Arriving in Jaffna felt like we might have stepped back in time, this was clarified by all the people staring at us! As we wondered around the city centre, it's clear that few tourists make it here making a hidden gem in an often busy tourist laden country. Jaffna is Sri Lanka’s most northern city and the closest you can get to India. It's full of the hectic hubbub of market traders, bustling bazaars and more tuk tuks than people.
The folk in Jaffna are so friendly, the second we show the slightest interest in a man siphoning creamy tea between cups, a gentleman greets us in English and talks of his experiences in London many years ago. The same friendly man buys us both an incredibly sugary tea and left us to gaze at the happening city, suddenly something catches our eye. Above a generic hardware store we spot some beautiful hand-painted signage. The sign is mixture of English and Sri Lankan typography, a throwback to skilled graphic artists of the 20th century. Let us show you some of the most beautiful hand-painted signs in Jaffna.
Hardware Stores On Stanley Road
What’s really alluring about the painted signs is that they tell a story of what a street was like many years ago. Walking down Stanley Road into the town centre is quite an archaic place where men stand around together chewing the fat. Almost half the shops sell exactly the same hardware equipment, materials and services and have somehow survived the extensive competition and even civil war. It seems very old fashioned that so many shops compete against each other for the same services but really they represent a vital part of the community life. A community that fixes broken products, makes rather than buys and would happily enjoy a sugary tea with a shop owner without needing to buy anything.
One of the coolest things about Jaffna is that it’s traditional heritage dominates the city, unlike much of Sri Lanka's developed tourism. You won’t see the normal trends of ‘free WIFI’, coffee shops and trip advisor stickers on the windows here but you will be able to glimpse into the real working lives of the people. Fisherman selling their salted fish, fried foods served in the Jaffna ‘hotels’ which are actually small restaurants or the surprising speciality of the city, ice cream. Not to mention the cows who wonder the streets causing havoc to the merchants by laying pats outside their shops, just watch your step!
Everywhere we turned we spotted old timers fixing bikes, soldering components in a huge TV or making garments to be sold that day. The local trades people of Jaffna embody that spirit of DIY and are skilled in their endeavours. We were really inspired to see so much technical knowledge on show but it made us wonder how long it will last in the rising culture of throwaway products. On the same streets as the long established painted sign stores there are also newer stores with flashy vinyl and LED signage selling too-cheap-to-fix tat like the white goods we buy in Europe. Do the new stores represent the growing culture of waste in Sri Lanka? Sadly, we think it might.
Ceylon is word used often on Sri Lankan signage and it took us few days to find out that it wasn’t just a famous tea brand. Ceylon was the imperial name until it was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972 following independence, a little history lesson for you. The fact it’s still on the signage shows either the shops old age or perhaps it’s just a “if it ain’t broke then don't fix it” mentality. Either way, the old signs make a visitor feel like your seeing many generations of a city.
After an hour of marvelling at the beautiful signs of Jaffna we spotted something we’d never seen before, although in truth we heard it first. Our gaze fell on a huge wood-clad lorry covered with decorative graphics used for Sri Lanka deliveries. These lorries must have been in action since the 60/70's but the vintage wood finishing and paint work made them feel somewhat contemporary. After spotting one on a drop-off point on Kasthuriyar Road we went on to spot many across the day, roaring along the back streets of the city like boisterous animals.
Jaffna is funny place, in many ways there isn't a lot to do but there is a lot to look at. It has a Dutch fort, amazingly cheap roti curries and some of the sweetest ice cream you will ever enjoy. We'll remember the friendly people and the vibrant signage, knowing that there are places in the world where change is happening at a far slower pace.
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