Sri Lanka is hot. So hot in fact, that within the first five minutes of being in the country I had managed to sweat through not one, but two shirts.
Impressive, I know. (I never thought I was capable of producing that amount of sweat).
So the thought of the 8-hour train ride from Kandy to Ella that lay ahead of me was terrifying. To make matters worse I discovered there were no more reserved seats left on the train and after 20 minutes of pleading, attempted bribery and a total loss of 20 dollars Australian I was left with two options: I either had to be extremely scrappy and shove my way on to the train and into a seat (potentially knocking out a few Sri Lankans in the process) OR stand for the entire 8 hours with my deceptively heavy backpack and proceed to sweat through another two shirts.
And to my credit, I gave it my all. Elbows here, knees there; truly a sight to be seen, a chaotic, sweaty sight, but still..
After maneuvering through three carriages – call me the train ninja – I squeezed onto a retro, green leather seat between two (eventually three) lovely, but slightly obese Sri Lankan ladies. My deceptively heavy bag of course had to stay in the aisle, much to the train guard’s annoyance.
Being sandwiched between these women wasn’t so bad. I asked them where they were going. They didn’t understand, then they laughed at me and gave me food because I was “too skinny” and the green leather retro seat squeaked and we laughed some more and they gave me more food. I tried to return the favour by pulling out the bananas I had bought from the markets earlier this morning, but as it turns out the bananas had smooshed in my attempts to get on the train, so my bag was coated in translucent banana goo.
Speaking of food, train food sounds super suspicious but is actually some of the best food to try in Sri Lanka. Local vendors weave through passengers on the train while carrying large woven baskets on their heads. They have everything from packaged crisps, water, chai tea, chaal and five curries and rice wrapped up in newspaper. You can hear them over the hum and clack of the train, singing out for customers. And the train that should smell of bodies and sweat smells of fresh curries, sweet daal and chai.
Unfortunately, the luxury of sitting was short lived. My bladder was dangerously full from the litres of milky chai I had been drinking all day. So, with some serious effort and a bit of elbow grease (literally) I wiggled myself free of the Sri Lankan sandwich and ninja-ed my way through the same three carriages until I found the toilet. I use the term “toilet” loosely here because it was more like an open hole in the train so you can poop on the tracks (there was an unusual, yet welcome breeze on my buttocks).
After my adventure with the toilet, I pushed back through the crowd of Sri Lankans and Eastern Europeans to where I was sitting. To my annoyance, two more obese Sri Lankan ladies had taken my seat. Which was impressive considering their girth and the size of the seat.
I tried my hardest to look disappointed and angry but they just shrugged and laughed and gave me more food. Which of course I ate.
So I found myself standing, this time sandwiched between two sunburnt Russian tourists, who didn’t believe in deodorant and didn’t offer me any food.
The train ride overall was smoother than I had imagined apart from a few “5 minute stops” (closer to an hour) which, from what I could see was just an extended lunch break for the train guards who sat down next to the train and gossiped. The two sunburnt Russians sandwiching me, who turned out to be very impatient, shouted (in Russian) at the guards outside till the train started moving again.
After two hours of standing in the middle of a crowded carriage and being indirectly spat on by the Russians, I decided I needed some air. So I ventured out to the sides of the train. Dragging my deceptively heavy bag behind me. To my surprise the doorway was empty. I shuffled toward the open door. The sweet air from the tea plantations brushed my face as I sat on the ground, my feet hovering over the wheels of the train. Below me there was a sheer drop and mountains silhouetted in the distance. The train curved through tunnels, and ranges like a snake, brushing waterfalls and rainforests as we climbed higher and higher above the clouds.
I sat for hours with each stop the train emptying and filling; tidal almost. The train guard who looked at me worriedly bought me five curries and rice from one of the vendors and told me to “eat, Aunty”.
Aunty sat on the edge of the train watching the landscape slide out beneath the tracks, eating the sticky fragrant rice with my fingers breathing in the cool air of the mountains.
I rode above the clouds, and thought of the chaos of the morning. Standing up, I could see that the once stuffed carriage was empty. Every retro green leather seat had emptied.
The train guard tapped me on the shoulder. “Aunty, would you like to take a seat?”
I looked out through the doorway. The sun was setting behind the mountains turning everything gold and pink.
“No thanks, I think I’ll stand.”