a sea bath. However, our stars were not aligned to offer us a dip in this calm, cooling waters…
By 2:30PM, we reached the Cattumaran Bungalow which is about 30 mins away from Casuarina Beach. It is a three-bedroom villa that has been beautifully restored according to the brilliant design concept of none other than Channa Daswatte. We were thrilled to have lunch here. We were served a delicious rice and curry with prawn, crab, dahl, brinjal and long beans curries along with a carrot sambal. Needless to say, we polished our plates after several servings. And the fact that Ajantha (who was the owner of this bungalow) was there, it added a bubbly flavour as she shared her many stories during lunch!
Along with Nathan, we then moved on to visit another foundation that worked with children around 3:15PM. We met with the Director and he came across as a very passionate person that seemed genuinely keen to help the needy children. This foundation is made up of 12 houses, each with about 8-10 children. Each house has a foster mother that takes care of the children. Each foster mother is given an allowance which she then spends on food and other needs the kids may have. Seven of the foster mothers were ex-LTTE soldiers during the civil war. They have now been rehabilitated and trained in child care. Nine of the houses are of the Hindu faith while two are Christian.
This organization currently looks after about 147 orphaned children who are victims of the post war and of parents who are physically or mentally unable to care for their families. While visiting the foundation, we felt so grateful for these people that were dedicating their lives to ensure that these deprived children were integrated into society. The program also features a vocational centre which helps the older students to sharpen their language and practical skills in the fields of beauty culture, IT, A/C and refrigerator repairs. An experience truly worth taking part during a visit to Jaffna!
Nathan was kind enough to drop us off at our guesthouse by 5PM. From here we took a quick tuk tuk ride to the Nallur Kovil. By the time we reached, the procession had already started and there was loud Hindu music. There were more than 500 worshippers and it was an overwhelming sight. To enter, men have to remove their shirts and walk in topless. This is a special requirement.
The pooja is a glamorous event. Bursting of bright robed devotees and colourful decorations, to take part in this holiest of ceremonies, one might commit to being a vegetarian for a period of time. The flamboyant and eye-catching gold jewelry is a common sight that goes with their attire and said to draw out negative energy and only attract positive.
About 200 meters away from the Nallur Kovil, is the popular ice cream parlor – Rio. A trip to Jaffna is not complete without having had some delicious ice cream from this parlor. We indulged in different ice cream flavors and we were quite content.
We agreed that the three of us were craving chicken for dinner. We realized that Jaffna had a KFC in town. Therefore, for our last supper, we got burgers to go, and on our way back to the hotel, we bought a bottle of Vodka for a last round of drinks!
We have an early start tomorrow. Our train leaves the Jaffna Station at 4AM and we have arranged a tuk tuk to take us to the station around 3:30AM. We anticipate it to be an exhausting day tomorrow as the train journey is about 6.5hrs. However, we truly appreciated these past days traveling and mingling with the local community. It was such a beautiful experience backpacking through the north to see different attractions and meet wonderful human beings with different personalities and characters. This is indeed a trip that will be hard to forget!
Day 8: Saturday, August 15, 2020
We arrived at the Jaffna train station by 0340AM. Our train was not due to leave until 4AM but we really did not want to be late for it. We were eager to return home after this great adventure we had. The train left the station sharp at 4AM and we were glad to be comfortable in our seats. We were definitely planning on having a long nap as the journey was approximately 6.5 hours. The train rocked us gently and we fell into a semi-deep sleep…
Outside our window, we saw the vegetation changing as we left the Northern Province. The now familiar view of barren lands and Palmyrah trees slowly changed to lush green paddy fields and coconut estates.
We had visited more or less all the places we had planned to see and met incredible personalities and most of all, learnt so much about our magical island. We could not wait to share this with the rest of our team back in office. We had visited humble homes, tasted simple meals, traveled in loud buses, had a bit of diarrhea and made new friends. The past seven days have truly been – life changing!