Sunday, January 3, 2016

Sri Lanka - Train From Galle to Colombo and Our Return to Hong Kong

After our few days in Galle, we lounged by the pool and tried to soak up our last few relaxing moments at Niyagama House, before it was time to depart.  We had originally planned to take a car to the airport, but I wanted to try something different and got it into my head that we should take the train.

The train is a long lasting legacy of colonial Britain, one of the last remnants of Ceylon.  It criss-crosses the country in an impressive series of networks (I'm looking at you, Amtrak), and while our train was a little late, it was pretty efficient.
We tried to buy tickets in advance, but apparently, through some convoluted bureaucratic system that makes no sense to us, such planning aforethought is not permitted.  So we crossed our fingers and headed to the station in the early afternoon, about two hours before the train was due to arrive, and bought second class tickets.  First class tickets are guaranteed seating and air conditioned, but I wanted better access to take pictures out the window and thought second class would be fine.  The tickets cost 180 Sri Lankan rupees per person, or just over 1 US dollar.
The train station was very charming, with just a few booths.  It felt a little bit like stepping back in time, what with the paper tickets and the hand-set schedules.

One note about infrastructure here: before we left, everyone told us not to drive in Sri Lanka, that the roads were terrible and that the traffic worse.  Perhaps we were just lucky and missed most of the traffic, but Michael and I both thought that the infrastructure was nowhere near as bad as everyone stated.  Every road we traveled on (except for the roads in the Yala National Park) was smoothly paved and looked brand new.  Frankly, we have traveled on far worse roads in the US!
So, anyway, all of this is to say, I really got it in my head that we would take a train back to Colombo to catch our late night flight back to Hong Kong, to try a different method of transportation and see a bit more of the country.  But I kind of forgot that we would have all of our trip possessions with us, including two rolling luggages, two backpacks and a duffel bag.  And I completely underestimated the crowds.
Waiting for the train.  It was so hot.
When the train finally pulled into the station, we didn't really know where to stand to get to the second class compartments.  Seeing the crowd of people, I ran up into a car to stake out seats for me and Michael.  I didn't realize it, but I had selected the only third class car on the train.

It was only after we sat down and I looked around, noticed the "3" emblazoned on the wall, and realized that we were surrounded by only locals, that I suspected we had picked the wrong car.  But once they turned the fans on, it was not bad.  At least we both had seats.  In the second class cars, all of the foreign tourists were standing.

The snacks on these trains looked amazing.  Every so often, a hawker would come down the aisle of the car, yelling out in a high pitched voice or with a well practiced, guttural inflection, some variation of their wares.  Such variety!  There was a man selling pineapples on sticks, stacked carefully into a bin covered by plastic, perched on top of his head.  There were cold drinks, ranging from sugary grape sodas to fruit punch to water.

There was a man with bags and bags of little snacks and candy, which he would rip off of the stick at the passenger's indication:

There was a man with a glass cart, with large fried shrimp nestled within:

My favorite was what looked like little fried round chicken nuggets, with deep fried chili peppers and peppercorns scattered throughout.  Michael managed to stick the camera into the basket and get a very (very) blurry picture.  Judging by the reception on the train, this was everyone's favorite.  I really, really wanted some, but I knew better than to risk it -- the food was served in makeshift magazine and paper bags, scooped directly into the bag by the man's bare hand (which also handled the money).   I was left to stare longingly at my train companions as they munched to their hearts' content.
There are lots of palm trees and beaches on this jewel of an island, and the train provided a prime seat to observe all of Sri Lanka's generous natural beauty.  We sat across from some little kids, first a mother and her son, and then a little girl and her two younger brothers, and I loved observing their antics as they snacked and played with each other.  I felt triumph when one of the boys, the very shy one, finally smiled at me fully.

We passed serene lagoons.

We whizzed by a lot of blue skies and water.

We were so close to the ocean that I could feel the salt and the spray.

Watching the sun set over the ocean steps away from my train seat, with the breeze blowing through the open windows, has to be one of the top moments of the trip.

We were tired and hot and dusty and sticky, but the scene of majestic beauty was enough to make me temporarily forget my discomforts.  The sun was so large and round,  dipping slowly, slowly, down into the water.

At one point, everyone in the car turned toward the sunset in quiet reverence, enjoying the last tinges of orange and pink as the light washed over everyone's faces.  It was wonderful in those moments to see how, despite the world of difference between me and Michael and the mothers with their children and the single men and the old ladies in that third class car, we were all joined together in our mutual appreciation of nature's beauty.

The train ride also made clear, however, how poor the country is, and how much of its people live in conditions of near squalor.  We passed so many scenes of families clustered around houses with garbage, rooms with barely any walls and some roofs falling apart.  Throughout the train ride we could smell acrid smoke, the telltale signs of locals burning their garbage.

It was disheartening and sobering and eye-opening to see, and caused me to spend a lot of the time on the trip thinking about my bounty and the lots we are all given when we are born.  How fortunate so many of us are; how much we should not squander the potential and the gifts we have been granted; what a hard existence so many people in this world lead.  It also led me to ponder the wealth differential in this country, and how a world of difference (in both experience and price!) existed between this train ride, and the houses that we observed along our ride, and the jeep safari rides, the expensive dinner in Galle, and the luxurious hotel room in the Yala.

After our train finally pulled into Colombo, we were weary and tired and in dire need of a rest and some food.  We steadfastly ignored the hawkers outside the railroad station and walked the few blocks (with all of our luggage) to the Cinnamon Lakeside hotel.  We debated going there or to the Hilton, and chose the Cinnamon Lakeside because we thought it would be better to support the local chain.  We soon immensely regretted doing that, however, as the hotel was pretty terrible...

We had such an amazing experience with the Cinnamon Red, but this experience showed us what a difference management can make.  Because we were not guests of the hotel, we were restricted from going to any restroom except the one in the front lobby and we could not eat at certain restaurants.  We had to pay extra for the use of the pool and the locker room (which was fine) except they conveniently did not tell us the pool was closing in less than an hour, until after we had paid.  They rushed us out of the locker room.  They would not let us use their wifi.

We just wanted to spend a few hours there to relax before going to the airport, but the whole experience left us feeling pretty bad.  We would have stayed longer at the hotel bar, but it was much easier just to leave the place and head to the airport.  The hotel refused to call a local taxi for us, because they wanted to charge us for the hotel car (5,500 Sri Lankan rupees).  In a fit of pique, we dragged our bags out to the sidewalk and hailed a tuk tuk instead.  The tuk tuk cost 2,000 rupees but probably took twice as long, because he couldn't go on the fast expressways.  When we finally pulled into the airport (and not right up to the terminals because tuk tuks are not allowed there), I could barely open my eyes due to the sand and grit and exhaust that we had been inhaling for the past hour.  Heh.

When we finally made it into the airport, through the byzantine lines and weird process of Sri Lankan airport procedures, I was more than ready to collapse.  The only good thing about the flight was that I miraculously managed to snag a row of four empty seats across the aisle, and I was stretched out and passed out as soon as we were airborne.  Our flight left at 12:50 am and, accounting for the two and a half hour time difference, arrived in Hong Kong at 8:50 am.

When we finally staggered home from the airport, I saw to my dismay a few emails that needed me to head in to work.  As you can see, I needed a few days to recuperate after my vacation!

A little postscript:

I neglected to include two pictures from Michael in my previous post - there was a parade in Galle the day we were there, for the "celebrations" - don't you think this is the saddest elephant you ever did see?  Michael said he was chewing on his trunk the whole time - and you can just see the distress in his eyes. And look at how he is chained up - how wretched.
To give you an idea of how Galle is just full of tourists - look at this parade with all the locals marching in it, and all the foreigners looking on.  Also, the Galle fort really is a fort, with walls all around, which people can walk on.  The day we were there, I saw a few snipers on the outside edge by the entrance, presumably on security detail for the president.

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