You may recall that in part one I recommended a fantastically practical website: Rome2Rio, mentioning that I wished I’d known about it sooner. The reason for this will soon become apparent.
What you need to understand about travelling in Sri Lanka is that the pecking order of transport efficiency can frequently be turned on it’s head. For example, a train journey (usually the most efficient means of getting from A to B) from Kandy to Ella takes seven and a half hours. One would assume that this would be a considerable distance, but you’d be wrong. The same journey in a car only takes three and a half hours at the most. Go figure.
Hiring a car and a driver in Sri Lanka (especially the most mountainous areas) really is the quickest means of getting between most two points.
We were gathered at our usual table at The Royal Bar, sipping some local red and making good use of their wifi. When I discovered the length of time it would take to get to Ella, I panicked. That’s almost an entire day travelling, which we couldn’t afford with the limited time we had. We only had eight days left, and had been on the move almost constantly since we arrived.
I made what I believed at the time to be the most logical decision I could, based on the ticking clock and my desire to kick back a bit. We would make our way to the coast. The plan was to go back to Colombo by train, and then take the coastal train from Colombo to Hikkaduwa.
This revised plan would see us going back on ourselves, but to continue on our original trajectory seemed like utter madness. Sadly this meant abandoning our plans to see more of the Hill Country, but the idea of chilling out for a few days, soaking up the big blue sea seemed very tempting. And so we agreed.
The title of this blog is The Disorganised Traveller, and you’re soon to discover why I chose that name for myself.
See, had I checked on Rome2Rio, I would have known that we could have been in Ella in a few short hours by car. Not only that, but if I’d done my research, I would have learned that the following day would be a National holiday.
If you are the sort of person who enjoys their own company, who is suspicious of strangers, or perhaps just craves space and privacy, Sri Lanka probably isn’t for you. The people here love to connect with others – it’s a huge part of their culture. Eye contact is always met with a smile, and most Sri Lankans love to talk at length about where you are from, what you do, where they are from, what they do – and all the interesting differences in between. And, they are always more than happy to help with your education.
If you don’t like people cramping your style, then please consider another destination. If, however, you love the company of others and have a desire to learn. If you can be open and shake off our ingrained western suspicion. If you want to really experience another culture. Well then, dear reader, you’re in for a treat.
I was looking forward to a bit more rail travel. I had been awe inspired on our way to Kandy, and was excited at the prospect of more high-speed leg dangling.
We found our seats, and from observing others learnt that you may swivel the chairs around so you’re always facing the direction of travel. Being a bit of a geek, I was impressed by this simple bit of technology.
This journey saw us surrounded by many more Sri Lankan families than before, and we took the opportunity to chat with all of them. Soon the carriage was one big social gathering.
There were no refreshments on this train, so our new companions made sure we were well fed. Home made banquets appeared as if by magic, and we were treated to all manner of rice dishes, curries, home-made chutneys. And afterwards, home-made milk toffee, which is a bit like fudge made from milk, jaggery, and cardamom seeds.
Blown away by the kindness of our new friends, and with several telephone numbers and offers of accommodation, we alighted at Colombo Fort to continue our mission to the sea.
If you are planning on taking the coastal train from Colombo, please heed my advice. Do all you can to avoid rail travel on a National holiday. Especially if there are only second and third class tickets available as it can get a little intimate.
Women travellers should also be aware that some randy males can use the confinement as an opportunity to cop a bit of a feel. I am told the Sri Lankan women deal with this intrusion with a sharp, well aimed jab of the elbow.
We learned at the ticket desk that there were no first class carriages for the next leg of our journey. Emboldened by our previous adventure and keen to get to the beach, we bought our second class tickets, printed on tiny purple cards much like the toy tickets you’d get with train sets. They cost 70 Rupees (about 30p).
As soon as the train arrived, chaos ensued. Thousands of people lurched forward as one, desperate to obtain a good spot. It seemed as if no sooner had the train slowed to stop, then it was picking up speed to leave. We had to get that train!
I pushed my companions into the carriage in front of me with all my might, passing up my backpack and throwing myself at the open door. Squeezing through the many bodies that crowded the opening felt like some kind of strange reversed birth, and soon I was encased in the steamy, dark, tightly packed carriage within.
Every station saw hundreds more people being squeezed into the narrow carriage, leaning and pushing and squashing against each other until it was a struggle to breathe. Bodies writhed against one another trying to make room, like an over populated pond of carp. Hands went where they shouldn’t and eyes and mouths leered.
I shut my eyes, trying to ignore the pain in my legs – bent as they were into an unnatural position, trapped between my backpack, the metal side of a train seat, and the ten thousand people it seemed were leaning on me with all their weight. The train was barely moving, and no air could permeate the damp heat of thousands of lungs.
“Just breathe,” I told myself, “be calm, you’re fine, you’re fine.”
I decided to make light of the situation in order to keep my head. I caught someone’s eye and rolled my eyes. She smiled and rolled her eyes back at me – just a normal day’s commute for her. A kind man gave up his seat for L. Slowly, stop by stop, a few people got off, and soon I had an arms’ span of space to call my own; then I could straighten my back; then I could move my legs.
The second there was enough space to turn around, I sought out M’s eyes – he had been trapped with his back against the toilet door.
Finally we arrived at Hikkaduwa. A short tuktuk drive saw us prostrate on wooden seats outside our rooms at Nippon Villa, huge Lion beers in shaking hands, chain smoking and staring dead ahead in stunned silence. We had made it.