Stage II in returning home: back in Sri Lanka

Day 3,537 since October 10th 2013: 203 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home, min 24 hrs in each country and 1 pandemic! 

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross which I represent as a Goodwill Ambassador).

Sri Lanka round II


Well, it is never not interesting. I headed up north to visit Jaffna and then returned back down to Colombo again where I got hustled. But I also got a mighty fine haircut/massage for USD 3.

Last week’s entry: Returning home / farewell and thank you Maldives


It is with the utmost appreciation for the seafarers around the world and the shipping companies which have backed the Saga, that I find myself in the position I am in today. In sheer volume of transportation, ships have made up a lesser part of reaching every country without flying. However, ships have been vital in crossing between some continents and reaching island nations with no ferry connections. Once again thank you to Maldives State Shipping and the brave crew of MSS Graphene for bringing us to the Maldives and returning us to Sri Lanka. Returning to Sri Lanka was stage I in returning home without flying. Stage II will be returning to Malaysia onboard Gerda Maersk departing tomorrow. It seems counter intuitive when you look at the geography, but I can assure you that this is the best route back home. Stage III is joining Milan Maersk from Malaysia to Denmark. EPIC!! Today marks 40 days until I return home, translating into 9 years, 9 months, and 16 days since leaving Denmark.


Train (1st class) from Colombo to Anuradhapura: 2,400 rupees (USD 7.80)

The past 9 years, 8 months, and 6 days have transformed me in many ways. There is very little which I spend my time on which does not serve a specific purpose. I could have flown home from the Maldives – but returning home over land and sea serves a purpose. Last week I bought a train ticket and began a journey to Jaffna in the north of Sri Lanka. I like the name: Jaffna. For me it rings up there with other alluring names such as Timbuktu, Nouakchott, and Aqaba. Jaffna is old and offers many layers of history…from thousands of years. It’s proximity to India made it one of the first areas within Sri Lanka to become populated. But traveling to Jaffna had another purpose. Where do you go once you have been to every country in the world? The two foremost authorities within registered travel are Most Traveled People (MTP) and NomadMania. There you can see how you rank against other travelers. If your only benchmark for visiting a country is stepping over the border then you could say you have been to the USA once you’ve been to Hawaii, or to Russia once you’ve been to Moscow. And you'd be right - but you wouldn't have seen much of those countries. There are 193 United Nations countries. MTP has divided the world into 1,500: UN countries (often divided into regions, states or provinces), territories, dependencies, island groups, isolated islands, and enclaves and exclaves. NomadMania has divided the world into 1,301. Sri Lanka is as such divided into 3 regions: South and West, Central and East, and North. Jaffna is in North. I currently rank as the 126th most traveled person in the world on MTP and 160th on NomadMania. I’m the 3rd most traveled Dane according to NomadMania and have ambitions to become “Denmark’s most traveled man”. That is achievable and it starts by visiting regions. In time I would also like to rank among the 100 most traveled people in the world.


SO!! I've been sharing something incorrect for years! I once heard that crocodiles do not die from old age (biological-immortality). I even did research and found information backing the claim. As I was preparing a post for social media this week I found out that it is a myth. I wonder how many people I have told that crocodiles do not die from old age? Well, there are still many websites which claim that they do. However, I've found many recent (convincing) sites stating it's a myth. Apparently the only living organism with biological-immortality is a type of jellyfish.

Okay, so – the train got me as far north as Anuradhapura which I’m embarrassed to tell you I didn’t know anything about. I simply figured it was good enough for a stopover on my way to Jaffna. The train usually goes all the way to Jaffna but the rail beyond Anuradhapura is currently undergoing maintenance. It turns out that Anuradhapura is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in Asia (over 3,000 years). It is also home to a World Heritage Site famous for its well-preserved ruins of the ancient Sinhalese civilization. The city is arguably best known amongst foreigners for the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, the oldest still-living, documented, planted tree in the world. It is believed to be a tree grown from a cutting of the southern branch from the historical sacred bo tree (Sri Maha Bodhi) under which Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) attained Enlightenment. The sacred tree was planted in Anuradhapura in 288 BCE making it 2,311 years ago! But I didn’t know anything about that. I just wanted to spend the night, rest a bit and continue the next day. On my arrival to Anuradhapura station, I met a hoard of tuktuk and taxi drivers and I picked one named Mr. Susil who gave a good price for the short drive to my USD 20/night hotel. Upon arrival we found that the hotel didn’t exist anymore but lucky for me Mr. Susil’s sister ran a hotel and I stayed there for USD 18 including breakfast. Since I liked Mr. Susil, we agreed that he would drive me around the most prominent sites of the Sacred City of Anuradhapura the next morning, and then afterwards drive me the four hour trip up to Jaffna. A lot of Sri Lankans are affected by the countries financial crisis and I do want to help where I can.


At Buddhist sites you remove your head and footwear.


The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, the oldest still-living, documented, planted tree in the world.


Buddhist monks. Really young ones too.


Abhayagiri Stupa, 2nd century BCE. In Buddhism a stupa contains relics and is used as a place of meditation.


In Sri Lanka I've found the roads to be good. And in Hinduism cows are a sacred symbol of life which should be protected.

It was a long ride up to Jaffna. The sun was baking through the windscreen and the landscape was flat. While the two southern regions of Sri Lanka are predominantly Buddhist majority, the north is generally Hindu. As we approached the north, we came across more and more cows which were just roaming about freely. We also drove past a great deal of military bases: Army, Airforce, Navy. We drove past several monuments commemorating the peace which came in 2009 following three decades of civil war. We drove past active minefields and minesweeping teams. We passed through a few checkpoints too. The landscape was beautiful and flat. The road was good. I’m not going to go into details about the war. But I would like to make a connection to Denmark. Two connections perhaps. First of all: landmines suck!!! They are currently floating freely about in Ukraine after the Kakhovka Dam burst and now nobody knows where they might be. My country, Denmark, wasn’t declared free of landmines from WWII (1939-1945) until 2012! The other thing is that back in the late 80s, the Danish government, led by Prime Minister Poul Schlüter, resigned due to the “Tamil Case”. Danish law clearly granted Tamil refugees, from the Sri Lankan Civil War, the right to family reunification. In short, the Danish Minister of Justice Erik Ninn-Hansen decided to stall the advance of family reunification of Tamil refugees (against the law) and then the government lied about it. I don’t know how interesting this is to you? But it was a very big deal in Denmark which always ranks as one of the world’s least corrupt countries. As such the case is well known in Denmark, especially due to an infamous speech given by the then Prime Minister, wherein he stated that "nothing has been swept under the rug" (der er ikke fejet noget ind under gulvtæppet).


Jaffna looked mighty green from the get go.


Jaffna Public Library was built in 1933 and sadly burnt in 1981 due to an arson attack. During the early 80s, it was one of the biggest libraries in Asia, containing over 97,000 books and manuscripts. Some ancient Sinhala and Tamil books were never recovered. In 2001, rehabilitation of the library was completed, with new structures being built and new books received, although its old books and manuscripts were not replaced. Within the library I found this text on the wall: “Study well which are worth studying. Then follow the right path according to what you have studied.”


Inside Jaffna Public Library.

Thankfully the war ended and Sri Lanka reunified in peace. It is now safe to travel to the north and I would definitely recommend it. Jaffna is an interesting and very laidback city. While the colonial history, which began in Jaffna around 400 years ago, only scratches the surface of the region’s history – it definitely is the most visible today. Yesterday was my first day since May 23rd without any interviews. That is my way of saying that it has been hectic for a while. To make life a little easier on myself I have splurged on accommodation in order of having a nice and quiet working environment. In Jaffna I booked a nice hotel near the railway station and stayed three nights. My thinking was that while I waited to join the good ship Gerda Maersk (stage II) I might as well be in a city I had never been to before. I get up at 07:00am and mostly interviews haven’t started until around 11:00am and then continued into the night. So, mornings were generally free for exploration. First stop: Jaffna Fort!


Jaffna Fort entrance.


Within Jaffna Fort. I wonder who planted that mighty tree? And who sat under it?

The well-preserved fort began with the Portuguese in 1619. Then the Dutch took over in 1658 and massively expanded. The British took over in 1795 and in addition to the fort they also took over the entire country. Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948. We have a very similar fort in Copenhagen, Denmark, which is incorporated into the capital city. I used to stand guard there as a detail within The Royal Life Guards a lifetime ago so it was fun on a personal level to explore Jaffna Fort.


There were a noticeable amount of cyclist in Jaffna. Lovely! 


Take a closer look. Yes. There is a Sri Lanka Red Cross (SLRC) emblem on the building. And plenty of them on the fuel dispensers too. This petrol station is an income generating activity for the SLRC in collaboration with Lanka IOC (Indian Oil Corporation). SLRC receives a percentage of the fuel sales thereby raising funds for humanitarian work. The LIOC-Red Cross Fuel Filling Station-Jaffna began in 2015. Btw, please support the Once Upon A Saga fundraiser for the Red Cross. Thank you.


The old Dutch Kachcheri.

Next stop were some ruins I had noticed when I first arrived to Jaffna. I had made a note of them on google maps and now returned to explore. It turned out that the ruins are known as “the old Dutch Kachcheri”? A “kachcheri” is a Hindustani word for a district secretariat that functions as a liaison between the central Sri Lanka government and its activities at district level. Are you yawning yet? The history of the site goes back to Dutch rule but the ruins of today seem to date back to British rule about 150-200 years ago. Regardless; it was an amazing sight to behold! Such beauty to be found when nature takes over. Sadly, there might still be mines within the ruins from the civil war. De-mining was undertaken, but the property hasn’t been declared mine-free as of yet.


Newly built gopuram at the southern side of Nallur Kandaswamy Temple.

My last story from Jaffna is that of a more than one thousand year old Hindu temple. I wanted to know what was worth seeing in Jaffna and within my research people mostly recommended temples and churches. This temple caught my eye from the hotel as I could see its golden towers (gopuram) peak above the tree line about 1.5km (1mi) away. It reminded me of how Mayan temples in Central America reach up above the forest canopy. It was almost calling for me. The ancient temple complex is called Nallur Kandaswamy Temple and its origins date back to 948 CE. I walked around the complex taking in its mighty size. It was hot and humid under the sun. I then found the entrance and decided to head inside. At the gate I observed that people removed their shoes and washed their feet and hands, so I did the same. Further inside, at the entrance, I was told that I had to take my shirt off and that I could leave my hat and shirt with the guard. Topless and barefooted I walked inside as a feeling of mystique surrounding me. “NO PHOTOGRAPHY” signs were to be seen everywhere. There were both women and men inside. The women wore traditional sarees and all the men were topless. At the center of the temple there was an enclosed area with a shrine. There were about 15 people inside with some sitting down with their backs towards large golden pillars and others standing near the shrine. I observed several priests wearing white stripes painted on their bodies and everyone had a bindu (decorative mark) on the forehead. Quite childish of me, the mystic atmosphere sent my mind toward the fictive Thuggee temple within Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There was a large courtyard to the left surrounded by golden columns. I walked around the courtyard looking at the colorful wall paintings depicting Gods and Goddesses. The temple was beautifully decorated. Even the ceiling was interesting. I made a full clockwise round and returned to the shrine in the center where I sat down by a pilar and observed. After about ten minutes loud bells began to ring, two men before me started drumming, and a man was blowing a horn. The drummers and the horn blower got up and made a round similar to the one I had done around the courtyard. It took about ten minutes and then the temple fell silent again. It was quite the cultural experience and something I think I will remember for a long time. It was by far the least touristic temple experience I can remember to have had. I was the only foreigner.


Nallur Kandaswamy Temple.

I managed to make an online booking for a bus back to Colombo. It was an 8-9 hour drive on good roads through Sri Lankas green landscape. A long drive though. Thank goodness this will soon be over. It did however present a good opportunity to listen to a lot of podcast episodes. Back in Colombo I once again splurged on a nice hotel and continued with the interviews. It has not been outrageously expensive as a nice room including breakfast runs me USD 80/night. But it is well outside the USD 20/day budget. Am I still on that budget? We reached the final country last month...


Yum yum. I haven't had a bad meal in Sri Lanka!! This one was the spiciest!!

I needed a haircut so I left my Ivory Tower and headed out into the streets of Colombo. You’d think that with my routine and world experience I would know better than what happened next. While walking down the street a rather well-dressed man approaches me and asked where I was from? That is a go to question for a lot of people so nothing suspecious about that. People look at my hat and guess Australia. He asked me what I was looking for and when I replied “a place to get a haircut” he told me he knew a place nearby and guided me there. I didn’t feel like I could trust him but as a guide to a hairdresser he was good enough. He wore a nice shirt, nice pants, a belt, nice black shoes, and had a phone which rang now and again. He was running his mouth constantly. He told me that he worked at a hotel and came off a nightshift at the bar the night before. He talked about various tourists he had met. He talked, and talked. Eventually we reached the hairdresser which was a typical inexpensive looking place. “My new friend” told me to sit down next to another customer. The man which I assumed to be the hairdresser was ignoring me and finishing his lunch. “My friend” went outside and said he would wait for me? I was ready to let him go. After about 5-10 minutes the hairdresser finally got up, lazily cut the hair of the other customer, and then proceeded to start shaving me? I stopped him and correct him as I wanted a haircut. He again tried to shave me. It was clear that he didn’t speak much English but he eventually understood I wanted a haircut. “My friend” was a bit in and out of the salon. Talking, talking, talking. Then the hairdresser, who radiated laziness, began trimming my hair. He did a pretty poor job and even after I had corrected him a few times I wasn’t happy, but I was done. He then wanted 3,000 rupees!!! My mistake – I should have asked for the price first. But 3,000 (USD 10) was ridiculous. Back in May I had a superb haircut and a 15-minute head, neck, back, and arm massage for 800 rupees. But what could I do? I thought I was dealing with someone honest. Hairdressers usualy are. I paid the 3,000 and left with my “new friend” tailing me. He of course wanted money for showing me where I could get a haircut. I suggested he should get his cut of the 3,000 from the hairdresser. He now kept harassing me for money as I walked back towards the hotel. Eventually I stopped, looked at him and handed him 100 rupees which he took offence over…so I took it back. 100 rupees isn’t a lot but it will get you something in Colombo. I eventually lost him and felt bad about not knowing better.


Sure, the hotel might be nice. But I'm not paying for laundry. Just need to make it to the ship :)

On the following day, when I was originally supposed to join the good ship Gerda Maersk back to Malaysia (stage II in the journey home), I was told that there would be 48hr delay. I had known the day before from being in close contact with the agent. I decided to rectify my mistake (and haircut) by paying the hairdresser from last month another visit. The door was locked when I got there but he spotted me through the tinted glass, unlocked the door, and welcomed me inside while asking about Mike (the filmmaker who was with me last I was in Sri Lanka). I explained that Mike was back in Canada and that it was just me. I then had a superb haircut and a 15-minute head, neck, back, and arm massage for 900 rupees. I let him have 1,000. On my way back to the hotel a well-dressed man approached me on the street, asked me where I was from and told me that he worked at a hotel and came off a nightshift at the bar the night before. I looked at him – it wasn’t the same guy. But this was obviously a routine. They can’t all be winners. But in my book Sri Lankans mostly are.


An honest and excellent hairdresser in Colombo! :)

As you might have noticed the comment section has been removed. We were using a free provider and they got rather aggressive in recent months adding a lot of commercials around the comment section which took up a lot of space. So now we have removed the comment section. I hope you do not mind too much. Thank you for all your kindness!! Next week should be a greeting from a brief stopover in Malaysia – curtesy of our friends at Maersk. Take care and thank you once again.




I would like to thank our esteemed partners for their invaluable contributions to Once Upon A Saga: DB Schenker Denmark, Kameli, Red Sand Solutions, Salomon, the Danish Red Cross and Ross Energy / Geoop

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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - Overworked, hanging in there.

"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

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