Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 7 – Mannar Island

From the same spot I’d arrived at a couple days earlier, my bus trundled off, bound for Mannar, after not much more than a few minutes wait. Stocked up with a few snacks form the shop across the road, even on a Sri Lankan bus, I anticipated that this would be a fairly easy journey. Weighing in at just 90 minutes to two hours, with a good seat and an early morning departure, I was feeling pretty good. If Vavuniya had been my first real taste of northern culture, Mannar was to ratchet it up a notch. This started almost immediately that we left the city limits. The roads quickly degenerated into pot hole filled messes. A brief chat with one of my fellow passengers, who saw the tension in my face as the bus tipped to perhaps 30 degrees, revealed that, at the end of the war, the government in Colombo had promised much in terms of infrastructure repairs for the decimated northern province, but that little had been forthcoming. This explained why the journey of only 45 kilometres or so, on a relatively straight road, took such a long time. Suspension testing discomfort notwithstanding, we arrived in Mannar without incident fairly quickly.

Mannar is referred to by just about everyone as an island. Strictly, it’s a peninsula. Access is allowed to rail and road by two parallel causeways, which give quite remarkable views over the sparkling blue of the Indian Ocean, though the city itself is not the jewel you might hope to see, when you arrive at the other side.

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As you leave the causeway – pictured above – you turn straight on, leaving the old, ruined Dutch fortress to your right and head on to the bus terminal, situated next to a series of markets and across the road from a bunch of eateries, that I would come to know well. Not having booked accommodation and unsure whether there might be vacancies int he limited range of places mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide, I had a walk around the market, asking people if they knew of any accommodation.

Disappointingly, no-one could suggest anywhere beyond the places that were mentioned in the book, so I decided to take a chance. I wandered down the main east-west road towards the post office where I found the most highly recommended guest houses in the town. I also found that it was full. Across the road though, a man was pulling up on a scooter and asked me if I was looking for accommodation. He showed me into his accommodation which was just across the road and, while it didn’t look as nice as the lavishly gardened place I had been looking at, it was certainly clean and offered a large room with a double bed for me to sleep on. At 1500 rupees per night, the price was also right. I accepted his offer, paid for my room and dropped my things. Walking with my bags in the midday sun had left me rather clammy, so I took a quick shower and headed out for lunch and then to explore the island a little. In a turn of events that beggared belief, the café next to my accommodation didn’t have rice and curry for lunch. So, it was fried rice, with chicken and then a walk.

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The first thing you notice in Mannar, just walking around, is donkeys. Donkeys are everywhere. Sadly, they’re often not in tremendous shape and even more often eating in piles of rubbish, which might explain why they’re not in good shape. When you ask local people where they came from, the best story I managed to get was that someone brought them a long time ago. Some investigation via google and various blogs seemed to suggest that they had been used by a wealthy family group who had had lucrative linen washing business on the island. When the business dried up, the donkeys were left free to roam. Not sure I buy it, but it’s the best I can do.

Anyway, once outside the centre of Mannar town, you quickly find yourself on the rocky/sandy water’s edge, which is not hard or time consuming to reach in any direction. As I mentioned before the litter is a great shame and really stark against the pale blue of the shallow water, but nonetheless, it’s prettier than you think on first arriving in the town.

Returning to my accommodation after a few hours of walking around the coastline and talking to/scaring donkeys, I heard a commotion, with someone speaking over a loud speaker. Of course, it was a cricket match. So I grabbed a cold chocolate milk from a corner tea house and went and sat in the stands until dinner.

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After the match and a short nap, I decided to walk in to the town to grab something to eat. At the bottom of town were a row of eateries, opposite the bus station, as I mentioned earlier. I was tipped off about one of them and went inside to get something to eat. They had kottu ready to go, so a steaming plate of beef and cheese kottu was ordered and devoured shortly after it arrived. Hot with great chunks of chopped red chilli, the gravy was also particularly fiery. I made a note to come back here often.

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Food was quickly followed by sleep, as the next morning I was going for a change to my regular programme, as far as Sri Lanka was concerned – a trip to a Christian pilgrimage site!

Waking up in the morning, I realised I needed to get breakfast before heading off, as I ddn’t know when I’d eat again. So I dashed downtown to the restaurant I’d been to the night before. I asked, more from hope than expectation, if they had anything special for breakfast and, to my huge surprise, the manager told me that they had hoppers with eggs and gravy. Tea would be fifteen minutes or more though, as they had run out. Realising you can’t have it all, I ordered a plate of the hoppers with eggs and gravy and a ginger beer. It was so nice to have something different for breakfast from the other meals I was used to eating – we were getting into the later part of my second week in Sri Lanka by now. I ate, felt thoroughly satisfied, then jumped into a tuk tuk taxi to the station.

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Arriving at the station, I still had plenty of time to get my train. I bought my ticket and waited, noting that I was the only foreigner there. I strolled down to a nearby store to buy some water for my day and began to look at my guide for details of what was to be found at Madhu Junction. As with most Catholic pilgrimage sites, Madhu was a place where people witnessed a miraculous appearance of the holy virgin. It is also the place where a small statue of the virgin is kept safe. Boarding the train, I sat down in a third class seat. Diagonally opposite me was a Sri Lankan fellow, curious at seeing a foreigner on this train, he struck up a conversation. It turned out that he was from Colombo and had been working at the Mannar branch of a finance company. He was very honest about his country, expressing his frustration about the state of the government and the need for a lot of change to improve the country. He was also extremely candid about the underinvestment in the north and about his experiences of working with good people there who deserve better. We had such a good chat that we exchanged contact details and are still in touch, though he’s now been relocated back to Colombo, which is great news for his wife and young child.

Arriving at Madhu had positively comic results. As I hopped off, the station manager approached me and told me that I was at the wrong station. I told him that I wanted Madhu Road and showed him my ticket. First he smiled. Then he pulled a confused expression, and then he stopped. He asked me again just to make sure and then finally set about asking me why I was there. I told him I was there to visit the church of our lady of Madhu and he became positively excited. He asked if I had booked a taxi ahead. I said that I hadn’t and so he called his friend who was equally excited, once he arrived. We negotiated a price for the trip and set off. It was a very bumpy 30 minutes, way off from the main road into the countryside. I was beginning to think the fellow was lost – particularly when we stopped to pick up his niece from school – but we arrived soon enough, without any detours. I jumped out to see what was a huge complex. The site was one of the most important Christian sites on the island for a very long time and, with its position at the very heart of the conflict during the civil war, the church and its grounds found itself home to many thousands of refugees at various points during the war. It has received a great deal of renovation in recent years, largely owing to the visit of Pope Francis in 2014. You can find more information about the site from wikipedia here.

Now it was time to go in and see the lady of Madhu for myself. There was a sign outside saying “no photography” which was disappointing but, once inside I noticed that none of the pilgrims were paying any mind to it, so I swiftly grabbed my phone camera and grabbed a quick snap. It was a very small effigy but really nicely presented. It was interesting that some of the pilgrims there were not Christian, but in fact Hindu or Buddhist yet they were still offering up prayers to her.

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After seeing our lady of Maddhu and having a walk around the grounds, looking at the dramatic, almost life-sized dark wood sculptures of the stations of the cross and chatting to a few pilgrims, I had just an hour or so to try to find some lunch before my tuk tuk driver returned to take me back to the main road. I strolled across the wonderfully peaceful gardens of the church to the canteen and stepped inside. The smiling man behind the almost surgically clean stainless steel serving counter greeted me and then looked somewhat dumbfounded when I asked him if there was still rice and curry for lunch – it was after two o’clock. Eventually, he told me apologetically that they didn’t get foreign tourists there. I told him that now they had one and pressed him on the rice and curry. He told me it was too hot for me. I smiled and told him that I’d like some anyway. So he started spooning it out for me and gave me just three dishes. first just a spoon of each on a small plate to try. I tasted each one and told him they were all delicious. He looked half confused and half delighted and so decided that I really ought to try everything. So I ended up with a mountain of rice and no less than six of the little silver pots full of curry and the associated sides. I can confidently say that this was in the top three meals I had in all my time in Sri Lanka and I made sure the extremely courteous and friendly staff knew as much. There was also, of course, ginger beer to wash it down and a mug of hot milky tea to finish. I left the restaurant with an extremely full and satisfied belly and left the staff with a generous tip. I strongly recommend this restaurant to anyone who finds themselves in the area.

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This left me with about twenty minutes to sit in the shade on the edge of the church garden and wait for my ride. The tuk tuk driver arrived and was quite apologetic about being a few minutes late. I hadn’t even noticed and told him as much. We hurtled back down the long straight road to the main highway in to Mannar. There, I asked him to let me off, as I knew that the train was a good hour and a half away. I stopped at a roadside café for a drink and to read for a bit. So I sat almost under the gate to the Maddhu complex for the next hour in the café, where the waiter told me that the bus back into town was a better option than to wait for the train. I followed his advice and found myself – via a typically bumpy journey, back in Mannar in time for a nap.

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The next day was a chance to explore Mannar itself and that started, after more eggs hoppers, with the fortress. I found myself at eight o’clock in the morning, competing with a family of donkeys to enter the old ruin. As with so many of these fortresses, it had been founded by the portuguese, reinforced about a century later by the Dutch and then finally used by the British until the end of the colonial period. Also like many of the other fortresses – particularly those in the north – it had remained in fairly good shape until the later parts of the civil war whereupon it had become a base for Tamil forces and had been bombed out by government troops. In spite of this eventful life, it still made an interesting place to visit, almost entirely deserted but for the aforementioned donkeys and a huge number of crows.

With the fortress explored and photographed, it was time to cross the the northern tip of the island. There, I would find the Baobab tree. These trees are native to the Arabian peninsula and were thought to have been brought to Sri Lanka by Arabic merchants as early as seven hundred years earlier. The one here in Mannar is treated with some reverence and has a Buddhist temple attached to it. Having never seen one before and reading that they were particularly unusual looking, I decided I had to take a look. After about forty five minutes of walking in the midday sun, I found it and, if I was looking for something strange, I certainly wouldn’t be disappointed here! As you can see from the plaque, the trunk of this gigantic plant is close to twenty metres around, while it also stretches up to seven and a half metres above the ground. It’s quite impressive. The pockmarks and wrinkles on the bark are also quite bizarre.

From here I was near to the northern edge of the island, so I decided I would keep on walking and see some of the small fishing communities, even further detached from anything resembling tourism. Once up there, I found myself bombarded with the smell of fish in the air. Turning a corner to the narrow street running parallel to the shore line, it quickly became apparent why. The fishermen had laid out their catches in the sun to dry. It made for quite a sight, the sun reflecting off the silvery skin. I continued walking around the coastal road until I was struck by something that strongly reminded me of home. By home, of course, I nowadays mean Portugal. For here was a traditional Portuguese church.

At first I just spied the silvery dome over the walls and immediately I decided to go to investigate further. Coming round, finally to the front of the church, it was unmistakeably Portuguese and I will admit to feeling a little pang of homesickness. I wandered inside and the pastor of the church came to meet me and gave me a little tour, with his niece. They explained that they were Portuguese burghers, the man having one great grandparent who was Portuguese. They were also delighted to meet someone with some connection to Portugal, even if only as a foreigner who lived there. They implored me to tell my Portuguese friends to visit. I of course said that I would. Walking outside the church, I ran into more Portuguese burghers and, for the first time on my trip, they were asking me about football rather than cricket. A sign of the Portuguese influence if ever there was one!

After saying goodbye to the displaced Portuguese and having seen a very distinct cultural difference from the more British influenced folk I had met throughout the island thus far I took the slow meandering walk back inland to where I was staying. I washed a few things back at the accommodation and then popped back to what had become one of my real favourite eateries for one last meal. This time, they had something new for me. Roti bread served with a pile of fried chicken and vegetables in batter that you rolled up and ate like a burrito. Needless to say it was top stuff. After that, it was time for bed before the next morning’s bus ride on to Jaffna, the capital of the north!

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Throughout my travels in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily on the Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can buy yours, here:

SriLanka

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Author: Mr Kev

I'm a mid-30s English language teacher from the UK who really enjoys travel, both for the sake of the places I travel to and for the journey itself. I'm currently living and working in Portugal, after 3 years in Poland where I tried to take the opportunity to see as much of Central Europe as I could. My travels will be recorded on my travel blog, while the highs and lows of every day life in Lisbon will be recorded in my Englishman in Lisbon blog.

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