“You’re going where?” was the reaction I got from most people when I told them about my plans for the long weekend.
Nobody expected us to go to Jaffna. We were, in fact, discouraged from it. Only seven years after the end of the war, Jaffna is not exactly a tourist destination. It’s far away, it’s ultra conservative, and it’s still healing from a long and brutal conflict.
But, Sri Lanka had two government holidays this week, on Monday and Tuesday, and of course we took advantage of our extended weekend to visit the northern peninsula. Saturday morning, Karen, Margaret, and I, backpacks loaded with clothes, books, and snacks, headed to the train station. We found our seats. The fan hanging from the ceiling didn’t work, but the windows were wide open. It was fine. Our train left right on time, completely packed. We were the only foreigners on the train – no surprise – and we got a lot of strange looks from the people surrounding us.
Two hours into the train ride, we were hot, and tired, and regretting skipping lunch. Every group of people who got on or off the train gave me a sympathetic look because it was so hot and I’m sure looked completely miserable. Three months on this island and I’m still not used to the heat.
Seven hours after we left Colombo, we finally pulled into Jaffna station. It was dark, and the three of us wandered down one alley after another until we found our hotel. Shortly after we arrived, so did Shiza and Ainishah, and then almost all of us were together again and we, like usual, had so much to catch up on.
On Sunday morning, we visited Jaffna Fort: old, star-shaped, barely restored. There are forts all over the country, and I feel weird about them. I can’t explain why. Next, we hired a taxi and drove to the Nallur Kovil, one of the most beautiful temples I’ve seen in Sri Lanka. It was busy, but besides some stares, which are so much a part of my daily life I hardly notice them anymore, nobody really cared that we were there and we wandered, barefoot and quiet, in peace. Our next stop was Elephant Pass, the main entrance to the peninsula, to see a couple of war memorials. The memorial statues celebrate peace and reconciliation, but I felt weird about them, too – they had a lot of subtleties that undermined the message of peace and I was reminded again how recently the war ended and how fragile this country still is. Monday was a Muslim holiday and we went to the beach. We revelled in the breeze with our feet in the Indian Ocean and I sang “Lucky” by Jason Mraz and Colbie Caillat, because I’m pretty sure they wrote the song specifically about Causurina Beach, Sri Lanka. We stopped at another kovil, where we received a tilak – a blessing from the resident deity. The stooped old man who applied the tilak spoke almost no English, just gestured us over and smiled as he shared his beliefs with us.
Jaffna is still mostly untouched by the tourist culture that has penetrated most of the island. It was refreshing to escape the West for a weekend, to have time to learn and reflect and immerse myself as much as possible in a city. I know I’ll never see the same Jaffna again, if I’m ever lucky enough to come back to Sri Lanka. The city is growing out of its past conflict and into a new identity as an area of peace and it will never be the same as it was this weekend, because that’s growth and in this context that’s a good thing.
Our trip home was long and hot and sweaty, just like the way there – only this time we left before sunrise and got to stand in the doors of the train and watch the sun come up over the rice paddy fields and the palm trees and it hit me, stronger than ever, that I will be really sad to leave this island. I’m feeling especially homesick this week and it’s obviously harder to be away from home during the holidays, but that doesn’t mean I seriously want to come home yet. So much of my heart is here, now.