After our adventures with nursemaid’s elbow in the streets of Jaffna, we woke the next morning to a sunny day. We recounted our newly acquired knowledge of elbow dislocations to the rest of the group over breakfast. A local guide joined us and shared with us some statistics about the Tamils who are a countrywide minority but are the majority in the Northern region of the country. He indicated that many Tamils are better educated than their Sinhalese counterparts, but that their youth are not easily admitted to Universities. He bemoaned the fact that some 20,000 students sit for exams each year for only 1,000 spots. Competition, he said, is tough and education is only one of the ways Tamils feel discriminated against as a group. The students had several in depth lectures, but just from the little I heard from our guide it was clear that the Tamils living in the North had a very different view of Sri Lanka from the one I had been exposed to thus far.
The next day we toured Jaffna and had one of the most memorable lunches I’ve had in my life. We boarded a boat with questionable seaworthiness and chugged to the small sandy island of Nainativu where a temple administrator gave us a tour of Nainativu Nagapooshani Amaan, an important Hindu shrine adorned with thousands of brightly colored statues. We could have stayed for hours just circling the temple gates and towers examining the numerous carvings depicting flowers, animals, gods and humans that sat upon the colorful shrine.
A kaleidoscope of statues of women and men with elaborate headdresses and jewelry lounged on the tiers of the stepped pyramid. Corpulent men seated with cows, lithe women with colorful saris playing instruments, and gods with arms displaying traditional Hindu mudras or hand gestures were everywhere. I am certain each carving symbolized some ancient story. Legend says that the temple was originally built by a prehistoric group called the Naga who worshiped snakes. It was destroyed in the 17th century by the Portuguese, but was rebuilt a century later. There are also important Buddhist shrines on the island and it serves as another example of joint veneration of sites in the country that are important to multiple religions.
At lunch we were joined by a temple priest and sat on a stone wall overlooking the ocean and had an Indian inspired feast. The sun was strong, but with a breeze off the water we enjoyed eating with our hands from banana leaves and chatted with the bearded holy man via translator about his temple and the history of Jaffna and Sri Lanka as a whole.
We were only about 35 miles from Southeast India and our guide told us stories and ancient myths about the interactions between the two land masses. I could feel the warmth of the food through the leaf as it rested on my thighs. I can remember the texture of the rice and dahl as my fingers mixed them together. Somehow I knew even then that this meal would remain for me a vivid memory forever. I squinted across the ocean toward India and imprinted the image of our group together on that pier. As a good-bye, the wrinkled priest drew lines with his three fingers across my forehead and bowed to me with hands together.
After lunch the students spent some time shopping in Jaffna and then wanted to mail postcards to their families in the United States, so our caravan of vehicles made a stop at the post office. Janelle napped in the van, and Dad was off on another errand so Mom and I waited in the parking lot while many of the students went inside. Suddenly there was a palpable change in mood as the square grew tense as if we were in a movie and the underscoring had become sinister. Three jeeps filled with armed government soldiers pulled up to the post office and uniformed individuals hopped out and surrounded the building. We did not know what was going on, but my mother decided we should not stick around to discover the meaning of their arrival. Students still in line complained when she tersely ordered them to get back into our vans until they saw the machine guns menacingly carried by the soldiers. It was just weeks before the presidential election and tensions were running high especially in Jaffna. A few years before, a new constitution had been adopted and the newly established position of president had been created. The individual who had declared himself the first president under this constitution, J. R. Jayewardene, was running to continue in his position. The October 1982 election was to be the first direct presidential election in Sri Lanka. We wondered if the presidential candidate or some other important dignitary was on his way to mail a letter or if something sinister was about to happen. Either way we did not stay to discover the reason for the sudden appearance of the army and neither did many others who quickly exited the post office and the surrounding area.
We left directly from the post office square to the final stop on our Northern Sri Lankan excursion. Trincomolee is known for its pristine beaches and long shallow shorelines. Assisted by adults on both sides, even Janelle could wade out into the water quite a distance without the waves reaching over her head. The beaches were lovely and we all enjoyed a relaxing day. Many of the students napped on white sands with nobody in sight save a handful of fisherman. Our hotel was not on the beach however, and was away from shoreline breezes. When we entered our room a grey cloud of mosquitoes lifted from the outside of the single net which hung over the bed in the center like a puff of living smoke. The mosquitoes were horrific and with only one net in our room, we all crowded together in one bed to escape their bites. The collective buzz was persistent through the muggy night and the outside of the net was covered with the tenacious creatures who knew their prey were close. Any time we touched the inside of the net a black swarm descended upon that spot and by the morning we all had areas covered with bites where the mosquitoes had been able to reach us through the net. My parents had never seen so many voracious insects and Mom was convinced that somebody would surely come down with a mosquito borne illness from that long sleepless night.