Sri Lanka Train“Hello USA!”

Our new friend Lal recognized me as soon as we stepped out of the tuk-tuk and made our way to the platform to catch the 10:55 express train from Galle to Colombo. We’d met and spoken with him two days prior, here at the train station, while waiting for an afternoon downpour to subside in overcast Galle.

He’d talked about the tour groups he’s led (without, thankfully, pitching his services too), and about the state of Sri Lankan politics, the toll of the country’s 30-year civil war, the lingering threat of a LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) resurgence, and about the ways in which he hoped his countrymen would move forward. Sri Lanka still doesn’t get many visitors from the States, and he was eager–as so many Sri Lankans were–to tell us his story, share his views, and hear what an American thought about it; if given the audience, Lal could have talked all day.

Before we pressed on, he was adamant about legitimizing himself and produced his official South Ceylon Tourist Board badge from his worn, black-leather wallet, which also contained his official cricket referee card, amongst others. Today, on a mid-Sunday morning, he was standing in the same spot at the station, wearing the same clothes, sporting the same big smile that stretched across his face during our conversation.

After a quick hello we purchased our second-class tickets (180 rupees) for the three-hour journey north up the southwestern coast, and as Lal promised had no trouble grabbing seats in the first-come, first-served carriage. It did fill up quite fast, though: with perilously overstuffed bags dragging behind them, the tardy stragglers who pushed their way on right before departure were as noneffectual about the “no assigned seats” policy as we were. Indeed, with a few stops along this express route, by the time we pulled into the old, crumbling, wonderful Colombo station, it was standing-room only.

The ride to Colombo, though less geographically dramatic than the journey two weeks earlier from Colombo to Kandy, was glorious. At certain points, we coasted so close to the ocean shoreline that it felt like we were breathlessly skimming across the water at 35 – 40 miles per hour, a sensation Paul Theroux also experienced and chronicled in The Great Railway Bazaar. In the chapter entitled “The 16.25 from Galle,” in which he memorably meets Mr. Wong, a Chinese dentist specializing in “tooth mechanics,” Theroux describes his rain-drenched voyage in third-class seating on this very same line:

The train from Galle winds along the coast north towards Colombo, so close to the shoreline that the spray flung by the heavy rollers from Africa reaches the broken windows of the battered wooden carriages.

Inside the train the passengers were banging the windows shut to keep the rain out. The sunset’s fire was tangled in leaden clouds, and the pillars of rain supporting the toppling thunderheads were very close. […] People were jammed in the compartments and pressed in the corridors. When the rain increased – and now it was really coming down – they fought their way into the carriages and slammed the doors and stood in the darkness while the rain hit the metal doors like hail.

It was rainy then, and it was rainy on this day. A magnificent pre-monsoon storm, the kind I became all too familiar with during my time living in Bangkok, pounded the carriage like a relentless prizefighter for much of the trip. When it hit, the passengers–Sri Lankans of every class and just a fistful of tourists–quickly pulled the rickety windows down; when it left, the rickety windows were flung back up. Cool breeze, hot, stuffy air. Cool breeze, hot, stuffy air.

We zipped past swampy marshlands and plowed rice paddies, and tired water buffalo kicking back their hooves in shallow ponds of soupy mud. Kalutara’s Gangatilaka Vihara, a massive, blinding white (and hollow) dagoba, came and went on the right side, while volleyball games on otherwise deserted beaches and intense games of cricket in shadeless playing fields flashed by on the left.

The sad slums that lined the tracks, though, dashed any sustained sense of romance. The intense poverty, seen in many parts of the country, felt especially prevalent along this stretch. I cursed myself for not having any small bills to give, for example, to a thin one-legged man on crutches, wife and young son in tow. Vendors walked the aisles selling bags of deviled peanuts, baskets of fried shrimp, chocolate biscuits, short eats, small bottles of water… anything they could get their hands on, and make a few rupees from.

Gall Train Station

I’ve seen this ruthless face of poverty many times–we all have–but no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve seen, only the most hardened of hearts couldn’t be broken by the harsh realities these people face every day. Scratching and clawing for very little–and sometimes getting nothing–and unlikely to ever experience any degree of financial comfort or stability.

Despite it, our fellow passengers were friendly and quick to return our smiles with a welcoming look of earnest sincerity, just as others did throughout our two weeks traveling the country. The emotions stirred by the people we met and the stories we heard in Sri Lanka run deep. People weary and still recovering from a civil war that battered their spirit and divided them by ethnicity.

Months later, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the narrative they collectively tried to shape about their country in 2010, but one word does stick out: hope. Hope for better days, hope for unity, hope for peace. Sri Lankans are a people to watch in the coming years, and a people to root for.

That was our last full day in Sri Lanka. Other adventures in far-off destinations beckoned, but I found it difficult getting off that 10:55 express to Colombo and leaving this place behind… at least for awhile.

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.