Lately I have been thinking a lot about why people travel. Beyond the age-old argument of tourist vs. traveler, the fundamental question is really quite simple: What do you look for when you visit a new place? The options are endless: the sights and sounds of new landscapes, ancient civilizations and history, adventure and adrenaline, cultural insights and gastronomic exploration, and so on and so forth.
In Sri Lanka, one can find all of these things. Over the past two weeks, I’ve gone from sandy beaches to lush green mountain valleys to arid desert landscapes. I’ve visited thousand year-old temples; learned about tea cultivation in the heart of Ceylon; ridden among 150+ elephants feasting by a lake; and wined and dined my way around the island. These are only but a few examples of incredibly diverse experiences that this country has to offer, and testament to why Lonely Planet named Sri Lanka the number one destination to visit in 2013.
Yet, somehow, last week I found myself feeling a little unfulfilled. Even a bit guilty for my ungratefulness. Sitting under a mango tree to escape the mid-day heat in a sleepy town, I shared a fresh coconut and reflected on my time in Sri Lanka with another weary traveler from Australia. It was then that I began to understand the source of the emptiness.
More so than food, adventure, culture, or nature, I was unconsciously looking for the raw human experience—the evidence that we as human beings are all connected through our shared experience of joy, pain, suffering, wonder, and hope. And Sri Lanka was a little too picture perfect for comfort.
From my very first moments on the road from the airport, I was impressed by the extensive telecoms infrastructure, the clean and well-paved roads, and the lack of pollution. Even the taxi driver couldn’t stop gushing about the free universal education and health care. Over the course of two weeks, I would be barraged with incredible friendliness and hospitality. While welcoming and happy on the outside, it also meant that the people were more difficult to penetrate.
Where was the reality? I knew that behind the apparent peace and quiet happiness was another story untold. Rocked by a 28-year civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority that claimed more than 100,000 lives, the country only recently started to pick itself back up. Yet, as much as I tried, I could count on one hand the number of times the war came up in conversation. It’s as if the country just collectively decided to forget. …or did they?
There was only one way to find out: Go to Jaffna.
Situated in the Northern peninsula capping the island, the city of Jaffna is the former base of the dissident Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers, as they are commonly known. The region is where most of the bitter conflict and violence unfolded over three decades. Until 2009, the road between Jaffna and the rest of the country was completely closed. Today, it is still very much considered “off the beaten path”; despite the short 5-hour bus journey, few people venture up. If there was any place where I could find living evidence of this country’s history, Jaffna was it.
And so, in my final week in Sri Lanka, I decided to take a long detour up to the North. I would not be disappointed.