The long drive north

.                               Look at these beautiful eyebrows!!!

I’m just back from the big smoke capital…where they have normal life necessities like proper shampoo, restaurants and beauticians who will  pluck and twease eyebrows so I no longer look like I have been living in the wilderness for 6 months!

As Jaffna is still rather ‘developing’ we often buy equipment and the like down in the capital then drive it north. Normally the ‘drive north’ part is the job of our drivers, last week I decided I needed to escape the peninsula for a few days so offered to do one of the long drives north.

From start to finish it is quite the adventure!

First you have to go north to south. The quickest way to do that is by plane but as there is no domestic airline right now (and as we have a few friends in the military) the way we go is with the Sri Lankan Air Force!

It’s all terribly exciting as you are piled onto a bus (in the old war-stricken days they used to take your mobile phone off you and make you close curtains over the bus windows!). Then you are driven across the tarmac to your waiting military plane – one of these two bad boys…a Ukrainian transporter or a Chinese twin engine 15 seater….!

I prefer the big one – the seats are low benches running down either side of this big ‘ole beast and it has a huge ramp back door which (just like in the movies) does indeed start to open when you come in to land…before you hit the tarmac!

It’s always full of soldiers, sailors and pilots all looking very smart in their uniforms and there are no windows so it feels rather daunting as this big gun metal bird hurtles down a bumpy runway to take to the skies.

Actually it feels like it will never make it off the ground!

The baby brother plane is a whole different experience…you are handed huge headphones when you squeeze in through the back door because it’s so darn noisy sitting literally on top of the engines. You spend the flight in isolation from your fellow passengers with big black ‘cans’ on your ears!

You certainly keep your fingers crossed on this plane if there is even the slightest breeze in the air – this wee thing bumps and bounces through even the smallest of clouds!

This time round we got the little plane, safely made it down south then it was straight to the office to collect my car only to be told someone had crashed it the day before so there was no driver side mirror, oh and by the way the boot doesn’t shut so it’s kept from flying open with some string. Talk about a Blue Peter effort of a car, this was going to be an interesting journey.

After a unexpectedly luxurious night in a hotel (a last minute booking meant I was upgraded to a suite!) I gorged on the hotel breakfast the next morning as I have been reliably informed by my brother-in-law on many an occasion that calories don’t count when it’s a hotel breakfast!  Then it was time to hit the road.

Now bearing in mind this drive was a fairly last minute plan and also bearing in mind that I don’t actually live in the capital city I figured a helpful (local) soul in the hotel could tell me how to actually get out of the city.

It would appear I had figured wrong.

After much um-ing and ah-ing and several times being asked ‘Was I SURE I was driving all the way to Jaffna’ and ‘Was I really driving there on my own’ I established that in fact no-one could give me directions! They handed me a tourist map and I knew I had a compass in the car – I figured how hard can it be. Set the compass to north and off you go…

This was my map. Not exactly a Tom-Tom is it!

Off I set. After a while my compass arrow was pointing decidedly north EAST rather than north. I stopped at a local petrol station and asked if I was heading to Jaffna. Again much um-ing, ah-ing and questionning and then several shakes of several heads. Apparently I was on the road to Kandy – definitely NOT the right road for Jaffna.

A swift u-turn and following their vague instructions to “turn right after 100m up a dirt track, turn left when the road ends and you will eventually join up with the Jaffna road”, lo and behold with a wing and a prayer it worked and before too long I was happily popping out of a slightly dodgy looking neighbourhood onto the Jaffna road.

Now this is a long old journey to do solo so I had decided some i-pod action was in order.

Pops – you will be pleased to know my choice of travel audio was in fact the omnibus Archers from last Sunday. Along with a spot of Weekend Wogan and some Desert Island Discs I was set.

I now am fully up to speed with what the British deputy-Prime Minister would take to a desert island as his luxury item!

After a full day on the road I got to Jaffna at sunset and was led home by the light of a very big and very bright full moon! Beautiful.

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Free at last

So one day a month I get a day off (work-life balance…what’s that?).

It’s always the last Sunday of the month when operations is on its monthly break and the office staff who work Monday to Saturday are also off. Us expats shut up shop and attempt with all our might to trick our body clocks into sleeping through our usual daily wake up time of dawn. Just for the record…gin helps!

Last Sunday two of us decided we just had not seen enough off the wee peninsula we are living on so we jumped in the ‘Landy’ and went to be tourists for the day.

After a quick bite to eat from the local bakery and with burning mouths from the HOT sambol you get with your roti (basically just raw crushed chillis…divine!) we decided to visit the local library.  Now I had seen this impressive building from the outside which had been burned down during the war and had been rebuilt and apparently restocked.

When you arrive you are greeted by a terribly friendly guard who asks you to turn off your mobile phone and take off your shoes!

I have to admit rather cynically as we went in I was expecting a beautiful but slightly empty shell of a building so I was absolutely shocked  when far from seeing empty shelves I was confronted with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books.

Rows of encyclopedias, books on religion, politics, history, geography, even an entire section of cookery books! It felt slightly surreal being barefoot in a library but nonetheless we padded around for ages having a giggle at some of our slightly more obscure findings…

Just off the coast line there are several small islands and to get there you drive over a causeway. It’s a bit of an adventure because the causeway is literally a few feet above the water level and not really wide enough for cars to pass one another.

Needless to say it was absolutely pelting down with rain the day we decided to cross so the water was high and practically lapping the tyres of the car plus there was some kind of temple festival just finishing so we met head on the busloads of pilgims coming back over to the mainland…

Anyhow after some slightly hairy edging slowly past one another we eventually crossed safely and went for a drive. The islands are a slightly odd place because the ‘islanders’ who live there are from Jaffna but have a definite ‘island mentality’ of being just slightly different to the folk on the mainland. The folk on the mainland, when asked about the islanders, simply shrug and with a sly wink dismiss them as ‘not quite as civilised as the mainlanders’.

I guess not so dissimilar to any island / mainland divide the world over!

As we explored the islands we kept driving past shacks on the side of the road selling what looked like pink popcorn. Not being able to resist investigating we pulled over. An old gnarly fisherman, who has one of those faces which just screams ‘I’ve got a story to tell’, stepped out from behind his stall and in unbelievably crystal clear English said “Good morning, how do you do?”.

Amusingly that was about the limit of his English but through a bit of sign language and my Pops’ way of speaking the local lingo (English but just v-e-r-y  s-l-o-w-l-y and VERY LOUD!) we were reliably informed that far from being popcorn it was sea water boiled shrimps!

Now I know the rules ok…wash it, cook it, peel it or don’t eat it….prawns left outside + hot climate = food poisoning….etc etc. So let’s face it this basket of shrimp had dodgy belly written ALL over it. But I reckon sometimes you’ve just got to take your chances and get down with the locals!

With there not being a dickybird chance of this lovely but slightly grubby stall holder having a nice antibacterial handwash in his pocket I did (briefly) think twice as he peeled one of the big prawns and handed it to me….yes, I ate it!

My friend by this point was being given a handful of the salty shrimp…yes, he ate them!

From the look on his face I couldn’t resist and tried one. They were absolutely delicious, SO moorish and totally addictive. We decided to throw caution to the wind and promptly bought half a kilo.

Heading back over the causeway we stopped at the local ‘beer shop’ and bought some of the local brew then back to the house for a Sunday afternoon movie and movie snacks of beer and salty shrimp.

After a day away from the office I think it’s called ”relaxing”, that evening (with total sodium overload from gorging on my shrimps) as I set my alarm for dawn I might even possibly have had what people with slightly more normal lives call ‘the Sunday night blues’??!!

p.s we lived to tell the tale post-shrimps…all those family camping holidays have obviously set me up with a strong constitution!