The Quiet Beauty of Jaffna

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Friday, January 27, 2012

Try to visualise a small windswept island dotted with palmyra palms, where every household is surrounded by an attractive coral rock  fence, where vehicles barely exist, and where wild ponies run freely. It is like taking a step back in time as one observes the local inhabitants going about their daily business on bicycle or on foot, and a quiet peacefulness pervades the senses. No, this is not Jaffna but rather Delft, one of the offshore islands just ten kilometres south-west of the Jaffna peninsula.

I travelled north with Shireen, another friend from twenty years back, who is now working with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). As she had limited time, we decided to take the overnight bus from Colombo to Jaffna - fairly comfortable, but we were literally frozen after eleven hours of “over-the-top” air-conditioning. Partially on a UNDP mission, Shireen was also eager to explore areas of her country that had experienced a horrendous war for the past thirty years.

A navy friend of hers had suggested we begin our week by checking in at the Goitambara Navy Camp on Punkudutivu Island, about 16 km from Jaffna. Little did we know that we would be welcomed by the Commanding Officer himself, and almost immediately whisked away for a substantial morning tea. Just a few years back, this area would have been labelled high security, but now Commander Priyantha accompanied us as we observed some of the problems faced by the 5000 island residents. Experiencing drought for eight months of the year, the people are left without a reliable supply of water, so the navy is assisting them with the cleaning of existing community wells.  Encroachment of salt water onto the islands is an increasingly disturbing environmental problem.

Feeling like royalty, Shireen and I were escorted onto a navy vessel and we skimmed across the shallow waters to the small island of Nainativu. Or should I call it by its Sinhalese name, Nagadipa? Home to the only major Buddhist temple of the north, it’s also the location of an impressive Hindu kovil - just a ten minute walk down the road. We were fortunate to have come a day before a festival, as hundreds of Hindu pilgrims seeking a blessing were on their way.  When I was introduced to the monk at Nagadipa temple as a Canadian, he unashamedly spoke his mind about the Canadian government eagerly handing out dole to the many Tamil refugees living in Toronto. I made no comment!!

Following a delicious meal back at Navy headquarters, we thanked our hosts profusely, declined their kind offers of transport back to Jaffna, and caught a local bus heading in that direction. Comfortably seating twenty-five passengers, the bus was already bearing the weight of an additional thirty persons when we hopped aboard. Probably late for his own dinner, the driver raced over the pot-holed road and was quite oblivious to those of us standing at the back of the bus, hitting the roof with each major bounce.
Our day on Delft Island was even more interesting. The tuk tuk driver was eager to show us the highlights of this laid-back paradise, including the remnants of an ancient Buddhist temple (now just a circular pile of rocks - albeit impressive coral rocks), the remains of a Dutch fort, a huge baobob tree (and I thought they only grew in Africa!!), a rock that grows (I didn’t really buy that one), Adam’s footprint (I wonder how many there are around the world), and the pure, unspoiled beaches (although we saw one tourist in a bikini, sitting on the sand with an e-reader in her hands - surreal). Once again, we met the navy and discussed the islanders main concerns - access to good water being the most crucial. Electricity is currently supplied through generators - at great cost. There is potential for wind and solar energy, but they too are costly and not without problems. Now that the war has ended, eco-tourism is a definite employment possibility, but it could destroy the essence of this peaceful island.........a major dilemma!

Catching yet another local bus, Shireen and I headed north out of Jaffna in order to visit the Keerimalai Spring. Considered out-of-bounds for many wartime years, it is now being turned into another “tourist destination”, although we were more impressed with the 2500 year old ruins of a nearby hostel for Hindu pilgrims, and the once bombed kovil that is now being restored. Just down the road we passed a temporary shelter for persons displaced during the war - abysmal housing conditions to be sure, although children emerged from the hovels in dazzling white school uniforms.

Still so much to say about Jaffna, but for fear of making this far too long, I’ll end here and continue with a separate entry.

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