I HAVE WHALE-WATCHED IN THE RAIN, or whale-sought in the rain, while our boat hit waves as tall as houses and their spray left me storm-drenched and salt-soaked and blinking against the sting. I’ve watched a Chinese woman sit beside me at the prow, clenching the railing with one hand and a plastic baggie of her own vomit with the other, undeterred, scanning the horizon for unseen blowholes. I’ve traveled to the southern Sri Lankan coast, beyond the Galle Fort, where the hills pulse green—not just green but greens, lime and mint and deep sage darkening into burnt brown. I’ve gone swimming in a teal pool on a stone terrace, smelled roti sizzling on a griddle in the shadow of an old Dutch fort, watched monkeys chase each other across balconies, woken up in a canopy bed to glimpse a pond full of floating lotus blossoms. I’ve eaten mangoes sweet as candy, licked the orange stain around my mouth after sucking their pits for the last flesh.
I could tell you about all these things, these pieces of the Sri Lankan south—palms swaying in the rain, prawn curry and sweet lime water by candlelight, vanilla ice cream drizzled with treacle from the trees—but instead I want to tell you about visiting the north, a different kind of country, five years after the end of a civil war.
IT WAS EARLY EVENING when I arrived in Colombo, on the island’s southwest coast. I’d leapfrogged a day, and everything felt half dreamed. On the flight to Dubai, old men had peered out the bulkhead windows to check for the first lines of dawn, then dropped to the cabin floor in prayer. Dessert was apricot cake draped in cream. A teenage girl wore a bright pink T-shirt that read: never look back. The Gulf Times was full of Middle Eastern justice—“Woman to be lashed for insulting morality police,” “Arrest of atheist bloggers urged,” and dispatches from my own country: “Tear gas and baton rounds can’t keep the peace in Missouri.”
The next morning, I was planning to head north—up to the Jaffna peninsula along the A9 highway, through the vast northern scrublands known as the Vanni. This was the territory controlled for many years by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better known as the Tamil Tigers, until they were finally defeated by Sri Lankan government forces in 2009 near the shores of the Nanthikadal Lagoon, a final siege in which thousands of civilians died. One U.N. report put the number at 40,000.
It’s impossible to understand what it means to go north in Sri Lanka without a basic map of the fault lines that catalyzed the civil war—a Sinhalese Buddhist majority in the south; a Tamil minority concentrated in the north with the Tigers fighting for a separate state—and some sense of that war’s enduring aftermath: the damaged infrastructure, persistent ethnic tensions, a territory still thick with military presence.
I read deeper into the conflict. Every time I thought I’d found its beginning, I found another beginning that came before it. Maybe the war started with Black July in 1983, when anti-Tamil ethnic riots killed as many as 3,000 in Colombo; or it began when the Tigers killed 13 Sri Lankan soldiers in the ambush that prompted those riots; or it began in the 1950s when Sinhalese was designated the country’s only official language.
Every beginning was preceded by an earlier beginning, and there was an ending that seemed, to many, like no ending at all. Two things became increasingly clear: There had been tremendous brutality on both sides, and the country was still very much in the midst of rebuilding.
MY FIRST NIGHT IN COLOMBO, I went to dinner with a Sri Lankan journalist. He picked me up at my hotel, the Galle Face, an old-school affair on the water, all teak angles and verandas, the restless slate-gray sea beyond. I felt self-conscious about staying in the place, with its whiff of old colonial powers. I told him I was going north. What did he think of how the government had been rebuilding since the war? He said the simplest way to put it was this: They hadn’t done anything right. Government attempts to investigate wartime civilian disappearances had been largely token efforts. The Tamils were still carrying the burden of the struggle: military surveillance, a population of war widows. But he told me—more than once—that it was dangerous to think of these citizens in the north exclusively or primarily as victims. They were also survivors, actively rebuilding their lives and communities.
He told me that Sri Lankans from the south were increasingly traveling north to visit parts of their country they’d never seen, and that the army had started running its own resorts, including a converted prison fort and a villa on the shores of the same Nanthikadal Lagoon where so many civilians had died. Later that night, I found the resort’s Facebook page: “Enjoy a soothing holiday and the cool breeze of Nanthikadal lagoon.”
The journalist told me it bothers him to hear the way travelers talk about the north, especially its beaches—pristine, unspoiled, undiscovered. Those beaches aren’t unspoiled, he told me. There are skeletons in the sand.
I asked how recently he’d been up there himself, and he just shook his head. Not recently, he said. He didn’t have to go. He already knew. He wouldn’t go just to look, he said. That would make him uncomfortable. He’d only go if he thought he could be useful.
IT WASN’T PARTICULARLY EASY TO GET TO JAFFNA, the largest city in the north and the cultural center of the Tamil minority. Though the train lines—bombed out by the Tamil Tigers—had been rebuilt, the final leg to Jaffna wasn’t open yet. I could have taken a plane for a lot of money, or an overnight bus for much less, but I didn’t want to travel by air or by night. Because I didn’t want to see just Jaffna; I wanted to see the Vanni itself, the between parts, the shift from south to north, the landscape of the war and what had been built since its end.
I found a driver who could take me all the way from Colombo, an eight-hour journey. He seemed confused about why I was headed north, though he was eager to assure me I’d be safe there. “Danger before,” he said. “One hundred percent OK now.” He repeated this a few times over the course of the day: One hundred percent OK, one hundred percent OK. He was from a town on the southern coast, Ambalangoda, where he had been staying with his mother when the 2004 tsunami hit. He survived by holding onto a coconut tree. His mother died.
The early drive took us past the bustling commercial towns Kurunegala and Dambulla, and smaller single-industry villages: a village full of pineapples, a village full of cashews, a village full of hubcaps. We passed tuk-tuks with their Che Guevara stickers—HE LOVE YOUR REBEL—weaving through the heavy traffic of all this capitalism: True Lover Shop, Hotel Cool Bar, Hotel Tit 4 Tat.
Farther north on the A9, past the district capital of Vavuniya, the shops grew more scarce and ramshackle—makeshift huts strung with potato chips—and the land opened up, more like plains, less like jungle. We passed shelled-out buildings, one after another, roofs blown off and walls blown ragged. Many had been people’s homes. Now they were naked to the sky. My driver explained that Tigers had been hiding inside them; that’s why they got bombed. One hundred percent OK. We seek narratives that will make it so. Violence becomes a necessity, or gets turned into a resort, a soothing holiday.
In Kilinochchi, the old Tiger capital, we stopped at an overturned water tower—ruins tall as a house, concrete cracked and crumbling, rebar jutting out, a tiny danger sign hanging off the side like a punch line in poor taste. We passed fields marked by faded skull-and-crossbones signs, where little concrete mounds covered the unexploded mines. We hit the bleak expanse of Elephant Pass, a thin strip of land connecting the Jaffna peninsula to the rest of the island, and stopped at an improvised tank—an armored bulldozer—enshrined in honor of Gamini Kularatne, who died thwarting a Tiger suicide mission. We watched a busload of visitors—presumably up from the south—buy orchids to place before his statue, flanked by soldiers standing as still as the bronze itself. Nearby display cases held Gamini’s old uniform, the dishes he used, the sheets he slept on.
At a memorial a few kilometers farther on, there was no one but me and my driver and a soldier who explained what the sculpture meant, a meaning delivered to me in fragments of skewed translation. I could see an exploding shell with a lotus blooming from it. A cube below showed two hands shaking in peace. But whatever you might say about the end of the war—Were there war crimes? How many? What kind? By whom?—it certainly wasn’t a peaceful handshake; it wasn’t anything like that.
IN JAFFNA, THERE WERE SOLDIERS EVERYWHERE. There were soldiers by the gleaming white library with its sculpted domes, and soldiers by the hardware stores, and soldiers by the cricket field. There were soldiers at every intersection. The journalist had told me Jaffna had recently gotten its first stoplight, but I didn’t see it. I saw only soldiers directing traffic.
I stayed in a single bed in a white room just down the road from the Nallur Temple, where barefoot Hindu worshippers walked circular paths around the premises. There were soldiers here, too, though they stood barefoot in the sand as well.
In my room, there was a can of Pringles on the mini-fridge and three mangoes in a basket on the desk. Nathan, the de facto concierge, was eager to manage my experience. He kept calling the phone in my room: You have had dinner? You have had lunch? You are going where today? Nathan showed me pictures of his daughters. He said his Hindu family no longer spoke to him because he’d converted to Christianity for his wife.
There weren’t many tourists in town. Schoolgirls slowed on their bikes to say hello. Each time I left the hotel, the same disabled boy wanted to shake my hand. I kept shaking it, smiling big enough to feel the stretch and strain of my own skin; I felt I owed him something I couldn’t name.
I kept thinking of the journalist: I would only go there if I felt I could be useful. I thought of the Elizabeth Bishop poem “Questions of Travel”: Is it right to be watching strangers in a play / In this strangest of theaters?
People like me—which is to say, people who’ve had the privilege to travel, and to think of traveling as a constituent part of their identity—often like to travel where others like themselves haven’t already gone. But in Jaffna, being away from other tourists didn’t make me feel less like a tourist. Just the opposite. I was looked at, sussed out, wondered about, and rightly so, because what was I doing there, anyway? I felt my own lack of use.
I walked through the buildings east of the old fort, where the war damage was thickest: crumbling walls, empty chambers full of shrubs and climbing tendrils. Peeling pink-painted walls enclosed stairs leading straight to the sky. A little boy chased a kitten into the damage.
The roads by the water were a tight grid full of fishermen’s shacks with blue mesh nets flung over their fences. A man squatted in the dusty road, mending one of them with twine. Baby goats were suckling outside the fuchsia doors of a tiny hospital. I tried to walk with purpose but clearly didn’t have one. I’ve never felt more visible. I ended up at the end of a cul-de-sac where a rainbow-colored house was pulsing noise from some interior boom box. I turned around, still trying to look purposeful, still failing. A round of firecrackers startled me—not because of what it was but because of what it wasn’t. Men said hello hi how are you, asked where was I from, was I lost, what did I want, what did my arm say, pointing at my tattoo.
I skirted the barbed-wire edges of an army enclosure, long barracks with flung-open windows showing bare cots and racks of well-ironed uniforms. A man holding a machine gun watched me scrape bird shit off my shoe with a waxy green leaf. He smiled. His smile said what he wasn’t saying: Where was I from, was I lost, what did I want? In the courtyard behind him, another soldier was throwing big stones at a little dog. She held her ground. He kept throwing. The other soldier kept holding his gun. Birds kept shitting, above me and everywhere. I bent down again to keep wiping. After a few more minutes, the dog skulked away beneath the barbed wire.
I’D BEGUN TO FEEL INCREASINGLY FRUSTRATED by the nature of my own assignment, told a day before my flight that I was going to Sri Lanka, because it had come to seem like the distillation of a certain kind of privilege: showing up somewhere without knowing anything about it. There’s a notion that spontaneity permits a certain kind of authenticity, liberating us from the freight and tangle of too much context, too much research. But this kind of spontaneity didn’t seem to permit anything but ignorance: Looking at this place without knowing its history wasn’t any kind of vision at all.
Seeing the Jaffna library—its regal white spires, its security guard so proud to show me the second floor—would have been hollow without knowing it was rebuilt from the ruins of its predecessor, burned in 1981 by an anti-Tamil mob. It had been one of the largest libraries in Asia. Manuscripts were destroyed that existed nowhere else, that the world will never have again. The ghost of that destruction haunted the white spires I saw. What kind of authenticity comes from looking at a library and knowing nothing about the wreckage it emerged from? That’s nothing but deficit. I knew enough to know how little I knew.
I had started reading about the war on my flight to Dubai. Kept reading as we touched down in Colombo, as I fell asleep on hotel beds, as I ate my breakfast of egg hoppers, quivering yolks cupped by thin pancakes of fermented rice. I found myself wondering, was I blocking the place out when I read my book instead of walking through town? Or was I blocking it out when I walked through town without having read the book? The first was what I’d been trained to believe, but the second was starting to seem more true.
TOOK THE OVERNIGHT BUS back to Colombo. I sat perfectly still while the elderly woman beside me arranged her orange sari carefully around her seated body. As we rolled out of town, I saw one last soldier standing with his machine gun silhouetted against the clouds, and then a graveyard full of headstones catching the moonlight on their broad faces. I saw an illuminated showroom full of coffins. It was a 7:30 bus. We got out of Jaffna around 10. We stopped to pick people up; we stopped to drop people off; we stopped to let someone purchase a television; we stopped so our driver could walk into a roadside Hindu shrine, place his palms together, and bow in worship. He came back clutching two fistfuls of flower petals. I wondered if he’d been praying for our journey, and I hoped so. Because we kept screeching to avoid hitting things—a tractor piled high with rusty machinery, a van creaking along, turtle-slow and determined.
Around three in the morning we stopped for half an hour in the middle of the road while our conductor ran his flashlight over one side of the bus. Who knows what was getting fixed, or wasn’t. When we started moving again, I picked up my bag to find it soaked in something, a mysterious puddle at my feet. I sent frantic telepathic messages to my laptop: Are you OK?
We kept moving through the dark until finally it was dawn. Figuring out the moral of the north felt like a good way to pass the time while my laptop was maybe slowly dying on the bus floor. But what was the moral? The hero had his orchids. The lagoon had its skeletons. North/South had become a kind of binary for the kind of traveler I wanted to be: I wanted a gold star for going north, for refusing the easier path of staying south. But I was troubled by this need for affirmation, the desire for some kind of credit, and I wondered what good it had done, in the end, that I’d seen anything at all. I was still an outsider to the damage.
True statement: Sri Lanka is paradise. Also true: Every paradise is made possible by blindness.
GETTING FROM NEW YORK TO DUBAI to Colombo took 20 hours; getting from Northern Sri Lanka to its most southern point took 17; a bus and then a train and then a tuk-tuk ride along the coast to the town of Mirissa, where the bright blue sea flashed into view between concrete guesthouses and rough wooden stands piled with glistening stacks of silvery fish. Mirissa was where I saw the Sri Lanka you hear about in guidebooks—white sand beaches and passion fruit on balconies—where I unsuccessfully whale-watched and successfully received an open-air massage; where I ate dal so good I wanted to travel back in time and tell prior versions of myself, versions of myself that thought I’d eaten dal, that I’d never eaten dal at all. Not really.
But before all that, I sat next to a boy on the train.
He was headed home to Matara. He seemed 15, maybe 16. He wanted to know about my tattoo, what did it say? I am human, nothing human is alien to me, I would have told him, except I couldn’t, because some things are alien to me, like the Sinhalese language. He offered me his spicy peanuts and wanted to know if maybe I had a local mobile, which was amusing to me because I felt old enough to be his mother. He wanted to switch seats with me because maybe I wanted the window? His smile showed his gums. I asked if he was a student somewhere. He shook his head.
“I am a soldier,” he told me. “Up in Jaffna.”
He showed me his tiny military portrait: No gums in sight. Just his green fatigues. I smiled, thumbs up, and gave it back to him. No, he said. He wanted me to keep it.
>>Next: More from Leslie Jamison as she transitions from sojourning solo to Family Travel