When Nishantha’s wife Nirosha went into labour, she was taken to the hospital in his trusty Vespa. “Scooters are quite safe you see,” she spoke in the Vespa’s defense when we looked at the old scooter with suspicion. True to their tag line rgjgd hk wdorjka;fhda (Scooter lovers who travel around the country), Kodukarayo really loved their scooters.
They are not just scooter lovers, they are also determined to do at least one charity a year. Their debut tour was a charity they set off for on February 24. It was Aruna’s concept and through his contacts in Ratnapura, they were able to identify a rural primary school with a population of just 18 kids. Thirty-three kilometres from the Ratnapura town, the Helakanda Primary School has only five classrooms from grade one to five, located in a single building. Three teachers HAP Perera, OK Suranganee and Sanjeewanee and principal AG Kamani Malkanthi are charged with running this rural school. She has served at the school for more than 21 years. Recently one of its students secured 180 marks at the Grade Five Scholarship examination to the envy of all neighbouring schools in the education circuit.
They spent the first night at the principal’s quarters. Their dinner was provided to them by the villagers. In the morning they were greeted by flower-bearing kids. “They have never seen a bike let alone a classic scooter,” says Charith. And they were tasked with giving the kids rides on their scooters.
At a function grandiosely organized by the school, Kodukarayo distributed stationery, school bags, clothes, food stuff and medicines among school kids, teachers and parents. “We didn’t have a huge collection campaign asking people to contribute,” says Charith. It was a charity among friends and after the word got out they had enough goods to distribute among the school children, teachers and villagers.
They prefer to collect goods rather than money. “Handling money is a hassle. People always have suspicions about where the money will end up,” admits Hasala.
That’s why they prefer that people interested in donating would do so in consultation with them. “Last time we gave people a list so they could donate anything in the list,” said Hasala.
Aside from charity, they prefer to travel in style, on 1970s Bajaj Chetak and Vespa scooters and of course the Volkswagen. Their fleet consists of seven scooters and a Volkswagen Beetle. They met through the Classic Scooter Riders Association and being like-minded people with a penchant for travelling, decided to ride across the country. Their trademark is bikes with number plates beginning with ‘Sri’. “We don’t go for bikes with alphabet letters on number plates,” said Nirosha.
There are eight in their gang, Aruna Jayasekara aged 26 who works at Sri Lanka Railways, Charith Gunasekera aged 24 who works at Commercial Bank, Wimukthi Rajapaksa aged 23 who is still a student, Tharuka Thium Dabrera aged 27 a fashion designer, 22-year-old Sithum Rangana Jayasinghe a technician at a private company, Gayan Sampath Wijethunge aged 25 who also works for Sri Lanka Railways, Hasala Jayarathna aged 24 the in-house professional photographer and the man behind the photographs and Facebook posts on fldavqldrfhda / Kodukarayo FB page that is at the moment 11,235 strong. LRS Nishantha at age 36 is the most senior member and the owner-manager of the LRS Hospital located in Thunbowila, Piliyandala. In addition to functioning as a garage-hospital where all wounded or ailing scooters are taken in, this is their crib, where they all meet up and talk about their scooty issues.
“It’s not like riding your regular bike,” says Kodukaraya, Charith Gunasekera. “It’s a weird feeling.” Some of the older models don’t have side mirrors or signal lights. But, with a spare wheel they are ideal for long distances. Apart from the spanners, nuts and bolts, motor parts and all that grease, the LRS Hospital is home to various models of classic scooters.
“People who like classic scooters will like classical anything from antique watches to classical music,” says Wimukthi. “We collect scooters,” Nishantha clarifies. All their scooters are classics with 150 CC engine capacity, have no batteries and use a magneto that operates like a dynamo that provides power for ignition. “It’s hard to learn to ride them,” says Nishantha, the in-house doctor.
The classics are heavier than the new scooters and tend to tilt. Nishantha has been running the LRS Hospital since 1998. He takes his whole family on Kodukarayo tours on the Volkswagen. The Volkswagen Beetle is a 1970 make that Nishantha bought four years ago. “It broke down several times along the way home,” says Nishantha recalling the day he brought it home.
Classic scooters have two-stroke engines that guzzle up two-stroke engine oil. Nishantha explained that since the two-stroke engine is being phased out manufacturers have reduced spare parts production. He explains that they commission local manufacturers to make some parts that can be made locally.
He used to work at a company that imported scooters. “That’s where I bought a 1978 model scooter in 2000 for Rs 9000,” says Nishantha. The LRS Hospital has an antique ambiance. He started the garage in 1998. When riders entrusted their scooters to him, they refer to it as admitting the scooters. “That’s how the name LRS hospital came about,” said Nishantha.
It has a Facebook page of its own.
Charith never planned to fall for a scooter. He just felt like buying one. He found his match on Ikman.lk just a year ago and bought it for Rs 65,000, but repairs cost him another Rs 60,000. New additions were made to the classic scooter by the previous owners and it took some work by Nishantha to restore it to its former classic glory.
“Very few know how to repair them, besides the parts are not available locally,” says Nishantha. Pointing at some of the scooters he says that most of the parts used on them are brought down from e-bay. “There are only two spare parts shops in Panchikawatta,” he said. Nishantha explained that Bajaj parts are particularly rare, but parts for Vespa models of Italian make are still relatively easy to find on e-bay. “The scooter is still popular in Italy and they still make the parts,” explains Nishantha.
But what made them famous is not their charity event. It was their visit to Nunperil which was not without peril, but small accidents are not an issue because they take along a mobile hospital. Nishantha is fully equipped to patch up scooters anywhere, any time. Two of the riders slipped on a patch of oil and bruised themselves leaving the scooters in pretty bad shape. Nishanha was able to weld the scooters. As for the riders, they’re still recovering.
Tours are planned every three months, backpacking scooter style. They take everything from tents to pots and pans on the scooters. Packing is an art and every member has his own method of packing. Aruna’s scooter bears a statement teddy bear. Their first tour was to Sri Pada and their next planned for May, might take them to little known nooks in Trincomalee. The places they visit are places least popular as travel destinations. “And we never go to the same place twice,” explains Charith. Hence the name Kodukarayo. “In the future we plan to put up a map for each tour. So anyone who’s interested in visiting the same places can use it as a guide,” says Charith. But Hasala makes a humble request that they pick up after themselves and not litter.
Although wedding photography is Hasala’s forte, he likes the great outdoors. The main reason for Kodukarayo gaining so much popularity during such a short time is his engaging narrative and pictures that say a thousand words. Hasala admits that they never expected the Facebook page to do so well.
“When I do wedding photography I have to stick to the budget and customer preference. But this I do for fun, from the heart. There’s no budget to think of, no constraints,” says Hasala who uses a Canon 60 D. “You can’t take a huge camera when you’re going on a scooter.”
He studied photography at the National Association of Photographers Sri Lanka (NAPSL) and is currently doing a photography diploma at the Kelaniya University. He bought his camera four years ago and when he did, he knew very little about photography. “I took my first photo at the zoo. It was of an eagle,” reminisces Hasala, with a glint in his eyes. “We were taught to take it so it wouldn’t be obvious that it was taken at the zoo. It had to look natural”.
It was a manual focus camera and Hasala had to wait for a long while until he had the right focus. But the photo he took probably changed his life. Judging by the photographs in their Facebook page it’s obvious that Hasala has come a long way since that first photograph at the zoo.
Pic by Eshan Dasanayaka