An Unexpected Tour Guide (Flashback to Jaffna, August 2016)


Wearing a yellow shirt and a wide smile, she told us she is originally from Sri Lanka and is now living in Markham, Ontario. Moments before, we had all squished onto a bus heading from Jaffna town centre towards the island of Kayts, in northern Sri Lanka. The woman in yellow had noticed our Canadian accents and shared with us a bit of her family history, entertaining us all during the ride.

Like so many others, she had left Sri Lanka during the war, a thirty-year conflict that ended in 2009. And, again like so many others, she had settled in Canada, where she met her husband and they had raised two children. She told us her children, now teenagers, speak Tamil at home but only speak English in public. She also told us they didn’t have any interest in visiting Sri Lanka with her this year. She smiled still as she said this, but she there was some disappointment in her voice. “Another time,” she said, changing the subject.

She introduced us to her relatives, who she was visiting with while she was in town. She was home to visit them, of course, and also to participate in the annual Hindu festival at the famous Nallur kovil in Jaffna. She was one of the many members of the Tamil diaspora we met while in northern Sri Lanka during the Nallur festival. We also met Sri Lankans living in Germany, Australia and more, all of whom were home for the festivities, to visit family and also to share their culture with their children. (Later that night, we played with a little girl from the United Kingdom, who was visiting Sri Lanka for the first time. She was enchanted with the temple, though admittedly more interested in playing with a glow-in-the-dark ball her parents had purchased for her at the night market.)

After bonding with her on the bus, the woman in yellow led us on an adventure that day. From one bus, we took another, then caught a ferry to another island and then took a tuk-tuk tour around that island and finally caught the ferry back to catch a final bus back to Jaffna. The woman in yellow and her family guided us along the entire day. With their help, we found cold Coca-Cola to cut the heat, clean bathrooms at a local market, and delicious sweet peanut snacks at a small shop along the way. And everyone in the family banded together to help keep me calm during the ferry rides, which terrified me because we sat below deck (i.e. underwater) and much too close to the engine for my liking.

On our last bus of the day, we lost track of the woman in yellow in the crush of people all heading back to Jaffna for the night. We only noticed her again once she and her family had left the bus and we were already barrelling back the road. We waved to say goodbye but I don’t think she saw us. We were probably impossible to see from the back window, which was reflecting the setting sun. Maybe one day we’ll run into each other back in Canada. We would probably recognize each other but only in that way when you can’t remember how you know each other, or in what context. Maybe I’d remember her if she was wearing yellow.


Nallur temple in Jaffna


The ferries from Kayts to Analaitivu