Traveling is sometimes rife with the awkward and the uncomfortable, as language and cultural barriers collide head on into some terrible wreckage of social interaction. All of my experiences of this ilk in Sri Lanka, it seems, were waiting for me in Jaffna. Within 30 minutes of arriving in Jaffna someone offered me their child. Within 3 hours, I was 90% naked and dripping in oil.
After the 7 hour train ride to Jaffna Jonathan and I stumbled immediately into the nearest restaurant, one of those places that demonstrate the revitalization of the North... sort of. It was a largish place busily installing a superfluous decorative pond and concrete circles with no discernible purpose. The restaurant staff, of which there were many more than patrons, hurriedly busied themselves with not taking our order for a good 15 minutes. While we fidgeted hungrily, a man dragged his little son over to our table to look at us. While the boy eyed us with an appropriate level of sullen suspicion, his father attempted to coax him to speak to us. To fill the awkward silence, I asked how old the boy was, to which his father disconcertingly responded “Oh, do you want him?” We could think of no better response to this than nervous laughter and frantic head shaking.
Once we joined our friends Natasha and Shabia, Fulbrighters teaching in Jaffna, they mentioned they were going to get a massage at a place recommend by a neighbor. Thinking it would be nice to relax after the train, I went along. A long, confused Tuktuk ride later we pulled up outside a slightly dilapidated house with a 'Herbal Healing' sign out front. Shabia valiantly attempted to explain to our masseuses (whose English was quite limited) that we were meeting friends for dinner and would only have time for a half hour massage. Remembering the leisurely restaurant experience, I gave up on explaining time sensitivity in a small underdeveloped town of the global south, and tried to relax into the experience. I was guided behind some curtains to the massage table (literally, a table) and took off most of my clothes. The massage turned out to be more oil than massage, mostly just dripping the warm slippery stuff over my body and squelching it around. Nevertheless, I felt oddly safe with my masseuse, who was blind in one eye and blithely asked me questions in Tamil, undiscouraged by my complete inability to respond. I was just beginning to relax to the melodramatic tones of that great linguistic universal, the soap opera, which blared on the TV outside, when she flipped me over and deftly removed my bra.
I find that in countries with strict barriers between the sexes, barriers within genders tend to break down. I reminded myself of this repeatedly as she rubbed oil into my boobs. Just when I felt the experience could hardly get weirder, she emerged from the shadows with a large plastic contraption. It was vibrating. This was liberally applied all over my body – yes – boobs too. After I had been vibrated to her satisfaction, I went to rejoin my friends, and was taken aback to discover them receiving massages a room with a coffin. Natasha sprawled on a massage table that looked suspiciously like a door. On closer inspection, I think the coffin was actually some kind of derelict massage equipment, but I'd choose the door any day.
From there we hurried to shower before joining our friends for a movie (we had given up on dinner). It took 4 shampoos to get the oil out of my hair. We did make it – just in time for the 9 pm showing, which, it turned out, started at 9:30. Tickets for the 9:30 movie, we were informed, would begin selling at 9:45. As we waited the lobby gradually filled with about half of Jaffna's male population under 40, whose universal reaction to seeing the group of us (five women and one man) was to laugh hysterically. Though I don't speak Tamil I'm pretty sure I understood their response “Women!?! But it's after dark!!!”. The guys took our brazen and shameless appearance in a movie theater after 7 pm to be clear evidence that we were some sort of prostitutes, and they passed the time by discussing various parts of our anatomies. The leer-giggling continued for one of the most uncomfortable half hours I've had in Sri Lanka, until, fuming, we finally got to into the theater.
The movie was great though. Somehow Kollywood turned medical certificate fraud into a rollicking action movie, complete with chase scenes, warnings against the terrible dangers of alcohol, and inexplicable dance numbers. The plot doesn't bear repeating, but the metaphors the romantic leads used to describe each other certainly do. I've saved my favorites for you:
“my tribe of monkeys”
“like a touch screen” (sensual!) and finally,
“my jaggery paste”.
More to come on Jaffna. Later explorations of the town were a lot more contemplative and lot less absurd. But now that I've had one of those zany adventures that people turn into travel memoirs (you know, the kind which focuses a little too much on the lack of toilet paper), I feel I can't waste it.