The Best of Tamil Traditional Hospitality
It is a hot morning as we stand at the railway station in Anuradhapura waiting to board Sri Lanka’s famous “Queen of Jaffna” train. It is a serene scene with vendors of vadai (fried dough) looking for customers, children clinging to their mothers and the occasional stray dog crossing the railways. One year ago, riding this train would have been unthinkable. After a thirty-year conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese, the wounds of war in Sri Lanka are slowly beginning to heal. The train service between Colombo and Jaffna has resumed and the door to visit the north of the country has now reopened.
The train ride is comfortable in our air-conditioned carriage. Outside the windows, Vavuniya Province looks desolate. The war displaced thousands of Tamils. Many went into exile in Europe or Canada and others into refugee camps. Slowly the former residents are coming back. In fact, most of the passengers in our train car are Tamils coming home from abroad while others are visiting from Colombo. Many Sinhalese, however, don’t want to travel to Jaffna. The stigma of the war is still a strong deterrent in their minds. These thoughts are left unspoken though, since everyone we meet is happy to strike up a conversation and share a few jokes. Before we know it, we have arrived at the Jaffna station.
The first thing we notice is the lack of cars and the abundance of bicycles. Our hotel is just under a mile away so we decide to walk. The quiet streets are a big change coming from hectic Colombo. There is a laid-back feel to the place that reminds me of Havana–rundown houses that have not see a coat of paint in years and dilapidated cars abandoned on the side of the road. The cityscape looks like it was frozen in time somewhere in the 80’s, which corresponds to the when the army came in and blockaded Jaffna from the rest of world.
Our hotel, the Jetwing, is a modern building and hopefully the first of many new hotels to come in the near future. The first item on our agenda is to satisfy our hunger with some local food. Our guide, Mohan, is waiting at the lobby. There are restaurants scattered here and there, but Mohan has arranged for us to try the real deal. The most authentic Jaffna cuisine is found in a home cooked meal!
The Savandan family is waiting for us in their humble home on the outskirts of the city. The kids are running around while their mother is busy in the kitchen. Like many returned Tamil families, they are jobless but earn a modest living from doing odd errands here and there with the support of a relative abroad. The Savandans are beaming at the chance to earn some income from hospitality, but also for the opportunity to share their culture and cuisine. This is the first time they are cooking for visitors and although they are a bit nervous, they make us feel welcome.
If you never heard of odiyal kool, Jaffna crab or poori, I can’t blame you. I haven’t either before taking this trip to northern Sri Lanka. What ensued at the table is a festival of flavors with spicy curries and crispy pappadoms, thin discs of seasoned bread. It is a feast and one shared with a kind family who have been through a lot and are now desperate to rebuild their lives. As we say goodbye, we exchange heartfelt hugs and promises to keep in touch.
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