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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.