10th February 2017
For the first time since my arrival in Sri Lanka, I am able to have a lazy morning. It’s 9am by the time I hobble out of my room to have breakfast. Walking is more painful than ever after my recent hikes, and Nawanga is very amused at how slowly I make my way to the dining table. I’m sure even a snail could beat me in a race right now.
As usual, there’s a huge spread of food before me, much more than any one person could hope to eat, and I am filled up with a hearty meal of milk rice, yam and coconut. At 10.30am, I farewell my humble and hospitable hosts, and depart my home stay.
The train bound for Ella doesn’t leave Ohiya until 11am, but when I ask for a ticket in second class, I am informed there are only third class tickets available. No problem, I think- until I try to board the train. There are people hanging out of every compartment door, and no-one shows any indication of moving to allow me on. It’s the first sign that today’s train ride will be a rather different experience to my previous journeys, which have been a dream.
There’s nothing to be done except to push my way onto the train. I manage to squeeze through a horde of people, and quickly scan to see where there’s some free space for me to stand. Sitting down in a seat is absolutely out of the question, and the only area which is not fully packed with people is the middle section between compartments. I move into an empty space and drop my bag in front of me, relieved to have claimed a spot where I still have some breathing space.
As the train begins what is meant to be a two hour journey to Ella, I realise why the section where I’m standing was relatively empty. I’ve chosen the most rickety part of the train, and every time the direction of the track turns even slightly left or right, the two compartments on either side of me feel like they’re straining to pull away from each other. I have a vision of my bag falling out of the sizeable gap that is created by this jarring motion, and me following suit.
Apart from picturing myself tumbling out of the train, I also try to imagine the landscape that is passing by. The train ride to Ella often ranks as the top rail journey to experience in Sri Lanka, due to the spectacular scenery. Unfortunately for me, my view is limited to a wall of chipped paint and a dusty floor. What riveting surrounds. There’s an occasional slice of sunlight, or a flash of wire overhead. Sometimes, the green blur of a tree is visible through the gap. For the most part, though, I just watch a layer of dirt and dust begin to accumulate on my arms.
It’s hot and stuffy in my enclosure, and as luck would have it, there’s a delay at one of the stations. During the wait, a considerate gentleman shoves into me and treats me to the sight and smell of his sweaty armpit. From underneath his arm, I observe a group of laughing German tourists, who are filming their process of entering the crowded compartment. Their sense of humour is quickly soured when they realise how nigh on impossible it is to lug huge, shiny suitcases onto a train that’s packed tighter than a tin of sardines. Watching their struggles makes me grateful for my small carry-on bag, not to mention glad that my tiny spot of personal space is out of the way of the cramped conditions they have found themselves in.
Time passes by, and everyone’s expressions are a reflection of discomfort and exasperation. But it is what it is, and eventually, a local who I had a brief conversation with at the start of the journey taps me on the shoulder to say the next station is Ella. I’m glad for the heads-up, especially considering there are no announcements on the trains to inform you where you’re stopping, and I sure as hell can’t see any station names from where I’m standing.
Although there’s a lot of people disembarking at Ella, like me, it’s still a nightmare getting off the train, as there’s a mass of people waiting outside who are clambering to get on the train, and they have absolutely no patience for the people trying to get off. Add to this, there’s a bit of a gap between the set of steps leading out of the compartment and the actual platform, and my exit off the train turns into a tumbling fall into the crowd.
With nothing harmed except my dignity, I make my way through the jumble of people and am glad to inhale some fresh air when I finally make it outside. Of course, there’s hardly any time to breathe, as the expectant tuk-tuk drivers who have been lingering by the road now descend upon all the exiting tourists. The local who I spoke to told me the fare shouldn’t be anymore than 150 rupee, so when one of the drivers refuses to budge from 350 rupee, I decide not to waste my time with bargaining, and opt to walk to my accommodation instead.
I’m staying at the Ella Paddy Field View Guest Inn and although the main street is easy enough to find, a lot of properties are situated off side streets and I can’t see it, despite Google Maps showing me I am pretty much there. Luckily, the local guy who helped me out on the train passes by in a tuk-tuk and his driver gives me a free lift to the guest inn. He also asks me out for lunch, which I decline, as I’m staying in Ella with a friend from my G Adventures tour, and she is due to arrive soon.
My friend gets to the guest inn shortly after I do, and her journey from Kandy to Ella turns out to have been an even more flustered experience than my own. She tells me that she also bought a third class ticket for the train, but it was so full that many people simply couldn’t get on, and she ended up taking a bus instead. After hearing her story, I feel that my train ride wasn’t so bad after all.
After dumping our bags in the room, we decide to head back into town for lunch, as we’re both feeling pretty hungry after our full-on journeys to get to Ella. We are both keen to eat no-frills, street-style food, and end up ordering some kottu roti, as well as a coconut and honey roti. While we’re waiting for our meals, I bump into Mark and Wendy, who I met in Ohiya. They have spent the day at Little Adam’s Peak, which my friend and I plan to do tomorrow.
When the food comes out, the serves are absolutely massive, and we soon realise we won’t need dinner. Both dishes are simple but tasty, and we leave feeling absolutely stuffed. We decide to walk around the town for a while to try and burn some calories. There’s not a lot to see in the town itself, and the main street consists mainly of cafes and shops. The true beauty of Ella lies in the lush green hills that encircle the town, but we are far too tired to explore them today. We head back to our guest inn, which overlooks Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock, and spend the evening relaxing on the balcony, drinking tea, and enjoying the amazing view.