Taking the rails to ‘uncharted territory’

On a day trip to Vavuniya with friends, a young traveller discovers that ‘spontaneity and utter madness’ make the journey just as interesting as the destination
By Sajiv Panditha

As I seem to recall from a book, our teardrop-shaped nation is apparently smaller than Scotland yet holds four times the population. But it’s the size and the people of Sri Lanka that make gallivanting across the country exciting. A group of friends and I decided to make the most of the tourism boom and explore the island.

After suffering from over three decades of warfare, the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka have opened up once again, becoming popular destinations that continue to attract a large number of visitors. Not too long ago, a new Intercity Express train service was launched between Colombo and Vavuniya– making it possible to travel up North and back in a day, with the only downside being that you have limited time to spend there.

Vavuniya is not considered a typical destination per se, but rather a junction that leads you towards the northernmost territories of the island. But all that didn’t matter to us. The mere idea of venturing that far up and down the map within 24 hours was crazy. We loved it. Spontaneity, and utter madness – that was the essence of the day.

Intercity Express: Up North and back in a day
Bustling Vavuniya Town

Rise and shine. I think the last time I saw the sunrise was during my schooldays. I make it sound like it was ages ago, but it wasn’t really. And that was irrelevant. Forgive me. Little did I know that the fact that I organized the train tickets made my duties synonymous with those of transport. I had to pick up my three amigos – two more guys, one girl and only one of us took Spanish in school. But amigo sounds cool nevertheless.

Vavuniya, which was once a heavily militarized city during the days of the civil war, is now considered uncharted territory for tourists such as ourselves. I say tourists because only one out of four of us spoke Sinhala. One more thing: none of us spoke fluent Tamil – the predominant language in Vavuniya. The things you realize on a train at 6:50 a.m.

From the Western Province to the North Western Province, to the North Central Province and onto the Northern Province. The train was probably moving at about 100km/h. Down South, the railway tracks were being replaced to withstand this speed. The train service recently recommenced services on the Northern line.

8:30 a.m. The things you realize when you’ve just woken up again. You know that sound a train makes? I know you can hear it in your head right now. We had five hours of that.

We’re from the city, so we don’t travel on the train much. We’re used to the cacophony that is the streets of Colombo, not the clickety-clacks of the train tracks below us which sounded like someone was cooking kottu. That just made two of us hungry. But then again, we’re always hungry. I bet the other two were talking about Blink 182 and Green Day. For all we know, that could also mean they were admiring the scenery. Honestly, Sri Lanka must be one of the few places in the world where you can see several shades of green, in the blink of an eye, during the day.

The train emptied at the ancient capital of Anuradhapura – another remarkable destination, but that would have to wait for another day. As it continued towards Medawachchiya, the last stop before our destination, we figured we best get our muscles functioning before getting out with our feet as our primary mode of transport. There was some walking up and down the carriages, some indoor train-surfing and then the board which read “No Smorking.” We stared it down, and it stared right back at us.

“No Smorking. Hmm.Any of you smorke?”
“No way.”
“Then we’re good.”

Five hours and over 250km later, the train pulled into Vavuniya. A barrier was placed about a hundred metres away from the end of the platform to prevent the train from travelling any further. At present, there’s only one passenger train that runs past Vavuniya - the historic Yal Devi, which is forced to stop ahead at Omanthai due to the reconstruction of the track towards the Northern capital of Jaffna and its surrounding areas affected by the war. The reconstruction is being carried out with Indian assistance and expected to be completed by 2013, once again linking Jaffna to the rest of the railway network and thus presenting new avenues and opportunities for our developing nation.

None of us had been to Vavuniya before, we only had three hours, and we had no clue where we were going. We followed the crowd to a level crossing. Turn left, or turn right? Right, right? Because right, is always right. Right? It was. Down the road and towards the city centre, we passed road signs directing us to Jaffna, Mannar and Trincomalee - the northern, western and eastern corners of northern Sri Lanka respectively – a sight you would only see in a junction-town such as Vavuniya. The large clock tower in the middle of a roundabout was a sign that we had hit civilization.

Like committed tourists, we had to buy a souvenir from our destination. The girl, or as she believes “the intelligent one”, was the only one who succeeded in doing so. Now you know why she is the intelligent one. A pair of “Vavuniyan” (new term, coined by us) shorts. Pretty psychedelic, even the boys were jealous. Our stomachs led us to our next target: Food. We made our way into a local kadé which sold shorteats. The food bore a striking resemblance to delicacies of South India – vadhai, thosai, pittu and the lot. Great stuff, but we expected more.

Onto our next activity: bathroom break, which is significant not because of the break, but the rest house in which the bathroom was. We took a good look at the map of Sri Lanka there (the rest house, not the bathroom!), and only then did we realize how far up North we’d actually come. Vavuniya played a major role in the civil war, so it was exciting to be in such a location which held great sights and stories. With only one hour left, we set out to find them.

The development of infrastructure fused with aging buildings is a great treasure to Vavuniya. This was apparent with the museum we visited on the side of a newly-paved road. The city has cleaned up nicely following the aftermath of the war. The friendly people, the historic sights, the new developments and the fancy products – that is what makes Vavuniya what it is. Especially the fancy products - nowhere in Colombo did we find massive two litre bottles of Sprite and Ginger Beer. Or, “Zip!” and “Ginger Lemon Buzz” as we found to be produced under a different brand in Vavuniya.

Five hours back to Colombo, and everybody was doing the same thing they were doing earlier. At least for half the journey. The clickety-clack was back, and we were hungry. In an instinctive retaliation, the volume of our conversations tried to match that sound. And then our two music enthusiasts met someone. They couldn’t meet him directly, and had to hear what he had to say through the train security, yet he was sitting right in front of them. He was annoyed at the volume of their conversation. Those two continued competing with the clickety-clacks, I was failing at an attempt to re-enact a Bollywood train scene, and the other one came up with a stupid idea. We all agreed to it. Drink as much as you can without going to the bathroom. The bathroom stank and was not a place we wanted to be. Still a bad idea.

Back in Colombo, the day would not be complete without a filling dinner and such. We had just travelled way up North, come back and were still hungry for a mad adventure. Who in their right minds would do that? We did.

And so our trip was done. 10 hours on the train, three hours in Vavuniya and two hours in Colombo. Invariably, you’d expect to hear more on the destination than the journey. But that’s just it – it was the journey that made the destination. Mix it all together and what do you get? Low budget excitement within 24 hours topped off with spontaneity and utter madness. Well, at least we thought so. In a day and age where our lives are becoming increasingly digital and seem to follow the same old daily routine, here’s hoping we’ve inspired you to get out and about, do something different and just explore. Try it sometime. You’ll have fun.

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