I feel like I’ve done quite a lot of riding on trains in the past few months. It’s always a pleasant experience – an opportunity to read your book, do some writing, or just gaze out the window, letting your mind go for a walk. And it is lovely outside at the moment. Lush and green. Of course, the flipside to that is that it can only look like this when it’s been raining every day for the past two months. Which it has been. Bloody British weather. Not that it’s any worse than the bloody Irish weather from which I fled 12 years ago.
But yes. Train travel. Relatively civilised in this country when the system isn’t fucked (as it regularly is with engineering works, leaves on the line, heat on the line, snow on the line, the list goes on ad infinitum), yet also quite sterilised.
The carriage I’m now sitting in is clean, which is obviously a good thing. It is also so heavily air-conditioned that one hour into my journey and I still haven’t been able to remove my coat. The toilets – well – they’re not so clean. I gave serious consideration to writing a note on the back wall: “Gentlemen. This is a unisex toilet. Apparently you are unable to aim straight while on a moving train so please sit the fuck down when you pee. Thank you and good day.” Unfortunately I didn’t have any permanent markers with me. And now I have wet shoes. Buggeration.
However, despite all of this, one of my favourite train journeys was a rough and ready jaunt from Bentota to Colombo. The two hour journey along the west coast of Sri Lanka was captivating for good and bad reasons. The guide book recommended first class tickets, but the train only had second and third class carriages, so we opted for a second class ticket priced around 50p (put that in your pipe and smoke it British rail companies). Travelling with my friend Susan, we managed to bag a pair of seats together. We then swopped seats every five minutes, no doubt to the amusement of the other passengers. There was no glass in the window so you were hit with the full force of the wind. However, there was no air-conditioning on the train, just a weak rusty ceiling fan, so when you sat in the aisle seat, you barely avoided drowning in your self-made pools of sweat. Hence the need for constant seat-swopping. And we were sharing the view I guess…
People bustled up and down the train, selling dried peppers as snack foods and other exotic items displayed on huge circular wicker trays. Sadly it was my first trip to Asia and in those days I was a bit of a wimp when it came to sampling local street food...or train food as the case may have been.
Everyone stared at us. We were the only whiteys on the train. But it was never in a malevolent way. The people we met during our time there were friendly and those who were from the less touristy areas were simply curious. (The group shot was a family who wanted to have their photo taken with me. Now I know what it feels like to be a celebrity!) And everyone was thankful, which felt strange. I have never travelled anywhere before where I have been thanked so much by so many people.
And the reason for it? Six months previously, Sri Lanka had been devastated by the tsunami that occurred on Boxing Day in 2004. The people we met wanted to thank us for the financial aid that our countries had given as a result of people making individual donations. Their message was that we should tell people about their country.
Tourism is such a key economic factor and provides income for so many people that the tsunami was a double-blow to their country. Not only had they lost people, homes and buildings, but many had lost their jobs. Everyone asked if we would tell our friends about their country. Did we like it? Would we come back? Would we recommend it to people? Yes, yes and yes.
And this is what made the train journey so captivating yet haunting. On one side was the magnificent coastline, while on the other side were thousands of temporary shelters, made from tarpaulin draped over frames constructed from palm trees. And when you gazed further inland, you could see the remnants of these people’s homes, scattered into disarray.
So that is why that train journey in Sri Lanka will always be etched in my memory and why Sri Lanka itself will always be in my heart.