A string of small islands stretch out to the west of Jaffna, pointing the way to India, mostly connected to the mainland by roads built up out of the shallow water. One day, we rented rickety old bikes and rode out on the causeway which begins near the fort to the first of the islands.
In 1618, the Portuguese built an enormous fort in Jaffna, to help protect their hard-won property. Colonial-era forts are fairly common across the world, but Jaffna’s must be one of the very few which continued to see action until the late 20th century. Recently re-opened to visitors, it was one of the first things we checked out in Jaffna.
We’ve never visited a city with a vibe like Jaffna’s. The only town of any appreciable size in the whole of northern Sri Lanka, Jaffna is the vibrant de facto capital of the country’s Tamil population. But it’s also a tragic showpiece for the horrors of modern war. A walk through the streets of modern Jaffna offers both a heartbreaking look at the darkness of humanity, and an inspiring example of our stubborn perseverance.
Like a feather in Sri Lanka’s cap, the Jaffna Peninsula pokes out of the top of the island, pointing towards India. The long, narrow peninsula is separated from the rest of the country in about every way imaginable: culturally, ethnically, religiously, linguistically and geographically.
From the taxi’s windows, we watched the Colombo night blur by. The few cars which remained on the highway had none of the breakneck urgency which normally characterizes Sri Lankan traffic. And though the unbroken chain of shops and restaurants still had their neon lights blazing, there weren’t many people on the sidewalks. It was 10pm, and we’d rarely seen the island in a deeper state of rest. We were headed to the airport, and putting Colombo to sleep.
We had seen toddy tappers at work a few times, high up in the palm trees around Jaffna and Trincomalee, collecting the liquid of coconut flowers into plastic jugs. The toddy can later can be distilled into arrack, but is one of the country’s favorite drinks even in its unprocessed state. And for nearly three months, we had traveled throughout Sri Lanka without ever trying it. We were being derelict!
Twelve times a year, and occasionally thirteen, life in Sri Lanka grinds to a halt for the observance of a Poya Day. Sri Lanka’s brand of Buddhism follows a lunar cycle, and full moon days are especially meaningful. These poya days are public holidays, allowing the faithful to visit their favorite temple and take a break from work. It’s forbidden to sell alcohol and, to a lesser extent, meat.
A gorgeous stretch of beach just a few kilometers north of the city, Uppaveli was our home during the week we spent in Trincomalee. A chain of hotels lines the coast, but we had the beach almost entirely to ourselves. After trips to action-packed cities like Kandy and Jaffna, a little sun, sand and solitude was exactly what we needed.
The large, windswept island of Delft sits twenty miles off the mainland; about as far away from a city as you can get in densely-packed Sri Lanka. After an 80-minute bus ride to Kurikadduwan, we took a ferry to the island, and almost immediately upon disembarking from the ship, Jürgen realized with a cry that his camera battery was out of juice. I instinctively started backing away from him. A Jürgen who can’t take pictures at a wild, remote island is a dangerous, unpredictable Jürgen.