12 L-o-n-g Hours

12th February 2017

***

6.00am
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.

7.00am
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.

8.00am
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.

9.00am
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.

10.00am
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.

11.00am
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.

12.00pm
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.

1.00pm
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.

2.00pm
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.

3.00pm
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.

4.00pm
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.

5.00pm
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.

6.00pm
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.

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The Third Class Train Ride

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.

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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.

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Journey into Hill Country

7th February 2017

***

It’s just after 9am and a tuk tuk takes me away from the ease and comfort that has defined the past week I’ve spent on tour. We are swallowed up by the traffic before being spit out onto the side of a curb at the train station, where I’m now left to fend for myself in the chaotic cavern of Columbo Fort.

I’m on edge. My recent tendency to travel in tour groups has spoilt me. It’s been a while since I’ve had to be totally independent in figuring out how to get around a foreign country by myself and organising my own transportation. Nothing makes it more apparent that I’m not on top of my game than when I board the wrong train.

What an encouraging start to my week of solo travel around Sri Lanka.

Thankfully, the only consequence to this mistake is a dent in my pride. The compartment is devoid of any passengers, and the train is entirely still. Even I know that no-one gets so lucky as to board a completely empty train in Sri Lanka. I step off the train bound for nowhere almost as quickly as I stepped onto it, and look around, confused.

I glance up at the platform numbers and realise the error I’ve made. My train for Hatton departs from Platform 3, but I am currently standing on Platform 4. As I turn my gaze towards Platform 3, I notice a guy who has apparently also picked up on my mistake. He waves to catch my attention and gestures that I need to walk back over the overpass. I nod in acknowledgement and sheepishly make my way over to the right platform.

The train arrives barely a minute after I’ve crossed over, and I know it’s going to Hatton because there’s a throng of people rushing to get on it. I board a second class compartment and find an empty window seat right at the back. Perfect- until the young man who helped me out with the platform knocks on my window and starts gesturing at me again.

What now? Am I in the wrong seat? Am I in the wrong carriage? He’s saying something, but it’s noisy around me and the window is closed, so I can’t hear him. I try to lift the window open, but can’t. It’s my second fail of the day. I don’t want to step out to ask what he wants and risk losing my seat, so I shrug my shoulders, and he disappears.

I’m relieved to finally be on the right train, but still flustered from the whole experience of actually getting on it. I just want to sit back and relax for the next few hours. A sense of calm is slowly returning to my frayed nerves when Mr Helpful reappears. Now, he is in the carriage, and he comes over and opens my window. This is my first experience of the friendliness of Sri Lankan people, but certainly not the last.

He walks off the train, and back around to my window. He starts up a conversation and I can actually hear him now. Where are you from? Of course. I reply I’m from Australia. Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth? I’m surprised when he mentions Perth (and not Sydney). Whenever I’m overseas and tell people I’m Australian, people automatically assume my home is in Sydney, or Melbourne. When I answer I’m from Perth, their expressions usually go blank, and tumbleweeds threaten to roll by. So how does this young fellow know about my oft forgotten city?

The answer soon becomes clear. I’ve watched some cricket matches from Perth. So have I, I reply, and he’s a bit surprised by this. But there’s not really much time left to exchange sporting stories. The train is gearing into life, and out of the corner of my eye, I notice a young couple with oversized backpacks running from carriage to carriage with the same flustered expression I was wearing not that long ago. I’m so glad to be settled into my seat. They disappear into a compartment, and Mr Helpful asks if I would like a newspaper as the engine signals departure. I decline- I know I’ll be too busy watching the world go by to need any reading material on this journey. The train chugs out of the station, and immediately, my anxiety melts away.

***

It doesn’t take long until I’m convinced that travelling by train is THE way to travel around Sri Lanka. It’s an experience that engages all the senses, and best of all, it’s cheap as chips. For 290 rupee- not even three Australian dollars, I am treated to what feels like a six hour movie, with each rolling landscape offering another breath-taking scene of Sri Lanka’s natural beauty.

A passing mirage of palms and ferns and banana trees colour the land in vibrant shades of green, from the edge of the track all the way to the far-off horizon. In between are lush fields of canary yellow, where scattered cattle sway their tails in lazy strokes and graze contentedly on grass, while short-bodied birds with long legs dance on their backs, like ballerinas twirling in the radiance of the sun.

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Every twist and turn of the track reveals secret glimpses into the daily life of the people who reside in the towns and villages which line the railway. There’s a spectacle of sights to behold: men in suits ambling along the tracks, completely unperturbed by the possibility of encountering an oncoming train; women strolling along the streets in bright saris, clutching umbrellas to protect themselves from the intense glare of the midday sun; farmers toiling in the fields with bent backs; motorbikes and tuk tuks bumping along country lanes; passengers waiting with vacant expressions as we pass through peach-coloured stations; curious children gazing at our rushing train with wonder in their eyes and their hands over their ears.

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Every now and then, the inside of a family home is on full display. In one house, I can make out the details of the sofa chair in the corner of the hallway. Other houses have corrugated rooftops and threadbare interiors, shacks stacked together in a shanty town. I don’t mean to pry but they’re so close to the tracks that there’s nowhere else to look. Sometimes, there are clotheslines supported by bamboo poles serving as fences, adorned with colourful shirts and pants and undergarments that flap flimsily in the breeze. There is little peace and less privacy, and whenever we pass by a line of washing, I wonder about the family it belongs to, and whether they like living next to the tracks and listening to the trains that thunder past multiple times a day.

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***

The train is like an orchestra that has decided to revolt against the maestro’s signal for quiet, and every instrument is trying to drown out the others. There’s the constant clanging of compartments; and then, suddenly, a grating jerk as the train stops to change lines, followed by a prolonged screech of metal which can only be likened to nails scraping a chalkboard, only more extreme. There’s the thundering echo of metal on metal as we pass over bridges, and it feels like there’s a giant gong reverberating right next to my ear.

Inside the train, people talk quietly, if at all, except for the vendors selling food, who wander up and down the aisles with baskets on their heads, or under their arms. They yell out words I don’t understand (but can guess at), always with the same intonation and in a frantic pace, as if they’re being chased by a conductor. Otherwise, it’s noisiest when people get on the train, before the sharp whistle of the engine announces that it is preparing to leave the station, and the station-master replies with a whistle of his own.

Sometimes, there’s a soft whoosh of reeds in the countryside. Other times there are tunnels, where eerie, high-pitched screams bounce through the air, as if ghosts are hiding in the shadows, and the train itself is afraid and rushing to get out of the dark. But above all of this noise and commotion, there is always the steady, rhythmic click-clack, click-clack of the wheels grinding over the tracks, a soothing and comforting sound of perpetual motion.

There are times when I close my eyes and manage to block out the sounds. My mind focuses on the air, instead, which is scented with spice and smoke and dust and engine grease. The air is not clean, or fresh, but the smell of it is heady nonetheless, and I breathe it in deeply because it is laced with the secrets of dreams.

It’s as if the trains in Sri Lanka were made for sticking your head out a window so that you can inhale the fragrance of the island. And when Paradise sees you smile, it delights in your joy, and it asks the world to send forth its balmiest tropical breeze, borne out of time in lands that know only harmony, and this gentle wind tickles your face and dances through your hair, and all you feel is gratitude and peace.

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I open my eyes and there’s a tree almost in my face. I’m close enough to touch the leaves of its overhanging branches, and then I’m running my fingers over the rock walls that rise far above the train.

***

I experience a sense of deja vu as we pull into the train station near Peradeniya. This is where I boarded my first train in Sri Lanka, not even a week ago, with my tour group. For a moment, I feel sad thinking about how we have all now gone our separate ways, and likely will never see each other again. A man from Argentina sits down next to me and breaks my reverie. He is travelling to Ella, and we talk about hiking. He recommends that I check out the Seven Lake Zone if I am ever in Argentina.

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I am now travelling the same route as I did a few days ago, yet my memory of what’s ahead is a blur. I’m stunned at how much I apparently didn’t notice the first time around. I may as well be journeying on a new route, and this time, I make sure to take it all in. Funnily enough, a tour group boards the train at the next stop, and they’re enchanted, just like we were, taking photos hanging out of doorways with beaming faces. Nostalgia makes me feel old.

Not long after Nawalapitiya, where our train journey finished last time, there’s a change. It’s imperceptible at first, but gradually I sense that the air feels brisk instead of balmy, and palm fronds are being replaced by forests. This is the beginning of hill country, where the sprawling estates of some of the country’s most renown tea plantations reside upon rich undulating plains.

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The train arrives in Hatton at 3.15pm, about forty five minutes late. I’m not bothered by the delay, though I still have an hour to travel to get to Ayos Hill, the guest house I’m staying at on the outskirts of Dalhousie. This small village lies at the base of Adam’s Peak, which I’ll be climbing in less than twelve hours.

I take a tuk tuk up some very bumpy, winding roads to get to my guest house. My driver, Sanga, is lovely, and kindly stops at a few viewpoints along the way, including an old British church lined with graves, destined to linger forever on a hill. Sanga’s softly-spoken voice matches the solemn surrounds, but the topic of conversation that arises is hardly sacred. Do you like cricket? It turns out that Adam Gilchrist is his favourite player, and he likes Mitchell Johnson’s bowling. I tell him about the latter’s impressive performance in the Big Bash League. He’s not familiar with the BBL, and I’m not familiar with the players on the Sri Lankan team, including the former captain, Kumary Sangakkara, who Sanga is obviously delighted to share a nickname with. Being all out (of conversation), we head back to the tuk tuk.

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The road slopes ever upwards over a sunlit land. Below me, there’s a glittering lake that draws attention and takes centre stage in the landscapes, that is, until a very triangular peak looms into view from up above. Sanga pulls over and I have my first glimpse of Adam’s Peak, or Sri Pada. It is shrouded in sunlight, bathed in an ethereal glow. At 2230m, it’s less than half of the altitude I managed to reach while trekking in Nepal, but I know I’d be foolish to dismiss it. Whatever challenges await, I am officially ready for them.

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