“You should take the train. Buses sometimes topple.”
Taking the heed from the guest house’s owner the previous day, I find myself in the middle of a chaotic district in Colombo where dilapidated buildings and a thronged market confound even the locals. The Fort railway Station – the busiest in the Sri Lankan capital – lies at the very heart of Fort district where most government’s offices are situated. Despite the murkiness and odor at some corners, the Victorian-style station still retains its British colonial charm with some features such as old-fashioned cloak room and lavatories. Embarking on a journey to Kandy in the afternoon, I find myself seated in the first-class coach – equipped with ceiling fans and irreversible seating arrangement, it looks quite modest compared to what we have back home.
Five minutes before the train departs, a man sits right next to me, carrying a huge plastic bag with him. Posing an intimidating posture, he asks me questions not long afterwards – some are rather too private to ask to a foreigner. Feeling not too comfortable with all of those interrogatories, I look out the window to gesture him my discomfort. The journey should take only two hours, but I feel like it is going to be an extremely long one. To my relief, about ten minutes later he answers some phone calls and leaves me in peace.
In the absence of his bothersome questions, I look out the window – for real this time – and admire the true beauty of Sri Lanka’s plains in the afternoon. Verdant hills showered with golden light from the sun occasionally interspersed with towering peaks, lush tea plantation and endless rice fields are real remedy for not just mine, but also any other weary eyes. At times, the train goes through long and dark tunnels where the thick fumes cannot escape and get into the coach, resulting in respiratory discomfort for the passengers. But right at the end of one tunnel, I see such a heartening scene of Buddhist monks in bright saffron robes and Muslims in white traditional dress playing cricket – the nation’s most popular sport. A reminder of we are not that different at all, indeed.
Unexpectedly the man who is sitting next to me just finished his long phone calls and tries to make conversation again with me. After some short chats, he leans forward to grab something from his plastic bag. “Do you like mango?” he asks me while still bending over. “Umm yeah,” I reluctantly reply. A short moment later, like a magician pulling out a bunny from his hat, he takes one ripe and fragrant mango from his plastic bag and hands it to me. “For you.”
And that is the moment when I rethink of what I have been assuming of him.
A few minutes before arriving at Kandy station, he asks me where I stay in Kandy. Still a bit cautious, I tell him the hotel’s name while thinking of what kind of another unforeseen action he would do. But then it hits me again. “Let me help you get a taxi,” he offers. Outside the station, he hails one taxi and haggle for the price on my behalf without I even request him to do so. Then he looks for another taxi after failing on pushing the price as low as he wants with the first taxi. The second try is a successful one. After telling him how thankful I am, I watch him gets into his car where his wife has already been waiting. Then he opens the window and waves to me.
Such a nice and sincere person he turns out to be. In my defense, I can give dozens of reasons and excuses to justify my initial prejudice. But in the end I learn my lesson.
Nevertheless, that is nothing compared to my misadventure on the journey back to Colombo.
After securing a seat in a first class coach one day earlier in Kandy train station, I get on the first coach that I see which exactly looks the same as the one that I took from Colombo to Kandy. To confirm that it is indeed the train to Colombo, I ask one man sitting at the far end of the coach. While waiting for the train to depart, I see more people aboard the coach as time goes by – some in their business suits ready for their important day in the capital, some others dress more casually. A young woman sits next to me carrying a thick book. Judging from her look I believe she is heading to a class at her university in Colombo. When the train departs, her father who has been waiting right outside the window waves at her, with a proud smile. With a much quieter companion than the journey five days earlier, I slowly repose on my seat, enjoying the view of Sri Lankan landscape in the morning.
But only for a few minutes.
A mustached officer comes in the coach to check the tickets. When he approaches my seat I take mine from my pouch and hand it to him without any notion. When he looks at the ticket then look at me and a man who is standing at the door, I instantly have a feeling that something terribly wrong is actually happening.
The officer takes my ticket and heads back to the door to have a conversation with the man while showing him my ticket. “Am I in the wrong coach?” I say to myself while still anxiously watching them. One minute later the officer confirms my fear and tells me that my coach is actually at the other end of the train.
I instantly take my heavy backpack and walk towards the right coach – literally from one end to the other end of the train – while it is moving in full speed. I enter the next coach and from the look of it I know it is a second class – filthier and looking murky. The next few coaches look exactly the same where some passengers are not seated with their huge bags blocking the aisle, making it almost impossible to walk through. As I dash through the crowded coaches and shove with other passengers, some of them look at me. Maybe they wonder why there is a foreigner with a huge backpack walking through the aisle in such a hurry. But some others just look indifferent.
The speed of the train and the crowd in all second-class coaches are not the only challenges. The journey itself is a bumpy one – at some points I need to grab the handhold mounted on each seat only to prevent myself from falling. To make things worse, the train is longer than I anticipated. In this endless series of coaches heading to Colombo, I also have to go through a dining car whose challenge understates the other coaches’. There is no handhold or handrail and most of the passengers stand or lean against the wall while holding bowls of curry or glasses of water. I wobble about and at one point I almost hit one man who is enjoying his curry.
When I manage to pass through the dining car safely without any incident, my instant relief is replaced by the biggest fear only within seconds.
The door to the coach where I should be in is locked from the other side. An officer who is standing nearby helps me knock the door, hoping someone at the other side hears him and unlock it.
First attempt fails. He tries again but this time louder.
Still no response.
He tries again and again until he gives up and tells me that it is locked. Well, yes I know that for sure by now.
Different scenarios pop in my head after the officer leaves. “What if I really have no choice but to stand here all the way to Colombo?”. “What if I return to one of the coaches and just sit on the floor?”. “What if I wait for the train to stop at certain station and then I jump off the train, run as fast as I can and reach the right coach before the train moves again?”.
Despite being the riskiest of all the choices I can think of, I decide to wait until the train makes a brief stop.
And it does, not long after that idea crossed my mind.
When the train fully stops at a small station on a hill, I jump off from one side still with my heavy backpack, land on wet grass and run to the next coach which turns out to be farther than I anticipated – that is why no one could hear the knockings at the other side of the door a few minutes earlier. I climb the steps and ask the first officer I see to confirm whether it is the right coach or not. Fortunately it is.
Before I even walk the aisle to find my seat, the train starts to move again.
I walk to look for my seat while still feeling a massive relief after finally getting on the right coach. A man is sitting next to an empty seat, my seat, with his eyes closed. Awaken by the noise from a heavy backpack placed on the overhead compartment, he looks at me and I gesture him that I sit next to him.
Even though it is also a first-class coach, it looks much more elegant than the one at the other end of the train. Leather seats and two butlers in uniform bring a luxury ambiance to the coach. However that is not what I am most relieved for, but the success of getting into the right coach itself after minutes of suspense is undoubtedly the most unforgettable experience aboard a train I have ever run into.
If only I jumped off the dead-end coach a few seconds late, I wonder how I would find my way back to Colombo.