About six km away from Pooneryn, Ruvan Ranatunga could almost taste the salt on his tongue as a warm wind swept the scent of dried villus toward him. Ahead lay the Indian Ocean and the end of his long journey. By his side, on this final stretch, were family and friends, among them Indunil de Silva who had been his constant companion. So far, Ruvan and Indunil had covered over 750 km and spent 39 days out on the road as they cut right across Sri Lanka on foot, making an epic journey from Dondra Head to Point Pedro.
Smiles from strangers: Young women cycling past Ruvan and Indunil at Asirikgama north of Anuradhapura
They climbed mountains, and cut through rain forests, wound their way through tea plantations and stopped for a dip in every lake, lagoon, or well on the way. At night, they often relied on the kindness of strangers – sleeping in a little kade’s store room, in a temple hall, on a verandah or in someone’s home. In doing so, they found the Sri Lanka Ruvan knew was there all along – a land of staggering natural beauty, its people so very different yet all capable of extraordinary generosity.
Ruvan’s ‘Long Walk of Hope’ completed last Sunday, July 7, began as a personal dream and morphed into a mission to raise funds for cancer patients, in particular for the CCC House, a 188-bed cancer transit home for outpatients at the National Cancer Institute in Maharagama in the South and to the Colours of Courage Paediatric Cancer Ward in the North, currently under construction in Thelippalai. Supporters and donors who had pledged funds for every kilometre he covered or simply gave a lump sum, followed Ruvan’s progress on social media as he posted photographs and status updates from points along his route. He also carried with him the number for the CCC suicide counselling helpline, telling everyone he met to pass on the word that the number 1333 could be dialled from any line to access help.
Through wind and rain: Spirits undampened at Pallabeddala
Now back in Colombo, Ruvan is leaner and darker but otherwise appears no worse for wear. An ex-army Major, Ruvan was wounded in Operation Jayasikuru, in 1987 – a mortar attack leaving his right leg seriously injured. Sensitivity is still an issue and Ruvan walks with the lightest of limps. He didn’t advertise his injuries before he left, preferring to allow the focus to remain where it was most needed – on the cancer patients he was trying to help. “That was a challenge I undertook for myself,” he says, “first I wanted to walk to achieve a dream, but it turned out to bigger than just me.”
Starting out, on May 30, he and Indunil spent the first 18 days very wet as a turn in the weather brought cloudy skies and a near constant downpour. The two men often set out in the last day’s clothes never having had a chance to dry them out and resigned anyway to being drenched again in minutes. Adam’s Peak passed in a haze of bad weather, but Ruvan still remembers coming down and toward Nallathanni – the fresh smell of eucalyptus plantations and the pines all around. From then on, Ruvan was fascinated by how every turn brought new vistas – “There were never two days of the same thing,” he says, marvelling. With the rains in full swing, the high country was filled with the burbling of waterfalls. Later these would give way to drier stretches of land and then finally to the lagoons of the peninsula. When they finally reached the Indian Ocean, Ruvan and Indunil celebrated by going swimming.
On his phone are hundreds and hundreds of pictures, in them so many strangers whom he connected with briefly on their trip. He remembers the old tea plucker they encountered on a lonely stretch of road who ended up inviting them home for a cup of tea, rural families that insisted on feeding their unexpected guests, the two women who ran a small roadside stall who pressed bottles of drinks on them that they looked like they could ill afford to part with, the crowd of locals who skipped their evening prayers to make sure the strangers were settled and well looked after, entire villages that turned out to pray for and bless the travellers as they went on their way. “If anything I underestimated the generosity of people,” says Ruvan.
A warm welcome at Sangupiddy Bridge linking Pooneryn and Jaffna
If Ruvan’s memories seem overwhelmingly positive, it’s because he refused to allow himself doubt. Any time he felt exhausted and stretched to his limits, he says he drew on the example set by the cancer patients he was walking for. They had endured so much worse, and he wanted to do this for them. It also helped to have loved ones close. For long stretches along the way Ruvan had his young son for company. “I’m so proud of him,” he says, “he walked a good 70 km.” (Nine-year-old Randa developed an affection for leeches and wanted nothing else but for his father to bring one home.)
Ruvan says the experience has been a truly transformative one. Though pleased to be back home with his family, readjusting hasn’t been easy. “After 39 days and so many kilometres, after meeting and seeing new faces and new places every day, it leaves you a little lost. What’s the next step?” he asks. There’s so much he hasn’t been able to share yet and would like to. “I want to talk to people about it, encourage people to go out and see their own country, not in a tour bus or a luxury vehicle. To be able to stop somewhere and talk to people spontaneously or go on a very remote road and come across this beautiful scenery that you would only see in picture postcards – it’s amazing…This is how people should live.”
You could help too
So far Ruvan’s Long Walk of Hope has raised around Rs. 800,000 for cancer patients. Anyone wishing to contribute can send in their donations to: CCC Foundation Sri Lanka, Commercial Bank- Corporate Branch A/C No : 1416440701
Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 14 July, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Ruvan.