12th February 2017
The hills of Ella are emerging from under the dusty rose sky of dawn when my friend and I slip quietly out of the Ella Paddy Field View Guest Inn. There is no sign of the tuk-tuk which the owner said would be waiting to take us to the train station, so we start walking. It’s strange to see the roads so devoid of traffic and noise, and to be unable to flag down a tuk-tuk.
We’re on the train and bound for Kandy. My friend and I catch the 6.30am service in the hopes of securing a seat, as it’s the end of a poya (full moon) weekend and we’re well aware the trains are going to be packed. A good idea- except that all the other tourists in Ella have had the same idea. It doesn’t really matter in the end, as all the seats are already occupied by the time we board. It’s going to be a l-o-n-g six hours.
I’ve managed to grab a spot to call my own! It’s the gap between the final row of seats and the wall of the compartment, and I’ve had to suck in my stomach to squeeze into the tiny space, which measures a luxurious 30cm in width. Still, I’m willing to compromise being able to breathe freely for the sake of not being pushed and shoved and trod on every two minutes. Maybe my stomach will even be flattened over the next four and a half hours, since it is so squashed into the back of the seat. Well, a girl can dream.
I remember reading a guidebook which recommended that if there’s one train ride you take in Sri Lanka, make sure it’s the Ella to Kandy route. The author couldn’t stop raving about the breath-taking vistas, and reassured you that even if the train is busy, you’ll be too enchanted by the landscape to care. Right now, I would like to punch this author in the face. Travelling by train in Sri Lanka is great- if you can get a seat. Otherwise, you’ll find that the stunning views quickly lose their charm.
I notice that the landscape looks like the chocolate hills of Bohol, in the Philippines. Or maybe it’s just my weary brain descending into a state of visual hallucinations. In any case, thinking about chocolate makes me realise I’m hungry, so I slide over to my bag to pull out a can of Pringles. It occurs to me that I’m so wedged into my spot that I may not be able to get out of it. With further testing, I find that I can still wriggle out to freedom, thankfully, and use the opportunity to access my stowed bag. I carefully manoeuvre out the can, open the lid, and bump! The train jerks, and a shower of broken chip crumbs fall into my bag. Great.
I feel as though I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. Every now and then, I shuffle my legs on the spot to keep them from going numb. My feet hurt, but there’s simply nowhere to move. More and more people are getting on the train, and yet each time we pull up at a station, no-one seems to be getting off. The air in the compartment is starting to become stifling. It’s too risky to appease my dry mouth with water, as I don’t want to run the risk of needing an impossible-to-reach toilet. Misery all round.
I believe I have mastered the art of sleeping on my feet. I just hope I haven’t drooled on the family I’m standing over.
What’s better than a six hour train ride stuck in a compartment that’s as crowded as a beehive? A seven hour train ride stuck in a compartment that’s as crowded as a beehive! I have spent the equivalent hours of a flight from Perth to Phuket standing in a space smaller than an airplane lavatory. Actually, let’s not think about toilets right now.
It’s over! It’s finally over! Getting off the train proves to be an absolute nightmare, as my friend and I have been trapped in the middle of the compartment, and the way out is crowded in both directions. After much pushing, we eventually make our escape, joyous to be free and out in the open air. The train continues on for Colombo, and we are glad to see it go. Our journey is not over quite yet, either. My friend still needs to get to Negombo, and my final destination is Kegalle. Our plan is to take a bus and luckily, we can both catch the same one. With a roti in hand, we head off to find Bus 101.
It takes 20 minutes of walking around the Kandy bus terminal to find our bus, and then another 20 minutes waiting around in the full glare of the hot tropical sun. The first bus is already full, but is in no hurry to drive off. When the second bus arrives, it is swamped by a rushing horde of locals. My friend and I don’t even bother to try and get on, but the driver beckons us forward, and it turns out there are still a few seats available. A friendly local at the front of the bus offers the seat next to him, but I move down the aisle and end up sitting next to my friend. The bus departs the chaos of Kandy and starts the three hour journey to Negombo, which coincidentally, is the reverse journey of the first day of our G Adventures tour.
Just when a girl thinks she’s done battling the crowds, wait, there’s more. It only takes about an hour to get into Kegalle, so I keep my eyes peeled for the name of the city on shop fronts and street signs. As soon as I see it appear, I say goodbye to my friend, and start making my way to the front of the bus. This ends up being a more difficult struggle than getting off the train, and I don’t even have my bag. It takes five minutes to move a couple of metres along the aisle, in which time I find myself deeply regretting I turned down the offer to sit at the front of the bus. I basically have to walk on people in my battle to get out. I’m pretty sure I elbow a couple of old ladies in the back, but it can’t be helped. The bus has ended up being ridiculously crammed. Once I finally make it to the front, I find my bag, at the bottom of the pile of luggage, of course, and I have to yell at the driver to wait for me to free it.
All that remains now is to get to Hotel Elephant Bay in Pinnawala. Thankfully, a tuk-tuk pulls over almost as soon as I step out of the bus, and I clamber into it straight away. The driver states his fare and I don’t give a damn about bargaining. I’m so exhausted, and feel like I’ve run a marathon. The first thing I do when I enter my room about half an hour later is fall onto the bed. It feels absolutely amazing to be able to stretch out my tired legs. I could honestly cry with happiness.
There’s a soft golden glow filtering through my curtains. I step out onto my balcony and am amazed to encounter a fringe of palm trees swaying gently in the balmy evening air upon an embankment of a rock-strewn river. The sun is setting, and as it sinks slowly behind a hill, the river seems to turn into flowing honey. And just like that, all the stresses of the day melt away. The icing on the cake, though, comes in the form of the two large, wooden chairs in the centre of the balcony. What a joy it is to enjoy this glorious, calming view- sitting down.