Dancing with my own shadow

Trip Start Oct 13, 2013
Trip End Apr 13, 2014

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Where I stayed
theresa inn

Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Monday, March 24, 2014

My train ride to jaffna was long and uneventful.  I took a third class ticket and after about 3 hours the cart was practically empty.  I had a bench to myself and was across from a lady who became my "train mamma". She was a lovely robust lady who kept the men away with a horrifying glare. She taught me the Sinhalese and Tamil words for "don't" which is the equivalent of "fuck off. Traveling solo I have a feeling ill be using it a lot. The journey was slow and the scenery not very exciting until the last hour. We went through an area known as the elephant pass. Named after its original use. Nowadays its a stretch of salt pans which is a scenery I had never seen. My train mamma got off a few stops before me and left me in the hands of a family of 6 traveling from Colombo back home to jaffna.  We chatted about Hinduism (which I must admit I know next to nothing about). They explained to me the red dot on the forehead symbolizes marriage while the black dot means single. And interestingly enough they wear their wedding bands on their toe (the one next to the big toe). The railway doesn't go all the way to jaffna as it was destroyed in the civil war (they are in the process of rebuilding it) so I took a bus (with much help from the family) from a small village;  pallai to the city. The first thing I noticed about the north is the unbearable heat. I have never felt a heat of this type before, it is unrelenting,  never ending and travels deep into your core as you breathe.  The north is very different from the rest of the country.  I felt as if I had entered a new country. Albeit a hauntingly beautiful one. The main religion is Hinduism (as opposed to Buddhism and Catholicism in the rest of the country) and the people are Tamil (Sinhalese in the rest of the country). woman bike along in Saree's, men have impressive mustaches, everyone answers you with the typical Indian head bob that I am still baffled as to the meaning, the smell is wonderful (fruit trees spread their wonder through the city blocking out the stench of the open sewers). There is a very strong military presence with various checkpoints, military officers check ID cards of locals at seemingly random times in all situations (dinner,  walking,  praying etc...). Jaffna itself doesn't offer much in terms of sights as years of war, destruction, embargo's and poverty have taken its toll. The real beauty of the place was the people. English was not as common and the language is much harsher than the sing song language of the south but their smiles and humanity were heart warming. Everyone wanted to talk to me, tell me about themselves and their war stories, hear about life in Canada and just chat. I met so many wonderful and helpful people whose kindness I will never forget. I spent most of my time in jaffna bicycling around and immersing myself in the local lifestyle. Most people ride bikes because during the war goods were blocked and items including petrol went for 20 times the retail price. Indeed during rush hour the roads are clogged with push bikes rather than cars. Its a wonderful scene. I spent an afternoon in a Hindu temple where I witnessed a special puja. Which is a prayer session with music, incense,  flowers,  parades and ritualistic blessings. I sat mesmerized by the sheer devotion people had to their faith. About 100 people came to the ceremony,  old, young, male and female all in beautiful outfits. Shoes are not allowed in the temple (even in a backpack) and men are not allowed to wear shirts. Elderly people who could barely walk were getting down on all fours to place their cheeks on the floor and pray to the different incarnations of their god. The ceremony lasted just over an hour, I have absolutely no idea what was happening but it was fascinating all the same. Unlike Buddhism there doesn't appear to be a large divide between the sexes, as both genders were making offerings and leading chants. After the ceremony i was invited to try mediation with a guru and some woman. It is an almost impossibly hard task. We did some chats, chewed some leaves and smoked some sort of water pipe type thing. I didn't succeed in the sense of reaching the meditation state but i did experience a surge of emotions in a crashing wave. I ended up sitting in the temple with a lady about 80 for an hour silently crying.  It was so refreshing all the stress, the reality of my last 6 months, of the impending end of this adventure, the losses and gains of life in general just disappeared.  Crying is something that the western world really under values. The lady and I went for ice cream (apparently the main past time of the jaffna locals) and she gave me a beautiful piece of advice "you have to learn to live with your ghosts, they can't leave and you can't go". I am not sure how much I believe it, but it is very thought provoking to say the least. I spent time exploring the public library (the first thing destroyed in the war and the first thing rebuilt after wards, I believe that speaks volumes of the culture and their values). The old dutch fort which is being repaired, the local fruit and vegetable market and several other of the multitude of temples and churches. I walked along the coast one day and ended up in a high security military zone. I went past the barracks,  training yard and store yard. I had to pass through several check points and it seemed much more exciting to go forward and explore than go back. When I finally found myself in a small fishing village I was warmly greeted by a group of new mothers and grandmothers. They all wanted me to hold, kiss and play with their new babies (ranging in age from 1 month to 2 years) needless to say I spent a fair amount of time with these ladies who didn't speak any English. I got tours of their humble but warm homes and met several of the husbands who were working together to make fishing nets (for prawns, from what I understood they sell 10 kilos of prawns for 3 dollars. I didn't have the heart to tell them how much we pay for fresh sea food). The neighborhood was a wash with the scars of the civil war. I knew nothing about the civil war, i had no idea it was as recent as it was. Basically it was an ethnically motivated war between the Tamils/ LITE soldiers and Sinhalese/government.   The , majority of the fighting was done in the north. There was a cease fire in 2002 that fell apart after the tsunami,  and eventually the war ended on a beach outside of jaffna with the government the victors. There were terrible war crimes on both sides, torture, rape, land mines and murder were common occurrences.  Walking through this village put a reality on war that I have never been faced with. Children were in a School house riddled in bullet holes, lawns had gardens in bomb holes, whole sections of houses were missing and locals wore the physical scars on their body in the form of mutilation and starvation but mostly you could see it in their eyes. I have never looked honestly into the eyes of someone who has been through so much emotional and physical pain and survived, and continues to struggle on a day to day basis all the while keeping a kind heart full of forgiveness and humanity. It is a haunting and terribly humbling experience, an image I will never forget. There are ruins scattered throughout the city, the main ones are the former government district. There is a giant sign that says "never forget the depths of humanity, never allow war again". 
I took a day trip out to the outskirts of jaffna and its peninsula.  I saw the kantarodai ruins which is a collection of dagobas (stupa, pagoda, paya they all mean the same thing just different languages) approximately 2000 years old. Its a controversial area and is heavily guarded by well armed military soldiers. From there I made my way to the Hindu temple known as thurkkhai amman kovil. This is a temple where woman flock on certain days for certain pujas. I arrived at one of these times, they pray to the goddess durga for a good spouse.  I participated in the ceremony wearing my traditional Saree,  received the ash on my forehead and was mistaken for a local several times (I'm taking it as a compliment of the highest order, and couldn't help but blush when it happened). I headed onwards down a section of highway that was devastated by the war. It is sri lankas most controversial high security zones. Between 1983 and 1993 the entire population of 25000 families were evicted from their homes and prime agricultural land. The houses were destroyed or converted for military uses. The road has been closed since the evictions and only reopened in 2012. The sight of abandoned and destroyed house after house is eerie and heart breaking. It is weird to see such modern structures destroyed by bullets and bombs and to see mother nature start to claim her land back. The road lead  to the sacred keerimalai spring where legend has it the waters possess healing properties. The pool is divided by a wall into men and woman sections. I was the only person in the spring, it was more like a scummy pond and I felt like it would do more harm than good if I were to enter it. I ended up practicing my new found meditation skills to the sound of the nearby coast, birds and frogs. On the way back to jaffna I stopped at several more Hindu temples (I seem to have quite the affinity for them, in part I believe due to the fascinating colour scheme and god depictions). I saw several more Pujas of large and small scale. One temple had 4 gurus preforming the ceremony for themselves as they didn't have  single congregation member (that is probably not the right term but I dont know what to call a person who goes to a Hindu temple so the Christian term will have to suffice). I saw another temple where the guru was leading 10 or so men in a trance prayer. That was a wonder to watch and made me feel quite uncomfortable.  I have discovered that I have an immediate mistrust in anyone who can give such devotion to religion or doctrine.  It never ceases to amaze me the level of unfaltering belief people have when it comes to religion. Even in the wake of the terrible situations they have seen. I am really happy I made the trek up to jaffna. It was lonely at times going several days without speaking proper English, it broke and mended my heart, it showed me the gradient in human capacities for violence and forgiveness.  If the people of north sri lanka can get past all they have been through, keep smiling and forgive all the atrocities bestowed on them and their land I should in theory never again hold a grudge against a wrong doing or (more than likely) apparent wrong doing. Life is to short and wondrous to squander it away being angry or upset. The key is to just be kind to people, pure and simple. I believe it is as easy as said and done.
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Dad on

It was interesting hearing about the locals and their level of devotion to their religion. It is probably their faith that got them though the civil war. Their level of dedication to me is something special. To have gone through the war and the tsunami and to still have their faith is pretty amazing. Looking forward to seeing you soon. Stay safe love dad

John on

What an incredible story you tell Erin. An amazing tale of survival, commitment, forgiveness and lessons learned. Beautiful!

Leah on

Just simply wonderful, Erin :) So so lovely.

What an emotional and amazing experience.

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