My Fulbright project is concerned with landscapes in transition. We have traveled all over Sri Lanka to explore and document this topic. And sometimes it's necessary to go off the beaten track to find the really juicy insights. That's what I was hoping for by traveling to Vavuniya. But as is always the case, there are moments of uncertainty.
Vavuniya offered plenty of uncertainty when we first entered town after an exceptionally noisy bus ride from Point Pedro. After little tiny Point Pedro, the Vavuniya bus station and streets around it looked impossibly crowded and busy. Having been stared has an unknown spectacle for several days, we were now accosted by every sort of hawker and person trying to make contact with us. No longer was English and English language use 10,000 miles away. Everybody had something to sell or some question about where we were going.
Lucky for us we knew we were going. Straight to the Second Cross Street, where we would turn left, and make our first right. So easy to move forward when you have purpose. And so easy to answer your pesty interlocutors with a wave of the hand, "over there." Second Cross Street turned out to be, well, a little disheartening, lined with trucks and buses and exhaust and touts. We held judgment until we arrived at the lane where our hotel was. But sadly, the Vanni Inn looked like a reprise of the truly execrable Pilliyar Inn in Jaffna. A front area that was someone's concept of "clean" and "modern" was plunked in front of a rundown building that was shabby 30 years ago. Not that easily defeated though, we entered the reception area and offered a smile to the young man who greeted us.
He smiled back, something they don't do at the Pilliyar. Once it was established who we were, and that we had called ahead for our room, he called someone to take me upstairs. "Take a good look at it," Janet admonished. "And be picky!"
You didn't need to be picky to see three unhappy looking single beds on rudimentary wood frames in front of a barred window with a sign that reads "Keep careful! Monkeys." Not the highest standard of Sri Lankan room, even in the budget category. The bathroom's cracked sink finished the job for me and going back downstairs, I asked if there was a better room. The nice young man said sadly, "if only you had asked for an AC room." "May I have a look at an AC room?" I asked. "All rooms are booked" was his sad reply.
A quick walk down the street to the almost equally pokey "Nelly Star" hotel, with its severely walled in swimming pool, revealed, in a most unfriendly manner by a Piliyar-type receptionist, that all the rooms in this deluxe dump were also taken for the night. Back to the Vanni Inn, where Janet had found rooms on booking.com and on Agoda for the "Nelly Star." But the truly lovely reception there had clinched it for me. We had to find someplace else or get outta town.
If this were a blog about accommodations and finding them in Sri Lanka there would be lots more to say. I feel kind of bad loading you down with these details anyway, but they do give you a feeling of what Vavuniya seems to be about. It is bustling, busy, boisterous, and it seems to me to be prosperous as well. One of my secret measures of prosperity is whether people smoke, and I've seen plenty of smoke and plenty of cigarette butts all over the place.
We ended up finding a fine place across from the railroad station, just a ten minute walk away, an amenity (the train station) we felt sure we would be using at our first opportunity. But the two of us took a breath, got a little cleaned up, and decided to go for a walk. Our walk, which was aimed for the large Vavuniya Kulam (the major tank in town), led us again down some busy roads with occasionally heavy traffic. We had started our walk with a refreshing coconut, a good beginning, but we also bought a too-big bag of unroasted peanuts. Not the worst thing you ever tasted, but not good enough to eat more than a handful, even with no lunch in me.
The walk was getting long, and as sometimes (well, often) happens, it was becoming hotter and less productive as we moved ahead. Backtracking, we ended up at the unpretty shores of a large tank (I'll write more about a Vavuniya tank in my next post). It was the Vavuniya Kulam but it looked in awful shape. An Australian aid project that was noted there had supposedly gone on for six months last year. A relatively small amount of money had been invested, paid out to a subcontractor (also listed on the sign) and visibly at least, it didn't look like much had gotten accomplished.
To tell you the truth, I was beginning to think this was not a nice walk to take a lady on. There was little that recommended itself in terms of scenery or interest. And I was beginning to despair of Vavuniya, something that's always worse when you've convinced your partner that it might be cool to see...even if it was barely written up in any guide book.
Up ahead was a bright green mosque, always a bit of local color. But still. Lots of traffic and heat. Not a pretty picture and it looked like our walk back to the center of town would be as forlorn as the walk out. From the mosque we happened to turn left onto Bazaar Street and, turn up the volume! The fun begun!
What decade was frozen in the crazy, zany, colorful, outrageous, goofy, unexpected, outlandish, eye-popping Bazaar Street?
Who designed these buildings and to what purpose? What were they meant to say?
What was the influence that dictated these architects' hands? Were they even professional "architects?"
How do these buildings work? How is air-flow managed? How does sanitation work? What were they built for? Are they still used for the same purpose?
Why has no guide book that I know of ever mentioned this magical street? How does this old neighborhood fit into Vavunia?
And so again, even with the touts, the noise, the exhaust fumes, the heat, the dust, the crowds, the discomfort, a Sri Lankan city, unexpected and unknown, showed itself to have a Sri Lankan heart, worthy of deeper exploration, appreciation, and love.