0730 – en route to Colombo
Well here we are, on the first leg of our Great Sri Lanka Trip. The train groans and sways on its way out of the station, across a bridge, and through the banana-plant backyards of tiny brick-and-concrete houses. Adults look up to watch the train pass. Children wave furiously, and grin and point when I wave back. We pick up speed and start passing larger, walled-in houses as the sun just clears the eastern hills. The strip bordering the rail starts out with walls and narrow paved paths, but gives way quickly to lush green tropicality punctuated by lazy rivers.
The air coming through the wide-open windows is cool and fresh, spiced with the immeasurable smells of the Indian sub-continent. The ceiling fans that largely define this second-class car are as yet unneeded.
Now we come to the coast. Beach front property, rebuild after the 1994 tsunami, is modest. Not what you would find in a first-world country.
The train comes to a stop at a frangipani-shrouded station and a train passes us heading south. The third-class cars are full of people commuting to town. Women in faded saris sit on seats next to down-and-out businessmen. People with food for market, or lots of small children, line the aisle. Schoolboys hang out of the doorways, their bleached-white shirts contrasting sharply against the rust-red train.
Our car is not nearly so crowded. I have a seat empty next to me, as do at least three others. Everyone in here, except perhaps us, is dressed nicely. Two men in tunics and slacks lounge across from me. Behind them is an older woman in an elegant green-and-rose sari. Next to her, leaning out the wondow, is a boy in a patterned blue button-up shirt and slacks. His only rebellion is a too-large baseball cap jammed on his head.
We pass a block of identical yellow houses, then lose civilization for a while again to overgrown fields, forest, and coconut palm plantations. To the left, between us and the ocean, is a newly-paved road and old building foundations between the palm trees. The blue-green water rolls calmly just beyond.
A woman is stranded between tracks until the train passes. A group of school-girls huddle in the shade of a bridge. Motorbikes, trucks, and tuk-tuks wait impatiently on roads behind fragile gates as we go by.
This train is much more comfortable than the one we took in Thailand. I rest my head against the wall and stare out at this foreign country.
1050 – Colombo
The train arrived on time in Colombo, wonder of wonders. It’s a good thing we had our noses out the windows to see the station name – Colombo Fort was by far the biggest station we’d seen, and most of the people got off… but some got on, too, and two minutes after our feet hit dirt, it was off again.
First stop, toilet. Very…ethnic. Five rupees got us in. The floor was very nearly awash in water, though it’s safe to assume it was mostly clean water. The lighting was dim. There were three squattie stalls, a sink, a mirror, and a big tub of water. The squatties appeared to have water closets, but on closer inspection they were dry. To flush, you needed to bring a bucket of water from the tub. This, and the fact that the sink drained to a little gutter along the wall, kept the floor nice and wet. The tub probably leaked, too.
Outside the station we'd been told there were metered taxis, but all we found were tuk-tuks and buses. Well my butt was sore from the train ride, plus I had tried to sleep and failed, so I wanted to wake up. It was only a few blocks to where we were going, so we hoofed it. Past beggars, businessmen, guards with guns slung casually across them, and the ever-present street venders. Like in Bangkok, they basically sold everything there is to sell. I don’t think it’s focused on tourism, though… there have been startlingly few white faces around. But York Street, where we are now, should actually be called Travel Agent Road; there are enough of them. So maybe they’ve just fallen on slow times. Or the tourists have more sense than to be out in the street in the sun.
The buildings here are old and funky. On some, it looks like the bottom level is rotting out, while the upper storeys are new! The roads are busy and loud with buses, tuk-tuks, and car horns. Sidewalks are thronged with people.
We got Chris’s ticket sorted out in the cool, air-conditioned American Airlines office, then went to lunch. The Pagoda Tea House was just three blocks away. It’s a bakery, with a little restaurant area at the back. Not air conditioned, but open and airy and cool. Dad and Chris got the ‘special’ Mongolian stir-fry, while Mom and I settled for the standard curry. Yum, yum, yum, with custards for dessert to kill the spice. Mom got a ‘watalappan,’ which is like a flan but with coconut and jaggery – palm sugar. We must get the recipe from someone.
Bruce Jaffe’s friend Fernando called while we were eating. Unfortunately our schedules don’t overlap very well, so we might have to struggle or have him go out of his way to meet up.
I’m sitting at the train station now, waiting for Mom and Dad. They went to find an antenna place for our VHF antenna. It’s hot and humid here, and Chris and I are dripping sweat, though the locals don’t seem to mind. There’s a TV above us, playing some sort of Indian soap-opera, I’m guessing. Every now and then a train passes through, and the platform gets flooded with people. It’s so loud when that happens. Though the normal random station noises aren’t exactly quiet.
Our train to Kandy leaves in an hour. Taking a bus would probably be more comfortable, but we haven’t actually seen any of the big air-con buses Thailand favored so much. And this train apparently has first class. Would it be too much to ask for comfortable seats, uncrowded cars, and air conditioning? I suppose sleep is probably a foregone conclusion. Until tonight, anyway. I sure will crash then.
1835 – Lakshmi Guest House, Kandy
Well, foreigners must be the biggest suckers in Sri Lanka. There are 24 seats in this ‘first class’ car, and right before we left Colombo all ten of us foreigners were standing outside, complaining. What does first class mean in Sri Lanka? Well, there’s no big 1 on the car. It’s the very last car. It has big windows, and three fans, one of which has a shot bearing. The seats are rather comfortable, but they face backwards.
It was boiling hot when we got to it. Fifteen minutes of open windows somewhat alleviated the steambath qualities, but it promised to be an interesting trip. The fans didn’t start until just before we left.
Basically, we were the tail that wags the dog. Up’n’down, up’n’down, side to side. At times it felt like riding a very fast horse at a slow trot… backwards.
For the first two hours, as we traveled northeast through dry rice fields and poverty-stricken villages, the sun was hot and bright in the forward (rear) windows. But we ignored that as much as possible. With the big windows we did get a nice panoramic view of everything we passed. We got to see the tuk-tuks, buses, cars, and walkers all cross the track en masse as soon as we passed. We also saw the clothes that people had left to dry between the tracks. Why they do this, I don’t know. There are perfectly good bushes elsewhere, even right on the side of the track. And wouldn’t the air currents of passing trains make it all fly? Apparently not.
I fell asleep shortly after that, much to my relief, though it wasn’t too easy. I think I’ll have a bruise on my knee tomorrow from where it kept banging the wall.
When I awoke we were high in the hills with beautiful views. Radical escarpments and ridgelines showed all around us. Villages, tucked into the hillside, were visible between the wild forest trees.
The air was cool, but the car we were in was stuffy. I went forward and found Mom and Dad hanging out a doorway. Fun! It made for a great view, and a wonderful breeze in my face. I just had to watch out for branches, the walls of gullies, and tunnels. And it was rather loud.
When it started to rain, I dithered between staying and going back to the compartment. It was hot back there, and stale from sweaty bodies. The mountain air was so clean and fresh and crisp in comparison. But it really was pouring down.
Stations and villages came and went, getting steadily bigger. Finally, Kandy station. They turned off the electricity, and the fans stopped. It got sweltering hot in there and we hightailed it to the cool outside.
Malik, the manager or Lakshmi and Palm Garden guest houses, met us there. A short ten-minute drive through town – past a market, the lake, the jail and several buddhas – and up a hill got us to the cute, clean guest house. Where we promptly ordered dinner and all took LOOONG showers. We’ve been on the road a good six or eight hours today. Ugh.
2200 – in bed
Well, this little chicken is well fed! Dinner on the balcony was abundant. It was also the most expensive meal we’ve had in Sri Lanka – more than $20 for the four of us. But I, for one, would probably have been fine with half the amount. The menu says ‘beef, chicken, or fish curry over rice. Vegetables. Juice or water. Ice cream or fruit.’
All very well and good. But ‘vegetables’ ended up being five bowls of different veggie dishes. Each one could have been a meal by itself! Let’s see… besides the chicken and beef curries, we had:
Mom and Dad drank ‘tea’. Or at least it came in teapots. The guest house is too close to the school and the temple to sell alcohol such as beer, but they’ll gladly serve out large individual teapots of ‘tea,’ which is strangely fermented…
We stuffed ourselves and then ate dessert. Then we went straight to bed, with a slight detour to call Fernando (Mom did that) and peruse the internet (internet junky, me? Never.)
So here I am, with the fan twirling above and the low murmer of people downstairs. Hard to imagine I woke up on the boat this morning. Time to sleeeep…
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