As a golden sun slowly rose over Colombo, the silence of the morning was deafening. After a hot and uncomfortable night in the hostel, we left at 6am for an early morning stroll. It’s incredible the difference you see in a city when you watch it waking up. We passed ageing mechanics opening up their roadside stalls and dusty workmen reluctantly beginning their day. Sleepy dogs staggered along the potholed side streets and the warm morning sun laid a gentle orange glow on the road like a carpet. The blissful emptiness of the streets revealed a calm and pleasant side to the city, but one we knew wouldn’t last.
With our rucksacks in tow we jumped, once again, into a Tuk-Tuk towards Fort Station. We arrived early for our 8.30am train, which gave us time to sort out our tickets and find the right platform amongst the melee of the morning hustle. The grand old station is nothing special to behold, but its concrete platforms and rusty iron footbridge have a certain colonial gleam. The air smelled strongly of smoke and oil which was actually a welcome aroma compared to the sewage river not far away. Passengers flowed like a wild stream along the platforms and we had to fight against the current to make our way over the bridge to our platform on the far side of the station.
There we waited as train after train ploughed noisily through the station, some stopping, some not. We realised, to our concern, that none of them were labelled or referred in any way to their destination. After a little dithering and deliberation we decided that we’d get on whichever one was at the platform come 8.30. But thank god for friendly locals who must have spotted our subtle looks of anticipation. As one hunkering red engine lumbered on to the platform at about 8.20 a friendly, toothless man gestured towards the train and said softly “Matara”.
After passing on our eternal gratitude we followed the masses embarking the train. The old, maroon locomotive stretched further than the platform and yet already it looked full. Its outside was dusty with years of smoky dirt. Yet it was still impressive, regal and traditional with the scars of a thousand journeys on its enormous wheels.
Every carriage we peeked in was full and eventually we had to jump on board for fear it would leave without us. We stood in the doorway at the entrance to the carriage, unable to move any further in with our bags. A feeling of dread loomed over us both as we realised we might be resigned to standing in this small unstable spot for the next four hours. With our big rucksacks on our back and little ones at the front we took up a lot of room in the little entrance to the carriage. But people continued to get on and by the time the driver blew his almighty horn we both found ourselves squished against opposite walls, smiling hesitantly with an undertone of dread.
As the grand old train slowly lumbered out of the station it managed to pick up a few stragglers who had cleverly waited until all were aboard, before jumping on to the step of the doorway. Although a little dangerous, they had considerably more room then everyone else and would be able to enjoy a gentle breeze as the train glided along the south coast. We consigned ourselves to the confinement and stood awkwardly with not an ounce of space to manoeuvre. Surprisingly, it wasn’t long before the train began to slow. From the gap in the open door we were greeted with Mt. Lavina station and to our horror an entire platform of determined passengers all baying for a space on the train. We chuckled benevolently at each other knowing full well that there was no possible way anyone could get on.
They surged on like an angry mob, squeezing themselves passed us into inconceivable spaces within the carriage. It was confusing for us to see the outward aggression they used to get on, whilst somehow maintaining an inner, graceful pleasantness. No one got angry, no one shouted or became frustrated. They simply accepted, found their non-existent patch of space and settled in. Inside the train the interesting mix of body odour and fried prawns with chilli kept us alert like smelling salts. We had nothing to do but look around and observe our fellow passengers, marvelling at the complete madness of our morning.
For a while we skirted the coast and the views of calm waves gave us some solace and distraction from our current situation. The old train rattled and clanked along the tracks, weaving through little towns and fishing ports. At each stop we were treated to an uncomfortable squeeze as people got off, only to be replaced by more. By this time our legs were numb and the sheer insanity of it all washed over us. We just held our ground against the wall by the door and let the good folk of Sri Lanka squeeze past. After two hours the train stopped at Galle, the half way point of our journey. It was the first time more people got off than got on, and we were finally able to breath. In the break we re-positioned our bags so that we could sit on them and over the next few stops, as the train slowly emptied to the level of a normal busy train, we inched towards the door. The next hour was the most pleasant of the journey. We sat on the edge of the open door and hung our heads out into the salty breeze as the train rejoined the southern coastline. We befriended a father and young son who had been with us in the squeeze throughout the whole journey. They were both full of smiles and generosity, but not much English. They shared their snacks with us and we took selfies with his family, much to the amusement of the shy young boy.
I called this blog post ‘off the rails’ because I felt that accurately described our journey. It was hard work and out of control. But so is all travel, most of the time. Our journey to Matara was tougher than we’d both imagined. But in hindsight it was much more fulfilling. Despite our immediate frustration, we had experienced the reality of Sri Lankan rail travel. Desperately uncomfortable and incredibly beautiful all at the same time. We’d battled against the steadfast determination of the locals. But we learned that behind the grimaces, the pushing and shoving, is just a regular person trying to get somewhere. We can mark these difficult journeys by what we take from them, and for us it just confirmed our initial impressions of the Sri Lankan people as caring, generous and abnormally good at pushing!