“Where from?” was the first question the bemused villagers along the East Coast asked, as they gathered around the three lads on their bicycles and gazed at them curiously.
An apt question indeed, as it isn’t every day that young men armed with two road bikes, one mountain bike, a battered road map and bucketloads of spirit decide to cycle around the country, after all.
The idea came up at a Boy Scout excursion during their schooldays, said Anushka Dassanayake and Ashan Algama. But the security situation in the country made that impossible. However, a few years down the line what started off as a pipe dream became a reality.
Ashan, Anushka and Thilina Wijekoon are three friends, now in their fifth year at the City School of Architecture in Colombo. The well worn map that travelled with them on their two-week adventure around the island a few months ago is almost falling apart as they spread it on the floor and traced their journey, narrating stories of the many places and people they encountered along the way.
“Biking is the best mode of transport,” said Anushka, “you have constant contact with the outside world.” The decision to rough it out and take each day as it came, as opposed to being cushioned by comfort and travelling in luxury was a unanimous one to make the most of their journey.
Preparation for the trip included practice expeditions to selected locations. “It was pretty tight,” said Ashan, who scoured the internet for videos on bicycle repairs in the event of an accident.
Roughly plotting out key points across the country and preparing for the worst scenarios - their travel plan, they say was flexible. “Even befor ehand, we knew we shouldn’t stick to a solid plan,” explained Anushka.
Possibly one of the more memorable aspects of their journey was the people they met along the way.
“We attracted a lot of attention as we cycled along. People liked to talk to us,” they said with a smile. Recalling the many people who repaired and patched up their bikes free of charge, plied them with food and didn’t think twice about offering their homes for the night to three strangers, they are amazed by the hospitality, warmth and simple generosity they were greeted with.
“In a short time, we met a different mixture of people,” said Thilina. From a Hindu priest at a kovil between Kalmunai and Batticaloa offering to share his pooja with them to army personnel sharing mangoes, their path around the island was dotted with inspirational acts of generosity.
“We learnt a lot of new things,” reflected Ashan. “For instance, there are no buses in most parts of the East. Instead they cram their belongings into vans and bicycles and make do with whatever they have. And the best cup of tea is from the Pasikudah area,” he added with a grin.
“Some of the people we encountered didn’t know what Colombo looked like and have no inclination to leave their village either. They are perfectly content with their isolated life,” said Ashan. “Most people try to make the maximum of any occasion. The people we met were straightforward and uncorrupted,” added Thilina.
Finer details of the journey such as accommodation were planned as they went along.
While being able to secure lodging at certain locations, the trio also slept on the beach, sheltered at a Methodist church in Batticaloa, stayed at an army base and were offered lodging by people they encountered on the way.
Explaining that their belongings were kept to the bare necessities - with simply three pairs of clothing and essentials such as torches, protective gloves and head gear tied to their bicycle racks with bungee cords – food and other supplies were bought and replenished as they cycled along. Each night the bungee cords became washing lines and after getting up at the crack of dawn each day, an easy routine was gradually established.
“We stopped at places of interest,” explained Anushka, marvelling at the magnificence of the kovils they visited and the varying structural styles around the country. The trio also went snorkelling off Pigeon Island and visited the Robert Knox point, Dutch Fort and other places of interest.
“The strip from Arugam Bay to Trincomalee was beautiful,” said Thilina. “The changes in culture and atmosphere and the rapid transformation in scenary from brown to green as we cycled, was also amazing to behold,” added Anushka.
“The strain on the body was great, but we tried to block it out and retained the pace,” said Ashan.
With winds and dust, potholed roads and scorching heat, their journey was far from smooth.
“A lot of motivation had to be pumped in,” they admitted.
The actual route, however, deviated from the route planned out. “We weren’t sure of what we were capable of,” said Anushka, explaining that they covered a longer distance than they had originally intended despite their inability to cycle to the North because of security reasons.
Far from deterring them, the scepticism and criticism they received upon the announcement of their plan merely spurred them on. The sunburn, sores and blisters were fully worth it when considering the sense of achievement they felt upon reaching every key destination and the trio unanimously agree that the experience was “unforgettable”.