This is my fourth day in Sri Lanka. Up until today I’ve been staying with my Sivananda teacher training buddy, Sherylee and her husband, Brett on the south west coast in Hikkaduwa.
Sri Lanka feels like a good stepping stone between Thailand and India. From what I’ve seen so far, it feels like a sleepier, more laid back version of India. You’ve got the mad drivers, signs that you can’t understand, dust, and the Indian shaky head, but it’s far less Western than Thailand. I haven’t heard Adele’s ‘rolling in the deep’ once.
Sherylee and Brett have lived in Hikkaduwa for the past six years and in that time, they’ve adopted (or been adopted by) four beach dogs and two weeks ago they moved into an impressive house that they’ve designed themselves. Kevin McCloud would be proud. Once they get some furniture it’ll be even more amazing. When Sherylee and I were last together on our teacher training in 2010, we ate sitting on the floor for a month so it was just like the old days.
This morning I jumped on the back of their motorbike and Brett dropped me off at Hikkaduwa train station. I love foreign train journeys and the plan was to take a two-hour train to Colombo and then catch another train for three and a half hours inland to Kandy in hill country.
I arrived here a couple of hours ago and I want to tell you about the journey.
The trip from Hikkaduwa to Colombo was fine. It was a modern train and I got a window seat. We clackety-clacked along the palm-fringed coast and I ate the bananas and apples Sherylee thoughtfully gave me for breakfast.
I had 40 minutes at Colombo and my greatest achievement during that time was managing to use a squat toilet with my big rucksack on my back and my small rucksack on my front. From assessing the floor of the cubicle, there was no way anything was going near it apart from the soles of my flip flops. I also managed to keep the wooden door closed by hooking my index finger through a hole in it. Success.
The train to Kandy was full but fortunately I managed to get a window seat again. Around me were families with babies and young couples. As with Indian trains, people hung out of the doors along the sides of the train and sat on the door steps looking straight onto grassy verges, ramshackled wooden huts and lush paddy fields.
As we clattered along, the driver honked the horn alerting people walking on the railway line that the train was coming. I could feel the searing sun on my forearm and I bought drinks off the men walking through selling their wares. When passengers bought greasy fried food, the sellers would scoop it out of their baskets and put the food in little bags made from recycled notepaper. I could see schoolchildren’s algebra homework becoming big oily blobs as passengers munched away.
A group of teenage boys with their hockey kits boarded my carriage and occupied the entrances at either end. They called to each other and I was in between, looking out of the window. As we snaked up and away from the humid plains, we passed through dark stone tunnels and the boys shrieked and whistled, laughing at the echoes.
They became braver and braver, leaning forward out of the doorways and waving at their mates further down the train. As we pulled out of stations, they’d wait until the very last moment to jump back on the train. I started thinking that this was how accidents happened.
One boy in particular was very bold. He’d hold onto the rails on either side of the doorway and bring his leg out to 90 degrees touching the tall grass at the side of the tracks. At times, he’d bring his leg back only a fraction of a second before a train signal post or tunnel. He laughed and joked and I gave him stern looks. I couldn’t watch.
The views were breathtaking. It got cooler and the rolling hills went on for miles. At every station, it would say the height above sea level: 200m… 360m… 440m… up and up.
About 15 minutes outside of Kandy, the boy was still larking about, calling to passers by on the tracks. And then the train horn sounded. And kept going. We came to an abrupt screeching halt.
The boy suddenly appeared inside the carriage next to our seats. He was crying and burying his face in his hands. His friends gathered around him.
I leant out of the window and people were frantically running back along the tracks. I saw a mound of brightly coloured fabric next to the wheels, one carriage back from mine. I felt icily cold as I watched what looked like a bundle of clothes be scooped up and placed on the path alongside the tracks. It was a woman wrapped in a sari.
Passengers gathered around and people shouted in Sinhalese. Locals ran towards the tracks with panic etched on their faces. I asked the man sitting opposite if she was dead. Apparently she had head injuries and her foot was badly hurt. The train lurched forward and before we knew it, we arrived into a wet Kandy station.
As the man opposite me rightly said, she’s likely to feel the effects of today for a very long time. It made me think how fragile our lives are. Some of us think we’re invincible. I don’t know if the boy played a part in the accident but he had a very good view. He was rather quiet after that.
It’s raining and I’m at my guesthouse thinking about the lady and how yogis believe that you’re born with a set number of breaths. When you’ve taken these breaths, that’s it. Your number’s up. She must have a few more to go.
But you’ve certainly got to make the most of every moment. And on that note, apparently there’s a lovely Ayurvedic treatment place not too far from here…