To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches and rivers – In fact, to see life
There’s something special about the very act of boarding a train. For starters, it’s a lot easier than doing the same with an airplane. With a few notable exceptions, train travelling is mercifully free from the shackles of security checks, those Caudine Forks of metal detectors, body scanners, pat-downs and X-ray machines. Stations don’t require the same amount of loitering and walking that airports do, and once you’re onboard it’s a lot more civilised.
There are ample windows, comfortable seats and space to move about as you pull out of the station, cruising through an inevitably uninviting panorama of unkempt buildings, peeling warehouses and industrial estates, because which council would spend money to beautify corners of the city that can only be seen from the tracks? Then you’re out of the city, into the countryside, and the beauty of train travelling is immediate: the whole world is there, starting outside your window. There aren’t multiple lanes of tarmac, guard-rails and concrete; fields, woods and mountains start where your tracks end.
It’s because of this proximity to the world that you are excited to be standing by the entrance of Colombo Fort station, a small pink cardboard token in your hand – your second-class ticket to Galle.
Under the corrugated iron roof old trains come and go with their cargo of commuters, long distance travellers and tourists. A man in a djellaba walks fast behind a Buddhist monk wrapped in his orange robes; a nun trails in the crowd.
An old man approaches you; he’s trying to sell you a bed in his guest-house, but you’ve already got accommodation for the night. Still, he’s a pleasant interlocutor, happy to do some small talk about his experience as a gastarbeiter in Switzerland. He lists cities, towns and hamlets he visited in Italy, before confessing his love for Catanzaro, a place in Calabria that isn’t exactly amongst Italy’s finest. Yet, Catanzaro must be holding a place in his heart, for he returns to it times and again. His village, his guest-house: both are beautiful, “belle come Catanzaro”.
Your train is a far cry from those sleek, modern concoctions that run at breakneck speed in Europe, Japan or China, but it doesn’t matter; you’re not here to go places quickly, you’re here for the journey.
The windows are open to let in torrents of light, scents and noise. Travellers sit in the vestibule, their legs dangling out of the doorways as we roll out of the Fort, past the port, Buddhist temples, skyscrapers and a plethora of driftwood huts. Quarters of the recently urbanised, these slums seem to converge around the railway tracks, a long streak of detritus left in the big city’s wake.
Even here, however, there’s beauty to be found. In spite of the dust and of the fumes of waste set ablaze, frangipani, hibiscus and bougainvillea bloom; then, the further we go away from the city the less visible civilisation’s side effects are.
The train runs parallel to the sea, sometimes a mere handful of meters away from the shore line, swerving to the side to dive into woods of banana trees, cypresses and bulbous, vine-covered tropical trees. Villages appear and then rush back into hiding, fleeting impressions of thatched roofs, catch of the day left to dry in the sun and corner shops advertising crackers and brews. Youths play cricket next to the stations before an audience sat in their tuk-tuks.
You pass Ambalangoda and suddenly you remember something you’d read on Wikipedia, one night prior to leaving for here. This is where train No. 50, the same Matara Express you’re riding on, could’ve been stopped on December 26th 2004, but couldn’t. The convoy continued his journey south, hitting the Boxing day tsunami soon afterwards. 1,700 died. You seem the only one thinking about this in the carriage; the rest of your fellow travellers are dozing or watching the world going by. A man sits by himself, a copy of the “Private Eye” open in front of him. It’s strange to be seeing satire on Theresa May in the tropics.
Hawkers descend on the train at every station, patrolling the aisles with baskets of fried skewers, fresh apples, pineapples and colouring books. Beggars also come aboard, hobbling through the cars with their wounds exposed: stumps, crushed arms and hands. Suddenly, amongst all this, there’s a bend and the lines of trees recede to the margins of your field of view; a clearing replaces them, with a bundle of tracks leading to derelict warehouses. You’ve reached Galle.
You rejoin the train in Ella, and it feels like finding a long-lost friend. After days spent in noisy, dusty bus stations or on wobbly coaches, squeezed into tiny seats, hammered by relentless Indian pop blasted out of Pioneer speakers, Ella station – with its blackboard, hand-written signs, manicured rose gardens and attendants in white uniforms – is a welcome return to a more civilised way of travelling.
It’s the journey of a lifetime. This railway took the best part of 70 years to be laid down, and it’s easy to see why. It either kisses the rock walls of a cliff, or tiptoes on the edge of a precipice. There are bends so narrow that you can see the first and last cars at once, and tunnels so tight that you got to keep an eye on snoozing girls to ensure that they don’t stick their heads too far out of the windows.
Outside, the Hill Country rolls by. Tea plantations introduced by the British colonialists dominate the landscape, interspersed with Hindu shrines. Buddhist domes emerge out of the woods, where the gradient was too steep even for the hard-headed thirst for economic gain of the planters.
It’s a long journey, the one from Hill Country to the capital and it doesn’t take long before you start to get to know your fellow travellers, even without speaking to them. There’s the tourist contingent, dispersed on a normal distribution of sunburns and selfishness; on one end there’s the Japanese lady who offers to cradle the howling toddler of a stressed young couple, on the other the hipster who brings a surfboard to the mountains and blocks the overhead compartments with it.
There are kids, and the Sinhalese mum and daughter duo; the older snoozes, the younger smiles at the TV show on her tablet, only to reprimand her mother when, once awake, she casually litters from the window. There’s the man travelling alone by the window, a sad look on his face. You might be wrong, but you’ve seen those eyes before, in your own image reflexed in a mirror. It’s the look you have when you leave home, the one you’ve dubbed “the émigré’s stare”.
It’s late by the time you return to Colombo. Dusk falls whilst you’re still far from Fort, somewhere along the suburban lines that rattle past you, laden with commuters. A downpour has just ended and everything glows with the crimson light that, you’ve learned by now, is the trademark of Sri Lankan sunsets. Your train’s been stuck there for some time, so you stick your head out of the window in the hope of understanding what the hold-up is. All in vain.
A man with an umbrella walks on the tracks in your opposite direction. You look at him and then you see another head, another pair of eyes, sticking outside the window of the next car. Your eyes meet, and you smile at each other.