Failing Jaffna : A Short Trip up the A9 and Back Again

Vavuniya Travel Blog

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A picture doesn't always paint a thousand words.

Although it's only a one kilometre haul, the trudge to the bus stand in Anuradhapura this morning is damn hot and dang sweaty and so darned unamusing.  I sweat and frown my way past the still snoozing buses and the grinning rickshaw drivers hoping to make good of this fact.  The most they get is a shake of the head and a nice view of my well-worn heels.  The things I will endure to keep trade from this international community!  Not out of spite.  Just financial expediency.  I sweat and frown my way past dogs still dosing in the grass, many a bakery with fresh warm treasures behind glass and goats in search of yet more repast.  I sweat and frown my way past the continuous flow of political fly posters that currently plague every surface of Sri Lanka like a rainbow bloom of mould.

#1 (subject to your opinion)
  One hundred after the other after the other and more.  If I did not know what the President of Sri Lanka looked like before I came here, I certainly do now having been pursued by his toothy, moustache topped grin the length and breadth of the country.

I sit and write this in Galle on the 8th April.  Election day.  Ballet boxes closed three hours ago.  Results expected around midnight. For now, just more posters.  And more and more and more.  I'm not kidding you!  The entire surface of the nation is covered with layer upon tide line layer of these posters.  Whole strata of sly smiles pressed one on top of the other.  Phoney photo-fossilised oily repository grins.

Leave no rock or leaf unturned : electioneering environmental polution in Sri Lanka
  It's an ugly scene if you ask me.  No surface is safe.  No corner untouched.  I've seen these multitudinous mug shots smattered pretty much anywhere man and brush could stoop, reach or imagine to plaster 'em.  Walls of course - bus stands, phone boxes, lamp posts, kiosks, roofs, rocks, tree trunks, waste bins ( ‘ha ha’), buses, boats, burnt out cars and rickshaw sides.  Only sacred places seem protected from this postering, posturing profanity.  A face.  A number.  A cross.  'X' marks their spot.  A party symbol.  A bodi leaf for the incumbents.  An elephant for the main opposition.  A trophy.  A bike.  A boat.  A cricket bat and more.  Choose your picture.  Choose your future.  My friend’s mum always votes for the ‘flower’ party in England ‘cos it’s what her husband said so to do.
Tread it under foot ;)
  (There’s one vote for Labour in a months time then.) 

All these posters seem to communicate, I agree with my friend Niels, is that there is no such thing as a thin politician in Sri Lanka.  Symbols and slogans are even daubed large in white paint along road surfaces, pavements and across building facades.  It’ll take more than one monsoon to wash this muck away.  Black buckets of paint thrown over opposition effigies.  It's electoral environmental pollution.  Political vandalism on a mass sanctioned scale.

Almost anywhere you care to look right now these posters are placed torn and shredded, re-pasted and again decimated in the blink of an eye.  Within hours of going up it seems.  Just meaningless overlapping shreds of unintelligible faces.

'Grrrraffitti!' ;D
  Illegible text.  Surrealism.  Mixed messages.  Apt enough as far as their subject matter is concerned.  At first I thought this tit for tat rip-tearing of posters was just competing posses of party goons undoing the enemy’s labours by the light of the moon, until I noticed that predominantly this damage persists to a level only about four or five feet from the ground.  Reason being that that’s as far as a goat or a cow is willing to stretch to lick off and eat ‘em!  Yes, once again, as in India, it’s left to the beasts to take away our trash.  Consume our vast volumes of crud.  The farm animals - not without literary precedent - are the nation’s chief political dissidents it seems.  Furry four-legged little rebels.  The goats in particular seem to have quite a rapacious predilection for politicians, paper and paste.
Tiger Stripes not quite fading
  They lick-lick, nibble-nibble, rip-tear and chew the grinning hopefuls from the wall with glutinous apolitical zeal.  Political careers ending, before they even began, sucked right down into the belly of a cloven-hoofed fiend.  Apt again perhaps.

I throw my backpack down upon arrival at the bus stand and sit myself on the curb stone besides the bus to Vavuniya and stare, fatigued, near catatonic, in the glare of the morning sun.  A hope that its rays will soon dry my t-shirt, turned damp and dark green by such torrents of sweat.  As ever when travelling one is not allowed a quiet, calming recovery moment alone for long.  A girl, quite dishevelled in appearance, smiling and giggling plonks herself down besides me.

Election-deering :D Groan...sorry!
  I’m too tired.  Too hot and bothered to be sociable.  I just continue to stare forward with only an occasional sideways glance at my new companion. 

She makes flighty gestures with her hands and communicates only with squeals and light laughter and the sucking and kissing of her teeth.  Occasionally she breaks into surprisingly sweet wordless song and hum.  In her late twenties I suppose.  Slightly matted raven black hair, bright eyes dimmed by uncertainties and teeth stained a disconcerting vampish blood red from a betel chewing habit.  It’s clear she had potential to be a prettier thing but something in life, some event, some person beyond her power to control fractured her at some moment in time leaving her infantile of mind and - the thick, repeated lateral scars on the undersides of her forearms reveal - self-abusing or suicidal or both.

Get on yer bike : this guy got the short straw when they were handing out the shiny new UN Toyota Land cruisers :)
  Some of us just don’t get the breaks.  We just get broken.  

She smiles and laughs coquettishly, shuffles closer in her ragged black skirt and takes hold of my arm (the end of her index finger missing I note) before harvesting sweat from it and smearing this all over her face and laughing once more.  Impish.  Strange.  But I’m unmoved.  Un-phased.  I’ve met many travellers, particularly in India, with a horror of unsolicited human contact, but it rarely bothers me.  I’ve happily dragged limb-gripping limpet urchins down the ghats of Varanasi many a time.  (Just avoid the masseurs).  She’s harmless.  And if it is so, sometimes in travel you should just let things happen to you.  Now leaning over and sniff-sniffing my shoulder before kiss-kissing it twice.

No guns in NGO Land please.
  Again.  This t-shirt is worn ragged with holes at the shoulders.  A peculiar moment of intimate contact.  Strange.  Unsought for.  I don’t care.  Sit statuesque.  Drying in the morning sun.   

The teenage Sri Lankan lads behind us are now laughing loudly at this Odd Couple.  This early morning spectacle.  The crazy girl (probably a regular source of local amusement) and her indifferent red headed foreign friend.  One of them calls over ’Hey friend!  I think you are married!’ he crooks and crosses two fingers together in union, ’You have found nice Sri Lankan girl! Ha ha ha!’  Asshole.  I smart at their lask of respect for her, not me.

  Whatever her history, it’s not been an easy one.  The bus engine sputters into life.  I stand, still damp, and hand my tactile friend 40 Rupees ‘cos I don’t know what else to do.  Her gestures had implied that... but no.  This kills her smile.  Which saddens me.  The wrong gesture?  Or has she just forgotten me already?  Who knows.  The bus pulls out.  Onward to Jaffna we go.  Leaving laughing boys and broken girls behind. 

Yes, today I wish to make the journey all the way north to the Jaffna peninsula.  Travel here should not be a problem I’m hoping as following the assassination of Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the separatist Tamil militia the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) about a year ago Sri Lanka’s thirty year civil war was supposedly ended.

My beautiful, glorious, kind Trinco hostesses (L-R) Philomena, 'Thivahnaiipoulet' and Margaret
  Though these things rumble on of course. ( Remnant posters and graffiti proclaim 'Tigerz : we do it 2 da death' in Kandy)   And have been doing so a lot in this case under frowns of international scrutiny that have made British foreign minister Ed Milliband a bete noir for many Sinhalese at this time.  ( Fear not, he may be out of a job soon).  Travel across the Tamil Tiger controlled northern stretch of Sri Lanka ( commonly referred to as ‘Tigerland’ ) was possible even during the civil war if you were willing to put up with all the check posts I’ve read.  Kind, informative police officer Rajapaske ( ’See, I have same name as the president!... he is a brave man.’) who sits next to me on the bus to Vavuniya, in the force for twenty five years and bearing livid scar tissue upon his left hand after an attack ’by a crazy’ advises me that I should have no problems making the journey today.
Glory? President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the 1,000 Rupee note printed after the 'defeat' of the LTTE

Things get a little less certain at Vavuniya bus station where the conductor on the first bus to Jaffna I step onto first says ’no seats, no seats’ laughing and then ’Jaffna no, not possible for you, absolutely not possible.  They send you back’.  He continues laughing.  Though this echoes what my guesthouse in Anuradhapura had thought, I’m not gonna give up at the first sign of a grin and laughter.  I canvas a few more police officers but they don’t seem to have a clue what I’m on about and direct me to the ticket office ( ‘Is it okay for me to travel to Jaffna?’) who point out the next waiting bus which I take as a ’go ahead’ sign.  Stepping up this time, no questions, no problems and a ticket for 238 Rupees (£1.

'Stick no Bills'
40) and Jaffna in my hand.  I sit on a box by the door, the last available ’seat’ which I then relinquish to an old leathery bloke at his request, his purloined perch in turn sacrificed to a wrinkled old crone who then must give way for a young mother and child.  The cycle of civility and ages nicely completing itself.  So the unspoken pecking order of Sri Lankan bus seating goes.

We head out of Vavuniya.  Past the high walled UN and UNICEF compounds.  Past the important sounding ‘Inter-Agencies Logistics Hub’ with its stencilled silhouette of a Kalashnikov placed in a red circle with a red line striking through it.  No guns please.  These are not welcome by the befuddling multitudes of organisations that have swarmed post-Tsunami and now post-LTTE to the north and north easterly regions of Sri Lanka.

Homage to peace painted on walls of St Michael's College National School in Batticaloa
  So called ’NGO Land’.  Past a convoy of seven pristine white high-back trucks from the UN World Food Programme following an imperious pristine white UN Toyota Land Cruiser with an aerial strapped to its bonnet large enough to pick up signals of distress from Extra Terrestrial life forms let alone the large Tamil refugee populaces encamped in the peripheries of town here about.  Past the roundabouts with the appallingly cheap looking plaster and concrete statues of Buddhas, soldiers or civic leaders common and fast-crumbling in most Sri Lankan towns.  Past the road side army emplacements and bunkers made of green sand bags, corrugated sheet metal and cement-filled oil drums with the faces of young men visible within.  Past the large group of soldiers in their camouflage fatigues bent, crawling through the road-side grasses with plexi-glass riot masks drawn down as they stake red sticks one by one into the ground.
De-mining and loss
  All clear?  ‘What are they doing, mine removal?’ I ask my standing neighbour.  ‘Yes, de-mining.’  A practice drill I hope!  I’m sure (?!).

I don’t know if it’s a sign that we’re moving back into predominantly Hindu territory but the roaming cow population seems all of a sudden resurgent.  They slowly amble across the main road that will take me to Jaffna, the A9, without a care in the world.  Bovine right of way law.  The bus brought to a complete halt by these cud chewing pedestrians three times.  Then again for our conductor to hop down, jump out of his sandals, remove his black and white pork pie hat, chuck a few pennies at a shrine, daub a tikka mark on his forehead, jump back into his sandals and hat and onto the bus.

My friendly guide to St Michael's College Mukzith
  And on we go.

Passing through the small junction town of Thandikulam the smooth new road evaporates and the A9 reverts to its true current form.  That of a threadbare beleaguered tatty ribbon of tarmac.  From decades of war and ill maintenance (this being the highway to, from and of conflict) this oft-severed umbilical chord that runs all the way to Jaffna is on its last legs.  Frequent signs of ’A9 Rehabilitation Project’ speak of a better, smoother, more suspension-friendly future.  So the paper poster politicians’ smiles say.  But not yet.  For now there’s hardly room for one bus or lorry to sit flush on it at one time.  Like grey pastry dough rolled to long, dry and thin, the tarmac cracks, crumbles and flakes away at the edges returning to rust-orange dust-to-dust and earth and it’s on to this that the buses tilt and careen as they honk and pass one another.

Keeping an eye on the politics
An armada of cows observes our passage impassively from the roadside.  (Look out for those mines chaps!)  The bright blue flash of a kingfisher as it flies momentarily alongside the bus.  Sparrows and crows watch and chatter upon overhead cables and lengths of barbed wire. ( ’D’ya think they’ll let ’im, do ya?’)  Piles of concrete sleepers and short stretches of steel railway track runners run sporadically alongside the road.  Hints of future infrastructure.  ’Troops ahead.  Drive Slow’ a triangular sign implores.  I recall Ajay Lama the jeep taxi driver from Gangtok, Sikkim, India who would at such bidding have simply floored the accelerator ’Vrrrrooooooom!’.
S.L.T.B Buses. took me to the border of 'Tigerland' and back

But suddenly, arriving at the border town of Omantai (i.e. the border of ’Tigerland’) everything comes to a halt.  A large red and white metal barrier stretches across the A9, which beyond this point seems to run into dust, completely defeated.  The bus pulls over to one side.  A large parking zone.  This a sizeable Sri Lankan Army check point.  About half of the bus’s male population shuffles off the bus down into the dust.  And then a young soldier spots me, standing inside (fingers crossed) with my wind-whipped red hair at attention-seeking attention and motions me down too.  (’Uh-oh.’)  Bags too, he motions.  (’Uh-oh.’)  He frowns, rifle held diagonally across his thin chest.  ’You have pass?’  (’Uh-oh!’)  ’Sorry, no I don’t.

"Now that's gone an' torn it!" :)
  I did not know a pass was needed.’  ’Passport?’  I hand it over.  ’Please come.’  He doesn’t know much English but the few words he commands of course are weighted with the authority of a gun.  So, I come.  I go.  I follow Private Junior to a large shed like an elongated bus stand where I sit myself down on a thin wooden bench besides my fellow bus-mates.  Private Junior trots off to a building with my passport.  A female soldier steps along the line checking the laminate ID passes of the Sri Lankans.  These always amuse me.  Like the ones in Turkey.  So easy to forge it’s laughable.

Private Junior soon returns with smiling, affable Sergeant Senior who asks ’Hello sir.

  Please sir do you have a special pass?’  ’No sorry, I didn’t know you needed one.  I don’t have one.’  ’Ah sorry, you see it is you need a special pass from the M.O.D. for foreigner travelling on bus to Jaffna.’  ’Oh.  Nobody mentioned.  I tried to find out if it was possible to make the journey and a Sri Lankan policeman said it was fine now.  Sorry.’  ’It’s no problem’ Sergeant Senior assures ’but without special permission from M.O.D. this journey not possible for foreigner at the moment.  Still problem between here and Elephant Pass’ [the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula about 80 kilometres north].
Political Vandalism.
  A candid admission from an army officer if I heard him correctly.  ’What, there are still problems with the LTTE?’ I throw through the chink in the conversational armour.  Professionalism restored he pretends not to hear.  ’You may fly too, is okay.  Fly into Jaffna, fly back from Jaffna not a problem.  Is okay.  And if you have special permit from M.O.D. then okay too.  But the road no.’  ’Where do I get the special permit, Colombo?’  ’Yes, Colombo M.O.D.  It is easy I think.  One day you get permit.’  ‘Yeah right!’ and ’Yeah right!’ to those last two statements I think.  ’So I will have to go back to Vavuniya?’  ’Yes, sorry sir.
Tigerz Pawz
  I need photocopy.  One minute.’
Now to be on record.  Sergeant Senior disappears with my passport leaving me under Private Junior’s watch in case this little ginger rascal makes a dash for Tigerland under his 70 litre backpack.  It’d take a few bullets to take that f**ker down I tell ya!         

Sergeant Senior returns and proffers my passport.  ’You have all your luggages?’  Nodding I do, he motions to let my ex-bus get back underway.  ’What about my ticket?  Do I get a refund?’  ’The balance?’  He communicates this request in Sinhala to the conductor who hangs, inquisitive, out of the door of the slow moving vehicle.

  ’Is government bus’ he shouts back by way of a vocal shrug of the shoulders (’Tough‘), as if the word ’government’ were a catchall excuse for all acts of financial indecency.  Which so often it is.  No refund.  But I don’t really mind.  it was a ’hit and hope’ journey-adventure.  I tried.  But you can’t argue with guns and red tape when the two are tied together.  Everyone on my side of the departing bus waves good bye as they head on into Tigerland, throwing a wall of orange dust up in their wake.  And I smile and wave right back.  No hard feelings.  Another battered vermilion S.L.T.B (Sri Lankan Transport Board) bus chugs and stammers into the check point heading the other way and Private Junior makes sure, politely, that I board.
Poster against intimidation and violence towards voters (in Galle)
  28 rupees the mere 15 kilometres fare back to Vavuniya, but somehow, I honestly don’t know how, I forget to pay this ;)  

Stood right at the front of the rammed bus again, the driver keeps wafting me back as I block his view of the mirror.  ‘What you actually use those things?’ I exclaim in my mind.  The usual odd array of plastic paraphernalia is stuck and strewn about the windscreen.  A chain of once bright, now dust-covered artificial flowers draped from one side to the other.  They ring around a gold lettered sign that reads ‘WEL COME’.  A rubber eagle bobs about, suspended by strings through its wings from the rear view mirror.  A plastic display case is affixed to the top of the windscreen and contains seven assorted gilt-edged deities of mixed Hindu and Buddhist (and occasionally Christian) origin.  These pantheistic plastic monstrosities are to be found in every single bus in Sri Lanka it seems and, if you’re real lucky, they still work with rings of super-tacky LED lights flickering off and on and radiating around the unlikely gatherings of Gods.  Buddhas, Lakshmis, Saraswatis, Krishnas and yes, everyone’s favourite, elephant-headed Ganesha one of whose double-edged roles is to both remove and place obstacles from or within the path of travellers.  I think we know what the tubby little b*st*rd did for me today!  

We pass more bashful ‘A9 Rehabilitation Project’ signs as we track back along the cracked pastry tarmac.  Soldiers and policemen frequently step off and onto the running board as we pass along.  Clinging on.  I lose count of how many species, what a rich profusion and diversity of beautiful butterfly life flutters into view only to get splonked** on the Lanka Ashok Leyland radiator grille of our bus as we career back to town.  So many one would begin to tearfully marvel at the craftsmanship of Mother Nature were the moment not over before it began.  A male peacock in full feather, drags his tapestry train of silk and jewels behind him as he pecks along the roadside.  Such a beautiful sight.  I don’t think I’ve seen one in the wild since I was ten years old in the grounds of Johnny Lower’s mansion in my home village when the class were invited to collect the seasons moulted feather treasures.  A peacock is one of those creatures, so spectacular in form, colour and composition that it has the power to inspire me to stop, just for an instant, to understand for just one moment why it is that some people might well and do believe that some higher power of design and benevolency resides behind the creation of such miracles.  But then I just return to my own private marvelling at Nature’s random richness and majesty and remind myself how lucky I am to live (unbroken), for a time, in a world where chance has strewn such wonders in my way.

And in the fanning of a peacock’s feather we’re back in Vavuniya.  Having failed Jaffna.  So I guess it’s time for Plan B.  Yes, there was one all along.  Believe it or not.  But it means sweating and frowning and heaving my bag and ass onto yet another bus.  My fourth of the day!  There are so many conflicting tide marks of dried salty sweat rings on my hole-drilled olive green t-shirt that I too now look like a combatant in camouflage fatigues!  Battered (beaten) but returned from Tigerland.  This soldier’s heading about 90 kilometres east to the coastal town of Trincomalee

And it’s there you leave me, with the sea on both sides and the sun on the slide and debating (shall we say arguing) with a laundrette who’s trying to foreigner-f**k me for nine times the going rate on my washing when Philomena ( who I don’t yet know but gladly do now) steps in to help (six times only) and then invites me for a tea where I meet her sister Margaret ( ’The English they call me Margaret Thatcher you know hee-hee!’) and her adopted granddaughter Stephi who’s named after Stephen (like me) her father and who at 13 is destined to be even more staggeringly attractive than her mother, Philomena’s eldest daughter, who died four months after Stephi was born and there’s the grandmother too ( ‘Thi-vah-naii-poulet’ I try in vain to pronounce her name) who’s been widowed a while and mothered seven sons two of which were lost to the LTTE though at 87 is still ‘very independent’ and ‘how do you say, likes to keep on her feet’ and then I’m invited to dinner too and it’s ’How do you do?’ to her next eldest treasure Brigitte who at the age of 34 thinking ’I’m younger no more’ has decided it’s time to get hitched and I’m worried just a bit that they may be fishing with kindness for this particular British bachelor but it’s okay for I feigned a girlfriend at first say ’cos at 31 if not yet married you’re either single (a total freak) or must at least have a partner (only half a freak) to keep these Asian ladies happy and with faith that the world order’s not quite yet collapsing... which nevertheless it might be... depending on your vote... but that all, as they say, is another story. 

For another day.   

* I finished writing this piece at 22.22pm by which time incumbent and somewhat controversial president Mahinda Rajapaksa would have been made fairly certainly aware of the majority victory of his United People's Freedom Alliance.  This he would later claim now giving him a public 'mandate' which previously he was not necessarily in possession of, and despite a record low voter turnout of 50-52%.  Controversies over polling station fraud in the upland districts have also led to 31 catchment areas' votes being annulled and a re-vote to occur on the 20th.  So technically, at the time of writing, Sri Lanka has no government. 

When asked for their response to this result the goats here in Galle expressed neither interest or disinterest, surprise or no at these announcements and continued to chew the president’s face off regardless.

** ‘Splonked’ - Yes Lucy and Neals, since this word hiccupped its way from my lips into our conversation the other day I’ve grown quite fond of it.  It’s etymology nobody knows, though it’s clearly a fusion of to be ‘splattered’ or ‘bonked’ (the latter in a painful on-the-head rather than a sexual manner one presumes).  My best friend and I enjoy such words magicing themselves into existence to be coined anew.  freshly minted linguistic loonyness.  We dubbed them ‘coinerisms’ in the hope that that very word itself would prove to be one too.

[Officially with this entry I have taken one more step down the satanic path to techno-travel purgatory having logged on to a coffee shop Wi-Fi at Kuala Lumpur LCCT airport to upload this.  It's NOT my fault!  I was stood up by my pal Louis who I was to have lunch with and what else was a guy to do!  As this is live and exclusive and up to the minute (though about events 2 weeks ago)  Rini, Simsim, Fran THANKYOU THANKYOU THANKYOU THANKYOU for all your help and supportive advice - holding this shaky little bucket of travel-bolts together as he careens like a little satellite out of control towards your country without a clue what he's doing... gotta go get me that flight to Jakarta now!  Vroooooooom!... see you soon! x]

Ladywes says:
A great read wes...Hope you arrive in Jakarta safe n sound!
You finished writing that piece at 22:22pm...are the double numbers following you around now too, or was that a one-off? :)
Posted on: Apr 14, 2010
sylviandavid says:
Stevie... Great blog (as usual).... fun read... Sylvia
Posted on: Apr 14, 2010
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A picture doesnt always paint a t…
A picture doesn't always paint a …
#1 (subject to your opinion)
#1 (subject to your opinion)
Leave no rock or leaf unturned : e…
Leave no rock or leaf unturned : …
Tread it under foot ;)
Tread it under foot ;)
Grrrraffitti!  ;D
'Grrrraffitti!' ;D
Tiger Stripes not quite fading
Tiger Stripes not quite fading
Election-deering :D  Groan...sorry!
Election-deering :D Groan...sorry!
Get on yer bike : this guy got the…
Get on yer bike : this guy got th…
No guns in NGO Land please.
No guns in NGO Land please.
My beautiful, glorious, kind Trinc…
My beautiful, glorious, kind Trin…
Glory?  President Mahinda Rajapaks…
Glory? President Mahinda Rajapak…
Stick no Bills
'Stick no Bills'
Homage to peace painted on walls o…
Homage to peace painted on walls …
De-mining and loss
De-mining and loss
My friendly guide to St Michaels …
My friendly guide to St Michael's…
Keeping an eye on the politics
Keeping an eye on the politics
S.L.T.B Buses.  took me to the bor…
S.L.T.B Buses. took me to the bo…
Now thats gone an torn it! :)
"Now that's gone an' torn it!" :)
Political Vandalism.
Political Vandalism.
Tigerz Pawz
Tigerz Pawz
Poster against intimidation and vi…
Poster against intimidation and v…
photo by: Stevie_Wes