I’ve spend the day hanging out of the door way of a train travelling across the mountains, hills and plains of Sri Lanka. This morning we got on the station at Ella in the highlands and this afternoon we will be in Colombo.
Many English poets have written poems about passing moments on train platforms, and it was from views such as this one. Such poems are written from the vantage point of small stations in rural settings, they are not penned while sitting in the cafeterias of modern British rail and they do not speak of today’s speed, contemporary fittings, and over-priced, plasticky ambience.
Enter Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has some very old railway stations. This morning at six am I sat on the Ella platform. The station is the exact design of one built in 1920s Britain, except that its painted a pale apricot colour. The old levers to pull on at one end of the platform are greasy and were built in London with Industrial Revolution era solidity that has lasted. They are black with grease but still work well. Quiet bird song fills my ears with the mellifluous delicacy of an English meadow on a May morning. The light is dim. I am tired. The station master sits in his office, wearing a white shirt and black tie. He studies a large ledger spread on an old wooden desk. In my sleepiness I easily imagine myself in the English countryside of my grandparents. So this is what travel meant to them, I think to myself.
The hoot of the engine alerts us to an incoming train. The train arrives. A station attendant lifts a circular band up above his head, and the engine driver reaches out his window and grabs it as the train rolls in, with perfect precision (the train is still moving at quite a clip at this point). Its old red carriages look like they were built in the 1950s, perhaps earlier. The white epaulettes of the station guard, and the slowly moving carriages, red pressed metal well worn by the passing years, the early morning coolness. Then the blowing of the whistle, a pause, then the hoot of the train. It is off again. Then the return of the quiet bird song from the green trees and bushes on the other side of the track.
Surely such a morning is about as close to an authentic experience of train travel in the English countryside of the 1930s or 40s as you can find today. This is not a historical theme park, this is real life in 2014 in the Sri Lankan highlands on an early morning in February. Everything is functional, everything works. And yet everything has a continuity with an old Britain, a world that has sunk forever back in the country that invented the Industrial Revolution and the railway system.
We left a little before seven. This morning we rolled through misty highlands, softly enwombed in cloud and dripping moisture. We were only travelling about 40Km/hour. When I leaned out the door I felt a cool, freshness on my skin and sucked it into my lungs, breath of a thousand trees and a million leaves. I look down as we pass over a bridge to a stream flowing below my feet, ten metres down to glistening green foliage and cool wet stone.
I duck in as the train rattles into a stone tunnel through a mountain ridge. Ferns and forest, empty of people. A nice feeling.
In a few hours all would be different, the world would be altered. But for now everything was dim and misty.
As you can see, in some place eucalyptus has a foothold.
The forest then gives way to tea plantations, with what are probably Tamil teak pluckers at work amongst the bushes.
Then we drop in altitude as we come out of Kandy, and descend along a steep winding valley. The vegetation becomes more tropical and the temperature rises.
A few minutes ago: Hanging out the door is is like a roller coaster travelling slowly through an exotic warm tropical landscape. People pass talking in groups, a woman is pulling up water from a well, a buffalo grazes in tall grass, a river passes, smells of wood smoke, of burning rubbish, of flowers, air tense and expectant of rain, warm and exciting, the faces of young Sri Lankan men further back along the train lean out too, smiling wildly. The floor rattles underneath. The carriage shakes from side to side. The sounds of the tracks beat a perfect rhythm, clicker clack, clicker clack, clicker clack… I want to soak all this all into my pores.
I lean out further. A banana leaf sails past, centimetres from my face. I dodge an in leaning branch. I must stay alert, second by second. So many lives fly by my travelling self. So many personal histories per square hectare pass me in this patchwork of forest, houses, fields, roads and gardens. There is so much to take in that it would be hard to become bored or jaded.
Now we’re on the plains, and the train speeds up. I’m flying through the heart of Sri Lanka, uninsulated by barriers of ‘Health and Safety’. The air blows against me with more force. An errant drop of rain wets my cheek. A kid runs across the tracks, just in time to avoid the onrushing train. This been done by many backpackers before me I’m sure, but I know instinctively that what I am doing rightly deserves the title of Travel. Although I would pay more, eight hours of this costs nothing more than $11 for the fare (yes, that’s first class). Smoke from track-side burning brushes my face. An egret flaps overhead. Coconut shells lay scattered along the line, then in an instant are gone.
I lean out further. I think to myself, this is Travel. I feel content, and grip the metal rail harder.