Devika Casiechetty matches up to Rob, the British Bike-Man
Nushka Nafeel: “She stepped in where Angels feared to tread,” Daily News, 29 March 2017
Women today have progressed in a variety of fields and reached the pinnacle of achievement but yet when a girl informs her parents or elders that she would be travelling out of town, or even stepping out of the confines of her home, the first question everyone in Sri Lanka asks is “Who are you going with? Will you be safe? Are you not scared?” The premise is that girls are not safe going out on their own and this is the question that Devika Casiechetty set to answer when she decides to walk around Sri Lanka alone. Her mission is, “A Girl on a Solo quest.”
Casiechetty’s idea was simple as it was to walk around Sri Lanka on her own to prove that Sri Lanka is the safest place to walk around solo as a woman but with the course of time, her initial plan begin to change. “I have now decided to not only explore whether Sri Lanka is safe to walk alone as a woman but also to ascertain whether it is unsafe and how we could make it safer for women,” she said.
Hailing from Panadura, Modhara, Casiechetty said it was a huge challenge for her at the age of 38 to come to this decision even though she had always been interested in outdoor activities. While working for Uga escape in Yala as the Assistant Front Officer, she embarked on her first adventure with a hike to Kirigalpotha in 2011. “Before I went there, I was told that there would be nine guys and two girls including me. But, when I went there, the organizer informed me that the other girl had backed off and I was the only one. I was not scared, but felt excited to join a team with only guys. However, I felt very comfortable and it was real fun,” she said.
Since then, she had trekked over 10 mountains. The solo trip according to her, was inspired by the movie “Tracks” in which an Australian woman undertakes a solo trip across the desert. “According to the movie, that woman did the solo trip in 1979. So I thought, why cannot a Sri Lankan woman do the same? A few men had done solo trips before, but I have not heard of any woman doing so,” she said.
She said that many people encouraged her to go on the trip, while some kept silent.“I have been trying to get a sponsor since 2015, but I was still unable to find one. I started my adventure in January this year, while spending all my savings on it. After trying so hard to find a sponsor, I simply abandoned the idea of wasting my time and began my journey using my savings,” she said.
Prior to the quest this year, she had chosen to walk from Pettah to Warakapola with Asela who was one of her friends last year. They had walked 60 KM overnight in 22 hours.
“This walk gave me insight. I saw it as an opportunity that made me realize my physical and mental strength,” she said.
Casiechetty’s original plan was to walk around the country, a total of 1,268 KM in 55 days, but she was unable to do so as her mother fell ill.
“I had to take care of my mother so I could not be away from home continuously for 55 days. Therefore I decided to cut down my plan in to several sections and do it one at a time, letting another Sri Lankan girl get the chance of doing the solo walk in 55 days,” she said.
Casiechetty started her adventure on January 10, 2017 from Kirivehara to Kataragama.
“The 1st phase was 10 – 14 January from Kataragama to Dikwella, the 2nd phase was from January 20 – 24 from Dikwella to Magonna, 3rd phase from January 29 to February 01 from Magonna to Madampe, 4th and 5th phases were on February 06 -15 from Madambe to Eluwankulama and Thalaimannar to Point Pedro, 6th phase from March 07 -09 from Daluwa to Kalpitiya and Marichchikadduwa to Mannar and the 7th phase would be in the first week of April from Point Pedro to Panama through the coastal road,” she explained.
She said she would conclude her quest after walking through Yala during the Pada Yatra season. “After finishing the coastal road, I would have to wait for another two months to complete my quest,” she said. She has uploaded a GPS Tracking application that showed the places she had travelled, the speed and the time taken to keep track of her walk. Cassiechetty said she had no option, but to trust Google Maps along her journey as she barely knew the route in many areas.
“While I was walking towards Hambantota from Tangalle, the app showed it to be just 25 KM. It was only after I walked 15 KM that I realized that the road had been closed after new development projects. The app had not been updated, therefore I had to walk 5 KM to the town and walked another 15 KM around the Port. My initial plan to walk 25 KM ended up by me walking 36 KM! It was very challenging, but I am happy that I was able to do it,” she said.
Overcoming internal challenges
All this would not have become a reality if she was not able to convince her parents to go along with her plan. As she recalled, the first time she informed her parents of her idea, she said they immediately panicked and refused to permit her to do so. My parents did not like my plan at all, but I slowly convinced them. They later believed in me and let me take my decisions on my own. But, until I was 22 years, I was an introvert. I had social phobia and hardly moved with people,” she said. She further said that after 6 PM her father would not let her out alone, while she had only a very few friends to count on.
“My father was in the hospitality field. So I also started my career in hospitality management. After my A/Ls, I worked as an accountants clerk and later joined the Hilton in Colombo. I have a feeling that it is that job and the field that fully changed my life. I began to learn new languages and most importantly, got over my fear of speaking to people. After that, I received a chance to go to Dubai and worked there for six years. In 2011, I returned to Sri Lanka,” she said.
Having returned home from her stint in Dubai, she said her thoughts surprisingly shifted to her becoming a nun. “I do not know what exactly made me have thoughts of becoming a nun, but I badly wanted to do so. As my mother did not like it and strongly opposed it, I had to drop the idea of becoming a nun. However, after I joined Amran and their team to go hiking, things began to change,” she said.
When she first mentioned to her friends her idea and the tag line “A girl on a solo quest,” they however, did not first believe that she would truly go for it. “Some of my friends teased me and said that I should call it an “Aunty on a solo quest.” But I preferred to call it ‘girl.’ But, I want young girls to take this as an example to try challenging activities. However, I see more girls taking an interest in hiking and trekking these days. I have met many girls who love to do something adventurous. There are also girls who do not take part in such activities as their families do not want them to do something that would not be safe,” she said.
Casiechetty said that some also have a feeling that women are not physically strong enough to do such activities, which was not true. “In foreign countries even a 16-year-old girl could go around the country alone. I think that many girls are coming on board to experience the adventurous life. I have a feeling that Sri Lankan girls and women are more independent when compared to other South Asian countries, but I know there are exceptional situations,” she said.
She emphasized that men should respect women for their strength as well as their weakness. “Girls also should seize the opportunities that come their way. Without missing such opportunities available, how could someone blame society? Many people stereotype the role of women. They are not open minded people. Any decision that you take in your life has risks. If the roads are not safe for girls at night, we should find ways and means to overcome them. Where ever you go, you would come across psychopaths which is unavoidable. To overcome such situations, girls could learn martial arts. It might take some time but we can do it as society would change eventually,” she said.
Having hiked throughout Sri Lanka for the past several months, Cassiechetty said in many ways, her faith in humanity had increased as she stopped by Sinhala Buddhist, Christian, Tamils and Muslim houses when she needed assistance of any kind.
“After Puttalam, it was all Muslim and Tamil villages. I did not know Tamil and they did not know Sinhala or English. There was a huge language gap between us, but we were able to communicated with each other. We used sign language to express ourselves which was very effective,”she said. She added that she would start learning Tamil once she finished her journey.
“When I went to Puttalam, I sought the help of the Mahanayaka Thero to look for a place to spend the night. Something very interesting happened then. He introduced me to the Moulawi of that village who willingly offered me one the rooms in his house. His whole family was very nice to me. When you mingle with people, you discover how awesome they are irrespective of the culture and the religion they follow,” she said.
Speaking further of her experiences, she recalled another character; a girl whom she met in Waduwa, “I met a girl who had lost both her legs as a result of a land mine. She was wearing plastic legs. When I was passing a village she came over to speak to me. She told me that she did notice me walking but was reluctant to talk at first, but had finally decided to talk to me.We did not understand each other’s language, but said I could read her mind,” said Casiechetty.
“My heart skipped for a moment when the girl told me that she wished she had legs so that she too could have joined me. She wrote in one of my note books “I like you” but I feel that she had more to say,” she said.
People more than the road she walked on, have left a clear mark on Casiechetty’s life. “All those whom I met along the way had beautiful souls,” she said. “We live in a circle and we tend to judge the people whom we have never met or seen in our lives. Take a walk around and you will discover many more beautiful souls in your lives too,” she added.
This is just the beginning for Casiechetty. Her next adventure seeks to be more ambitious and daring than those before. She plans on embarking on the Pacific trail next and there too she would be the first Sri Lankan woman to have done so.