Archives for posts with tag: sri lanka

Ok, so this month I’m celebrating the fact that I’ve had my Sri Lankan driving licence for a year, and I think I have finally worked out the ‘unofficial’ road rules! Ha!

 

1. There is no need to use an indicator – unless you’re in the right lane, and you want to turn left. Then you must use the right indicator.

colombo-182. There is no need to turn on your headlights until way after the sun has set. And then put them on high beam and keep them on high beam – no matter what.

3. It is OK to overtake 4 cars, 2 trucks and an ox cart on a bend with a double white line, and expect everyone to slam on the brakes and pull over to the side of the road when you have to squeeze back in because there is a speeding bus coming the other way.

4. It is not mandatory to follow lane markings – the middle of the road is an extra lane, the side of the road is an extra lane.colombo-3

5. As a bus driver you don’t have to worry about bus stops – you can stop anywhere.  Actually you don’t even have to stop – the conductor will pull the passengers on as they run along side the bus.

6. One way roads – as long as you choose which one way you’re going, you’re fine!

three wheeler-17. Use of horn is mandatory – and has many meanings – I’m behind you, I’m overtaking, I’m turning, get a move on, watch out! It is particularly important to use when the car in front of you cannot move – but you want to let them know they need to get out of your way!

8. As soon as you see the police, slam on the brakes, and go 20 km below the speed limit. As soon as you’ve passed them, go back to doing 20 km over the speed limit!

9. If you have to ride a bicycle at night, make sure the bike has no lights, that you’re wearing dark clothing, and that you’re riding on the wrong side of the road.

10. But in the end – you can’t take this post, or driving in Sri Lanka too seriously! 🙂 You have to just go with the flow!colombo-9

 

 

Last week I went to Udappu. Udappu is a small Tamil fishing village on the arid coast of western Sri Lanka, a couple of hours north of Colombo. Off the main road, visitors to Sri Lanka don’t go there. Not even many locals know where it is, or have a reason to go there.

udappu -6But Udappu is a very special place. It has a large Tamil Hindu community, with a large temple. And once a year there is a very special festival. For a couple of weeks from the end of July to the beginning of August, 1000s of Hindu people descend on the otherwise small and sleepy town. Many camp on the beach. The festival centres around the Mahabharata epic. Each day the community comes together for parades, and story telling, and music, and special temple poojas. And it all culminates with a big evening of fire walking.

udappu-2Back in January, we had been a for a little road trip, exploring this part of the coast of Sri Lanka, stopping at windswept fishing villages, and driving along narrow sandy lanes. We went to Udappu – and there is nothing ‘touristy’ about it. Which is what makes this whole thing so special. It is such an important part of the community, of the families involved. Nothing about it is put on to make money, or attract tourists – it is just an important part of the life of this Tamil Hindu community. It is very hard to find much information about the details and the specifics of the festival online. We found out about it through a photographer friend.

I went late one afternoon last week. As we pulled into town I wondered if my information was correct. This town seemed as sleepy, as wind swept and as dusty as it had been in January. Wasn’t there supposed to be a big festival happening?udappu -5

We parked the car, and I decided to try and visit the temple. I left my shoes in the car, and spent the next 3 hours happily wandering through the temple and the village barefoot. I was welcomed into the temple, and encouraged to take photos. It soon became obvious that there was a group of men preparing for some event in the temple – maybe something was going to happen!

udappu -3The men were all dressed in white sarongs that had rich coloured borders. They took their shirts off as they entered. The women wore gem coloured saris with gold borders, lots of jewellery, and scented flowers in their hair. Everyone entering the temple applied kumkaman to their forehead, with parents and grandparents helping out children.

Suddenly the bell started ringing, and the atmosphere changed – there was an air of expectation. I went outside, and from nowhere people started streaming to gather in the temple grounds, or along the street. Many settled on the sand as the men I had just seen in the temple began reciting the Mahabharata epic. Everyone smiled, and made room for me, and we exchanged a few words or actions. I only made one baby cry with my camera!

udappu-8But many more were gathering on either side of the street. I joined them, wondering what was going to happen. The crowd built and built. People asked where I was from, many have families and friends who have migrated to Australia over the years. Suddenly music started, and some balloons appeared at the far end of the street – the crowd surged forward, and I found myself at the back with no polite way of getting through or being able to take photos. I’m not very good at asserting myself in these situations! A man nearby noticed my plight and asked if I wanted to take photos – and helped me work my way to the front of the crowd – and kneeling in front I was in a prime spot for some shots.udappu-1

I still don’t understand all of what I saw and with most people I asked there wasn’t enough common language to go into the details. But it was very special, and as the only foreigner there that night, I wasn’t in the way, I was welcomed – but I also knew this was not for show, and a very important event for those involved. There were men in horse costumes, and dancing purple men; a huge parade around the temple with a man in a trance and more drumming, with crowds chanting and following; more story telling.

udappu-10And then at some appointed signal, everyone entered the temple. I was swept in with the crowd. Everyone was reaching to apply kumkaman. Some people were following their own personal paths of devotion – kneeling, praying; others were with family and friends chatting as they went into the inner sanctum. The drums were playing, the oil lamps glowing. The temple was abuzz.

udappu-9I left with many goodbyes from the crowd, and invitations to return for the next day, the final day of the festival (which unfortunately I was not able to get to). But I was so grateful to have been involved, to have seen what I did. And to have been welcomed into the community. It is just another event in a string of serendipitous events that I have been caught up in recently – in the most part because of the generous and welcoming spirit of locals here in Sri Lanka. Thank you once again – and don’t worry, I’m not taking these opportunities for granted!udappu -7

 

 

I live not far from St Anne’s Catholic Church, Thalawila – the oldest Catholic Shrine in Sri Lanka. It is right on the beach, halfway along the Kalpitiya peninsula, on the west coast of Sri Lanka, 3 1/2 hours from Colombo. I have been there several times, but not seen anything like I did last weekend!

thalawila-5The history of the church goes back to the 17th century. St Anne is the mother of the Virgin Mary. One story claims a poor Portuguese man was travelling from Mannar to Colombo looking for work. He was not successful, and whilst walking back along the coast, stopped to rest under a tree which is now the location of the church. Whilst sleeping he had a vision of St Anne. Upon waking he could still see the image, and built a small chapel dedicated to her. The other story claims that a European trading boat was shipwrecked off the coast. The area was very arid and inhospitable but the crew took shelter under a large banyan tree. They placed an image of St Anne in the tree. The captain kept his promise to build a church there upon the success of his business.

thalawila-4Last Sunday was the one of the most important feast days of the year for St Anne’s church. It is known for many miracles and blessings. Families from all over Sri Lanka had been gathering in the 10 days leading up to the feast day. Many come hoping for their own miracles and blessings.

thalawila-3I visited last Sunday evening and spent some time wandering around chatting to people, as well as visiting the church itself. Some estimate that up to 400000 people had gathered for the event. People come by private and public bus, by car, by tuktuk, and packed into the back of flatbed trucks – with everything needed for their stay tied on! A makeshift town had quickly been established – with all that was needed to support this many people in a normally very sleepy part of Sri Lanka!! Food stalls, mobile phone charging stations, public showers, large tanks with water for drinking… Some families camped on the beach, others on mats in front of the church, many were in tents on the bare land in front of the church.thalawila-8

thalawila-1Everyone wanted to say hello. And even if we couldn’t say much more than that to each other, they wanted me to sit and meet their families. Fernando introduced me to his wife, children and grandchildren, as he very proudly told me, ‘I am Christian.’ A large extended family from Negombo had driven up 10 days earlier to be here for the entire festival period. Another man waved at me through the bus window with a big smile on his face, ‘I am going back to Colombo.’

 

praying hands-1As I got closer to the church, candles, tapers and other religious items were being sold; and people with various disabilities, others suffering illnesses, lined the paths hoping for alms. After entering the gateway, I came upon a large stone cross, on the way to the church. This was the scene of much activity. Some people were lighting candles and stopping for a prayer. Others were seeking to touch the cross which had had blessed oil poured over it. As I was watching, a man came with a new bottle of oil and began to pour it over the cross. The crowd surged forward to reach for the oil – and many were trying to capture some of the oil in their own bottles to take with them, to use for future prayers and supplications.thalawila-6

Despite the huge numbers that had descended upon this tiny, remote community, there was a sense of calm and a sense of purpose. I saw no other foreigners during the time I was there, although I did bump into several locals I know. I nearly didn’t recognise Sarath, a local fisherman – I don’t think I’ve ever seen him with long pants, a button down shirt, and his hair all slicked back! Looking very smart with his family and he stopped to chat with me. I was welcomed by everyone. I asked questions, and I had questions asked of me. And after we ran out of the few English, Sinhala and/or Tamil words that we had in common we just smiled at each other!

boy-1Just another one of those days where I felt blessed to be welcomed to an event that was so special for so many people. I’ve had some wonderful opportunities lately and continue to thank the people I meet along the way for their friendliness and openness.

So, last week I wrote a post about getting caught up in the Vel festival, on Slave Island, Colombo.

A week later, I was wandering through the same area, and whilst there was still evidence of the Vel festival (it continues over several weeks), this time it was all about Eid ul Fitr. Ramadan, the holy fasting month for Muslims, had just finished, so everyone was enjoying the first full day of Eid.

on the way to prayer-1I was walking through just on sunset – men and their sons walking to the mosque. Families were in the street, enjoying the cooler air as the heat of the day finally left, and taking the opportunity to chat with friends and neighbours.

I bumped into Riaz, who invited me to join his family for a cup of tea. Riaz, in his mid 30s lives and works in Dubai – and has done so for the last 14 years. He is now an assistant manager at a golf club. He is home for 6 weeks over the Ramadan period to spend time with his family who live on Slave Island.ImageProxy.mvc-2

As we sat outside the family house, neighbours and friends continually dropped by to say hello. ‘Salaam alaikum!’ Everyone was wearing their new clothes, bought for Eid. His mother was relaxing in the cool breeze – after a busy few days cooking for everyone! His niece stopped to show me the mehndi on her hands, specially applied for this time of the year.

ImageProxy.mvcRiaz’s family have lived in this area for the last 3 generations. But their future is a little uncertain as the government has already begun to ‘gentrify’ some nearby streets on Slave Island.

This area is called Slave Island, named by the British, in recognition of the slaves kept here during Dutch and Portuguese rule. Slave Island borders Beira Lake which used to be nearly 3 times the size it is today, and formed a natural defence around this small patch of land in the middle of Colombo. Many of the slaves were African and it is believed that some of their descendants still live in this area today, and are often known as Sri Lankan Kaffirs. Javanese and Malays, mostly soldiers under Dutch and British rule, also lived in the area. Many Muslim families live in this area today – they are often referred to as Sri Lankan Moors. It is thought they are descendants of Arab traders that came to Sri Lanka between the 8th and 15th centuries, and/or descended from Tamils that came from India.

photo-5Such a small area with such a diverse and rich history! I always enjoy wandering around this part of Colombo – and feel very thankful that I had the chance to join Riaz and his family for tea.

hindu festival-6Have you ever had one those days? Where your plans change and you’re not really sure what’s going on but then serendipity takes over and you get caught up in amazing things?

Well that happened to me the other day in Colombo. I had heard that there was a big Hindu parade at Sri Subramaniya Kovil, the big temple on Slave Island. By the time I got there, after getting caught up in typical Colombo traffic whilst doing a few chores, I thought I may have been too late.

It was the middle of a very warm and humid day in Colombo – it is supposed to be the wet season, but the rains have not come, and the city is so heavy and still, waiting for a big storm to clear the air! I was beginning to wonder whether this was such a good idea – maybe I should just go somewhere with air conditioning?

hindu festival-5As I got closer to the temple I could see signs of an earlier parade – had I missed everything? But no, there were still people waiting expectantly on the corners, offerings for sale, and police monitoring the traffic. I walked up and down the street just to see what was going on, as kids played on the street in traditional outfits, and locals watched from their doorways.

It wasn’t long before the crowds began to get heavier, the police presence more pronounced, and there was a definite air of excitement. The women wore traditional saris with flowers in their hair, carrying bowls filled with offerings; the men wore orange sarongs; hindu festival-8and the children – some in traditional costume, others wet from the earlier parade – were chasing each other up and down the street.

I found a spot near a little local store. The man was preparing and selling coconuts – an integral part of the offerings – and everyone was coming to buy from him. His wife was setting up a big table with offerings at the front of the store, and an older man was preparing a pile of coconuts.

The crowds continued to build, the police stopped the traffic, one gentleman found me a peak spot for viewing and for shots, and although everyone was eager to be ready for the parade, they were also wanting to make sure I was OK! At that stage the only white woman around – but I felt very safe and very welcomed into this distinct little community within the bustling city of Colombo.

hindu festival-16And then the parade started! From asking around, and doing a little research, I found out this festival, which goes over several weeks, is dedicated to the Vel. The Vel is the sacred spear, and is considered a deity within Tamil Hinduism.

First came men carrying giant fabric Vels, followed by 3 elephants – one even dancing to the music! There were many adults and children in various costumes – peacocks, and hanuman the monkey god, and various dancers, accompanied by bands and musicians.

hindu festival-3And then came one of the most important aspects of this parade – the men and boys, often in a trance-like state, suspended by dozens and dozens of hooks. Some were sitting, some were lying, others were suspended, almost in a crucifix-like pose. As well as being suspended by these hooks through their skin, many also pierced their faces with miniature Vels. Some were offering blessings and carrying babies that the crowd were offering up.

This is the first time I have ever seen anything like this. And I watched in awe and amazement. Not something I would ever want to do myself! And it made me wonder about the dedication to their religion and their culture.hindu festival-10

There was a lull in the parade as some overhead banners were moved in preparation for the larger floats coming through. It was only then that I stopped and realised how hot I was! I must have looked a bit out of sorts too as several women that I had been chatting to earlier offered me a cold drink. But despite that momentary need for a break, I was still feeling such wonder about being involved! And thankful for the opportunity to see such an amazing event! Wow!

hindu festival-1Soon after, women came, carrying sacred fire. Some had shaved their heads as another sign of their dedication. And there were many men, waiting for the next float, all in their orange sarongs. And many with mobile phones! A real mixture of old and new working together.

The street soon filled with 100s and 100s of men and women and children. Took me a while to work out there were 2 thick ropes in the midst of the crowd that were being used to pull a large golden chariot with the priests. One rope was being towed by men, the other by women and boys. You could barely see the rope as there were so many people wanting to be involved and trying to help!hindu festival-7

At the front of this, a group of young men stopped at the large pile of coconuts that had been doused in water and yellow dye and then also set alight briefly. As an important part of the ceremony, before the priests came any further, they smashed all the coconuts on the ground – with such delight! And bits of coconut flying everywhere!

hindu festival-13And with a shout, everyone heaved, and the chariot made its final way to the temple. The crowds surged to the base of the chariot to have their offerings blessed by the priests. The air was palpable with expectation and excitement. Following the chariot was a group of women. I’m still not sure of the purpose, but many were prostrating themselves on the ground, and following the chariot, often on their knees, whilst other women were pouring water over them.hindu festival-14

I slowly made my way through the crowd to the temple entrance, and watched the confetti being thrown from the top of the temple over the priests and the offerings and the crowds as they slowly shuffled inside. Some of the young boys were still suspended outside waiting for the auspicious time for them to be taken inside.

hindu festival-2

I decided not to try and enter the temple. And to leave the crowds for some much needed respite! But after an amazing couple of hours I was still abuzz! Whatever you think about religion or people’s beliefs, or what people do for their beliefs, for me it was such an honour to be involved and welcomed into this event.

Well, actually, maybe that should read ‘The president came to town on my birthday’… The difference a preposition makes in the English language! 🙂

The Road Development Authority here in Sri Lanka, with a generous loan from the Chinese government, has been redoing the road along the Kalpitiya Peninsula – from Palavi to Kalpitiya, about a 40 km stretch. And it has finally been finished! The official opening was the 23rd February – my birthday. And the president was in town to officiate the opening and we somehow managed to get VIP tickets to the event! What an event to add to my special day! Ha!

After showing our VIP invitations, and a thorough frisk and search by the security officers, we were seated on the special white chairs at the front of the giant marquee that had been set up in the market area in the local town Norochchalai. I had put on my ‘conservative’ dress for the event – covering my shoulders and my knees. But was still getting a few stares – partly because I was the only obviously ‘white’ person there!  1000s from nearby villages were there to have a chance to see the president – but only a few had received VIP invitations for the white seats!

As he arrived with his entourage, and a huge media contingent (this was a big PR opportunity!),  the noise and excitement from the crowd mounted, and we were asked to move closer to the front. And then came the speeches. Whilst I did not understand most of them, I certainly felt the fervour that was being created by the various speakers as they extolled the great work the president is doing in Sri Lanka.

A representative from the Chinese consulate spoke on behalf of the Chinese government. His speech went between Mandarin and English. And every time he spoke English all the cameras zoomed around to focus on me! It was quite hilarious although I had to keep my poised and interested face on for those shots! Apparently we even made it to the 6 o’clock news!

Then it was the president’s turn to speak and the crowd became very passionate and began to surge forward through the makeshift barrier into the VIP area. He even finished his speech with some Tamil – the language spoken widely in this area of Sri Lanka. As he finished, and we stood up to leave as well, the crowd finally broke through and there was a rush to get closer to the president. I was caught for a moment in the crush until his security staff held back the crowd and we were given safe passage out of the throng!

The road was closed to traffic as the entourage continued further north. So we walked back into town. What a little adventure to add to my birthday! 🙂

Ah, the joys of the postal service here in Sri Lanka! I do love it really! The paperwork, the bureaucracy, the non-existent queuing system…

Every transaction is handled manually – nothing is computerised – with hand written ledger books, and copious amounts of carbon paper for all the required copies.

Even at our little branch in Norochchalai, if the doors to the offices behind the main counter are open I love looking at all the piles of paperwork and imagining how long they’ve been there and old they are! And wondering what happens to it all?!

photoAnd of course, no transaction is simple. Whilst postage certainly is not expensive – it’s less than 20 cents to send a postcard anywhere in the world, and a letter to Australia costs about 70 cents – it is made a little more complicated because of all the combinations of stamps required to make that 85 rupee! I sent a birthday card to my brother-in-law recently and the envelope ended up being more than half covered! Somehow I think the address was still visible.

And then, if they don’t have enough change, you get more stamps back! For next time?!photo-3

There is no queuing system. One clerk can be dealing with several customers at once, and your personal space can feel a little compromised. You finally get to the ‘front’ of the queue and think you have the clerk’s attention for your five letters – but for every one action she does for you she deals with someone else who is reaching over and around you, or leaning over the counter in front of you. Fortunately most of the time it works without too much drama!

If you want to send anything registered – well, that will double the time you’re at the post office as you deal with several clerks and more paperwork!

And then once you get all the stamps for your letters, you have to keep them in the correct combinations and take them back to the other counter to paste them all on the envelopes! Sticky fingers…

photo-2The other day I had to pick up a parcel that had been sent from Australia. Sometimes they just get delivered, other times no, you have to go to the central office and pick them up paying any applicable fees and import duties and taxes, etc. How this is decided I’m still not sure about.

Jude, the trusty tuk-tuk driver, picked me up and took me to the main office in Colombo. He has done this before and knew the order of all the counters we had to go to and helped with any translation that was needed.  We were one of the first ones there that morning – hopefully a good sign, hopefully this would mean we wouldn’t be there that long! First, to the clerk who was still straightening out yesterday’s carbon paper ready for the triplicate copies needed. That lot of paperwork done and then passed on to the next clerk. ID recorded, and my signature on every page. Then asked to sit and wait. Finally number 7 was called and to a new counter. I had to wait for them to locate my package, and then they opened it in front of me. Upon seeing the contents someone then somehow decided on the taxes and fees associated with the contents. They resealed the package in front of me – but it was still not mine! Onto the next counter… And I had to wait whilst she finished ruling up her ledger book and organizing her pens and rulers and pencils for the day. I paid the fees and still had to wait as I could see the parcel sitting on the floor behind her. But it was not her job to give it to me. We had to wait until some ‘underling’ was available to pick it up and then give it me – with the clerk who I had just dealt with checking all paperwork again! And then finally it was mine!! All quite comical really!

As a system it somehow manages to work quite well and certainly keeps a lot of people employed – including the carbon paper manufacturing company!

driving licence

driving licence

So it was time to get a Sri Lankan driving licence. And on paper it all sounded so simple – take your current driving licence, and your passport with your visa to the Department of Motor Traffic, and with an exchange of paperwork, a temporary or lifelong licence will be issued.

Well, I should have known, that as with any bureaucratic process nothing is that easy or quick! Yes, Carolyn, just think about how long a visit to the post office can take; or how long you waited at the department of immigration to extend your visa!

So, I tried to get through the process this morning…

Jude, the tuk-tuk driver, picked me up at 8.30. I didn’t realise quite where we were going or how long it would take to get there! By the time we got there, and parked in the midst of all the buses, cars, and tuk-tuks with giant ‘L’ plates on them, we had to make our way through the 100s waiting for their driving tests.  But we were there for a different purpose so we wouldn’t get caught up with that?

Mmm… apparently not. We all had to go for a medical check up, so I had to join the end of the queue. With only 1 doctor who was already running late.

We heard about a clinic 15 minutes back closer to the Colombo. So off we went in the tuk-tuk again. Of course, for this particular medical check, you can’t go to any doctor or clinic – they have to be approved by the Department of Motor Traffic. So there aren’t many around! We finally found it. I was very unceremoniously whisked in to be weighed and measured, and then sent to the counter to pay for this part of the process, and wait for the next step. By the time we left there, we had been going for over 2 hours and were no closer to getting a licence!

At that stage, I gave up on the process for the day – if we had gone back to the Department of Motor Traffic, I’d still be waiting there now! And I had appointments and other things scheduled for the day.

So Jude and I have a plan – now that we know the process, know where everything is, and have found out the opening times, we will start extra early when I am next in Colombo to conquer the Sri Lankan driving licence process once and for all!

 

 

I’ve had Ayurvedic treatments before – you know the type of thing – you’re travelling in India and end up with an Ayurvdedic massage in a place set up for tourists – all very nice, and slightly ‘Westernised’..

I have occasional back problems, and I relish a regular deep tissue/remedial massage, so the other day I visited the local Ayurvedic clinic in a little, very ‘untouristy’ town in Sri Lanka.  And what an adventure that turned out to be!!

Everyone in town goes there for any medical need. Sitting in the outdoor waiting area, I was an unexpected sight for all those coming and going for treatments and to pick up their oils and herb packs. The doctor was busy going from room to room, then back to the dispensary to instruct his assistant on what potions and lotions to prepare.

Eventually, with some unknown signal, it was my turn and I was taken across the courtyard. Down to my knickers only, I lay on hard table, with a small towel, that looked like it had been there for at least several patients before me! And then the treatment began.

At one stage I think (I’m not sure!) there were 3 people working on me. One assistant applying very liberal doses of oil all over my back and legs, the doctor working on the problem areas on my lower back, and another assistant pressing a hot poultice pack of herbs over my shoulders and back. Every so often he would disappear and return with a very hot, new pack to continue pressing. And in between, the other assistant would slosh another half bottle full of oil all over me! Not the most relaxing but not horrible either – I could feel the heat and the herbs radiating through me.

Eventually we all had enough of that, and I was moved very unceremoniously to the nearby steamer. Dripping with oil, I stepped across the room to the wooden box  –  not my favourite thing, it seems too much like a coffin for me! But all part of the treatment. So lying on my back on the slats, the lid was closed, leaving just my head sticking out. The same towel wrapped around my neck to keep all the steam in.  A range of herbs were heated releasing the steam and aroma through the slats – and I could feel the oil and sweat just pouring off me! 10 minutes later it was time to turn onto my stomach – and the heat felt even more intense! 5 minutes into that side, feeling slightly overcooked, I had had enough and had to ask to be released! Just not a sensation I enjoy!

Once released, I was assisted to stand up and the doctor brought in the next part of the treatment – a refreshing orange Fanta! To get some sugar and fluids back into my body! Then the assistant dabbed baby tonic all over me – which stung like aftershave on my red bare skin! They laughed at the slat marks that were left all over my body! The tonic, surprisingly, helped disperse any remaining oil – I had been worried about sliding down the car seats as I left!

Dressed, I met with doctor again in the dispensary to receive my diagnosis – I am ‘blocked’ across my shoulders and my lower back. I took the plastic bag with my personalised oil concoction, along with instructions to rub it onto the affected areas twice daily and to come back next week for a follow up treatment.

So let’s see what happens next week!

galle (1 of 10)Travelling by train is always an adventure! Even if it is just the slow train from Palavi Junction to Colombo!

This is a route that I’ve taken several times over the last few months, and it always starts the same way – with an apology from the ticket clerk because there is no 1st or 2nd class – only 3rd. Which is not a problem for me – but as I’m pretty much the only foreigner on these trips, I guess they expect that I would like to travel something other than 3rd class.

For 110 rupees (less than $1) I get at least 4 hours of entertainment, sitting on a bright orange, hard plastic seat in a carriage that has not been cleaned since the windows were left open during the last storm! It’s important to sit at a window that does open – this is the only cooling provided. It’s only about 120km but travel (by any means) always takes a long time in Sri Lanka – you really do learn to appreciate the journey rather than just thinking about the destination.

This is certainly no express train! With stops in every town along the way – and at least once each journey, because of the single track, the need to switch back to let trains going north through – it is very slow going!

The country side changes – from the lagoon views south of Palavi; to rivers and farming land; then as we get closer to Negombo and the airport, all the towns begin to merge into each other as we enter the sprawling metropolis of Colombo.

But it’s the people that are interesting to watch – and as the only white face aboard, I certainly know I am being watched too!

There is a large Muslim community in and around Puttalam where the train originates – there are always fully robed women with their children. The children are shy but interested – getting them to smile is a treat! Encouraging their mothers to smile is a small victory!

And then there are the other travellers – business men; families visiting each other; people with shopping or business to do in the bigger towns. I always seem to have more luggage than everyone else even though I’m only going to Colombo for a couple of days! As we near Negombo, the train fills up with school children – in pristine white uniforms and black shoes – and workers using the train for their daily commute. Some are ‘brave’ enough to sit next to me for a chat – always asking where I am from (Australia – ah! cricket!) and whether I like Sri Lanka.vardai-1

It is also interesting watching the various sellers and buskers/beggars make their way through the carriages. Peanuts, samosa, prawns, egg rolls, pineapple, vardai and water – all available in handy snack sizes. Blind people singing, people with physical disabilities begging, salesmen with toys and books – all trying to make their living day by day. For some reason on this train, all the doors connecting the carriages have been blocked and closed off – the only way to change carriages is to alight at a station and climb onto the next carriage – sometimes it can seem a long way between stations when the singing is particularly off tune!

It is never a very peaceful journey – with such old carriages and ricketty tracks, it is nearly impossible to read or doze. Once, the train was trying to make up time and we were all bouncing off the seats as we went over a bridge – I burst out laughing which brought out a few smiles from my fellow travellers.

The one thing I always find stressful about this trip – and I have to work out a way to manage it – is the arrival at the main Colombo station, Fort. As we arrive (always late) the platform is crowded with people waiting to board for the next destination. And the throngs begin pushing to get on as we are still trying to exit. I’ve been caught in many a tussle to and fro as the bottleneck quickly forms at the door . No matter how prepared I am for a quick exit, there seems to be no way to avoid it!

Once I make it through, slightly battered and bruised, and find my ticket to give to the clerk so I can exit the station, the next issue is to find a tuk tuk that will either use the meter, or charge me the standard price, not the inflated price! Ah, but that’s another story for another day…