I’ve spent the best part of a month travelling in Sri Lanka, this Island the size of Ireland, home to twenty million or so, for most of that time I’ve been in the country, or the hills, or the coast, seeing nature & the wild side of the Island and I have loved the beauty that I’ve found here. As my time draws to a close I decide to see the Capital, Colombo. Home to three million people, a bustling traffic jam of a place, it has to be done.
I take a train the forty or so kilometres from the little seaside village I am staying in. The owner of the guest house offers to ferry me to the local train station Kattuwa. Now he is a big fella, for a Sri Lankan, six foot three, with a rather magnificent belly, and I am not the smallest of people, the two of us set off for the station on his ageing Honda scooter which has seen better days, we wobble down the track, the three of us, looking I am quite certain quite ridiculous. I think of elephants on a a bicycle, the Honda like an old asthmatic man coughs and splutters all the way to the station, but it gets there. I walk through the entrance and am struck by the place, the sea of green either side of the tracks, the tracks disappearing into the distance, the station itself is tiny, it makes me think of an English rural train station an age ago.
I wait on the platform, there are just a few people and a dog, it’s 10.30 am & the morning rush has been and gone, now its a more leisurely kind of time, the dog snoozes in the middle of the platform, a couple of old ladies sit in the waiting room, the station master sits behind a big wooden desk, looking important.
On time I hear the sound of the approaching train, it pulls into the station & I climb aboard. There are plenty of empty seats, I park my ass & survey the carriage, peppered with people, the carriage doors don’t open or close, they are rusted open, but the breeze that comes through is really very welcome. Unsurprisingly on this little branch line there are no foreigners, my carriage has thirty or so people in it when I get on, all are Sri Lankan, I am the stranger here, the alien, but i feel at ease, nobody stares too much, they are just getting on with their lives,
I look at the faces in the carriage, they reflect the Island, a mix of Buddhist,Hindu, Muslim, Christian, I watch the countryside slipping by slowly, the train seems to crawl along, I see countless little homes alongside the tracks, little gardens, palm trees, old ladies & men sitting in wicker chairs on verandahs, shaded from the sun. Every once in a while we come to a road crossing, queues of Tuc Tucs & scooters & bicycles held back by barriers, all through I am struck by the green, vibrant rich green of the country, by palm trees and thick vegetation, brightly coloured homes, every few minutes we stop at a little station, passengers climb off & on and we lurch forward. Beggars walk though the carriage every few minutes, one after another, each seems to be blind, after the third I decide I am not giving any more rupees, after the fifth I become oblivious, its a bit of an overload.
As we clock up more miles the train gradually becomes busier, all the seats are taken & people begin to stand. I am snuggly in my seat, until a group of women get on, one is an old lady, her back bent, I cant let her stand, give up my seat, at least I did something useful today. The carriage is now packed, I feel a shove behind me look round and nobody is there, then I look down, it’s a blind dwarf beggar, a dwarf and blind? That seems like a double karma blow, but my wallet remains closed. Next a woman with the largest neck goitre I have ever seen is begging, this new form of disability solicits a whole bunch of rupees from the passengers, the journey is now an hour and a half in, to pass the time I start pulling faces at the kids sitting opposite, each time they try to get the attention of their mother I stop, pretend to read my book and look innocent, the game continues until we reach the outskirts of Columbo. and a sewage works, all of the people cover their noses, the stench is something else. The heat now is intense, I am sweating like a pig, I wonder how everyone else can cope with the heat, then I see that my fellow passengers are also suffering,ladies fanning themselves, men with patches of sweat on pressed linen shirts, in a way this makes me feel better, it’s not just me. After almost two hours we draw into the City station. It’s a hive of activity, people everywhere, I walk through the crowds and on to the streets of Colombo and spend the next six hours exploring the City.
By late afternoon I am knackered, I grab some lunch at a station cafe before my train home, I am the only person with a fork for my curry, everyone else manages with their fingers, I feel like an alien now, the foreigner that doesn’t know how to eat. As my train is ready to depart I make sure I get a seat, two hours standing isn’t on the cards, I settle in to the journey and look at my fellow passengers, workers, housewives, kids coming back from school. There’s a kind of camaraderie on the train, people that travel the route regularly greet each other as old friends, a group of men is playing cards, hawkers move up and down the carriages selling food & drinks, books and bags, all sorts of stuff.
As we reverse my route of the morning the train gradually empties as the sun begins it’s descent to the western horizon. Then there is a commotion a little further down the carriage, a small group of people are standing over an elderly couple the lady is talking quickly and there is a worried tone to her voice, though I cant understand a word clearly there is something wrong. the man next to her has his head on her shoulder, she is holding him and stroking his head. As I catch sight of the two faces I think what a handsome couple they are, they must have been quite a pair of lookers in their youth. Then I see her eyes, she looks directly at me. She looks to be in her seventies, her eyes are a beautiful shade of grey, but the look in them is one of fear, the chap next to me explains that the womans husband is having a heart attack. The heart attack man is strangely calm, there is something almost weary in his manner, like this has happened before, and he’s just tired of it. They stay that way, he resting his head on her shoulder, she stroking him. The look in her eyes is one I will not forget. I think these two people have been together for a very long time, her eyes say that she loves this old man, that he is the most important person in the world to her.
I try not to stare but I find myself glued to the woman & the man, wondering at the life they have shared together, of the children they have raised into the world, the life they have lived together, of the love in her eyes as she looks at her man and caresses him.
The man takes his wifes hand and holds it between his own, I can see him squeezing gently. It feels as if he is saying it’s all right, don’t worry, reassuring her as best he can.
At the next station he is helped to his feet and manages to walk to the train exit with his wife supporting him under one shoulder and a man supporting the other. They walk slowly down the platform as the train pulls away, continuing their journey together to its end.
Half an hour later the train arrives back at my station, as I walk along the platform the light is fading fast, I hear rain falling in large blobs on the corrugated roof of the platform, the air cools, I climb into a tuc tuc and head back to my guesthouse. As I think about what I’ve seen today something finally makes sense, that phrase used to irritate the hell out of me, ” It’s not the destination that matters but the journey” now it finally makes sense to me.
It is all about the journey, not the destination, and the journey when you travel it with love is the most beautiful of all.