Despite its beauty, travelling in Sri Lanka has not been a bed of roses. The Sri Lankans have a distinctly, er ‘Sri Lankan’ way of doing things which often involves bouts of inexplicable head wobbling (only inexplicable to us, they know the subtleties) and lots of time spent patiently repeating everything many times over before things are understood and everybody gets to breath a sigh of relief, or make a mad dash to the nearest bar for sanative beer and cigarette smoking (yes, very bad but there were three of us doing it which made it seem…hmm, less bad).
We’ve sunbathed on the gorgeous golden beaches of the south & east coasts and braved the oppressive, humid heat of historic Galle, Batticaloa and Polonnaruwa. We’ve safaried with a safari guide whose grasp of English was almost zilch and who knew as much about safari animals as we did. His vocabulary amounted to ‘Look, elephant!’, ‘Look, water buffalo!’, ‘Look, monkey!’, followed by ‘Now, lunch!’ and ‘Now, safari over!’, all delivered with a rhythmical head wobble. We suspected he was somebody’s ‘brother’ who was a stand-in as all the other safari-goers seemed to have had amazing experiences with wonderful, knowledgeable, English-speaking safari guides. This streak of ill luck continued the following day on our whale-watching trip which involved seeing exactly no whales at all. This wasn’t a surprise really, there were so many whale-watching boats waiting to pounce I wouldn’t blame the poor whales for sticking two blow-holes up at them all and heading elsewhere. Anyway, as I was struck by sea sickness shortly after I’d eaten my tuna paste breakfast sandwich, I spent most of the six-hour outing dozing and trying to quell the queasiness which increased every time I thought of the revolting tuna paste.
With the Edinburgh gang now sadly gone, my first solo day began in Kandy (to clarify, Kandy is a town, not a girl) last Saturday, where I bought a second-class ticket to board a train to Ella (yet another place with a girl’s name), a little town nestled deep in tea plantation country. This train journey is famous for its spectacular Hill Country scenery and is considered a ‘must do’ for every western traveller, so it wasn’t a surprise to find myself standing amongst at least 200 of them on the station platform, a moving crowd of white skin, backpacks, beards, high buns and unbrushed hair. As the train drew to a halt my heart sank as I clocked, along with everyone else, that it was already jam-packed. This did not bode well; laid-back travellers suddenly mutated into elbowy, pushy commuters pretending they were boarding a London tube in rush hour. It was not pleasant and with my large wheelie rucksack in tow, I felt more like an OAP with one of those boxy tartan shopping bags on wheels, woefully ill-equipped to cope with rush hour style crushes. And so it was, after a few attempts to get on at different carriage doors, that I found myself standing alone on the platform, with the sickening realisation that I was not going to get on this train.
Just as despondency set in, a guard spotted my forlorn figure and motioned me down to a third-class carriage where he manfully ordered several young Sri-Lankan men off the train so I could get on. They then all somehow squeezed back on after me, which meant we were all standing within a metre or so of the open carriage door packed together like sweaty sardines, my rucksack like a giant boulder at my feet. I was so relieved to have made it on, and so busy saying pink-faced flustered sorries to everyone (I wish I could have said it in the right language though), that it took me some time to work out that from where I was standing there was no way I was going to see any of the promised jaw-dropping scenery, just a sea of dark-eyed Sri Lankan men. And I was going to be in this position for seven long hours. I told myself to man-up, people have experienced far worse.
Clearly I am not made of strong stuff though as, after two hours of the train rolling, swaying and jolting, I felt sick as a dog, cold sweat prickled my forehead and I couldn’t stop yawning. With nothing to distract me from my woeful condition, I thought I might faint and all I could do was hope that someone would help me if I did, and not throw me out the open carriage door whilst pinching my money and passport. But thankfully these thoughts remained just that because, in the nick of time, we drew into a station where half the carriage tipped out and I was finally able to get a seat where I could look out a wide-open window. The fresh air soon dispelled the heavy burden of nausea and relief seeped like honey through every vein in my body. It was heavenly.
I spent the next five hours gazing out the window drinking in the magnificent scenery and counting my every blessing. It was astoundingly beautiful; villages, waterfalls and lush green vegetation rushed in and out of focus as we wound our way up into Hill Country. Tea plantations draped over the undulating hills like patchwork quilts making me wonder what life must have been like for the British colonials before independence in 1948.
With hindsight I was glad to have travelled third-class as it was a ‘real’ Sri Lankan train experience. There were a couple of other travellers near me, but most had ruthlessly elbowed their way into the cramped second-class carriages. Surrounding me were Sri Lankan women and children (their menfolk were mostly standing in the aisle and by the doors, where I had been), they gave me kind, curious smiles. A mother and her baby boy sat opposite me for a large part of the journey, the baby was intrigued by my very white hands and took great pleasure in thoroughly inspecting every finger, rubbing the nails and pinching my palms as if they weren’t quite real. This was heart-warmingly sweet, until his mother lobbed all their food wrappings straight out the open window as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. Oh dear.
Yesterday I had a very pleasant, uneventful taxi ride from Ella down to Talalla on the south coast, where I’m now ensconced at the first of two yoga retreats I’m visiting during my last fortnight in Sri Lanka , this will be an interesting experience as I’ve never really done yoga. I have plenty of time to think about blogging though so if you can bear it, there may be more!