Sri Lankan Soul Sisters : The Train From Ella to Kandy

I have a sister in Sri Lanka. I haven’t known her long, my family and she have never met, but we are sisters nonetheless.

The day we met, I awoke before the sun. Quietly packing my bag, I slipped out of the small  dorm room where I’d stayed just one night. I took in some of the first breaths of Ella’s fresh mountain air. Ella, Sri Lanka, a small mountain town on the Eastern side of the country, is said to be the starting point to one of the most scenic train rides in the world.

I waited in line, hoping to be the recipient of one of the remaining will-call tickets, as online purchases were nonexistent and I’d been told the night before all reserved tickets were sold out. The ticket office was set to open in forty-five minutes, but already there was a queue ten-deep. Each of us came prepared with our bags, ready to hear the only answer we’d accept, “Here’s your ticket!”

Everyone in front of me heard those sweet words spoken and walked into the station ready   to board the 6:40am train. Still, as I approached the counter and set my rupees down, I was anxious to know whether there would be one more spot left. Indeed, there was. Ticket in hand, I re-joined the queuers who’d now dispersed along the length of the platform.

The day’s first train came and left, and we were soon joined by a lively crowd, eager to begin our journey toward Kandy. When the second train came, we were notified of its destination, and scrambled toward any door we could find. I walked through a few cars before all the doors shut and I found myself in a nearly empty coach.

I didn’t belong there, and I knew it.

Click on an image to view photos from the Ella Kandy train ride up close:

The rest of the visitors, the foreigners, the backpackers, were less than a foot away, but I couldn’t get there. Not without jumping outside and swinging one car back.

The doors between our cars were stuck shut. I stood nearby, waiting patiently for a ticket taker to come a long and show me the trick, the “open sesame” to Sri Lanka’s trains. On the other side of a rectangular door made from plexiglass and three hinged metal slabs, a queue of eager passengers fought for space. They flung heavy bags above their heads and nudged unknown friends away from coveted window seats.

I looked at the two girls facing me. Exchanging glances and agreeing upon defeat, we turned away from one another. I sat down in a car of only two others. They stood while assessing the mayhem which had built up in their own enclosure during a minute’s time.

I glanced at my ticket. I was in 3rd class with no assigned seat, but was supposed to be in 3rd class with no assigned seat amongst the rest of the foreigners. How did they all know how to interpret this final bit of information while I was left in darkness?

Having no other choice, I set my bag in the empty overhead tray and found a seat on the left side of our moving vessel. Across the aisle from me, two men in their forties enjoyed quiet conversation and steaming cups of tea passed on from a vendor shouting phrases I’d never understand. This was it! I’d made it all the way to Ella. All the way from Colombo to Galle to Yala to Ella. And now, I was beginning my final day in Sri Lanka aboard the train ride I’d anticipated for several weeks.

From Ella to Colombo, I was ready for this butt-numbing ride, and after figuring out how to bust through a jammed door to my assigned ‘foreigner’ space, I was prepared to wear out the battery in camera over the next eight hours. Well, I never figured it out and instead ended up as a sweaty, smiling mess amongst locals who wondered what this foreign woman was doing in their space. Surely over time I could have changed to a new cabin, but in doing so I would have had to give up the new friends I’d made. As it was, during our second stop, I was befriended by a mother-daughter duo.

Click on an image to view photos from the Ella Kandy train ride up close:

Initially, they’d sat in the bench seat facing me. The daughter’s marble-shaped eyes and buck-toothed smile were shining brightly. It was easy to catch and meet her enthusiasm for this journey and the instant I returned her smile, we three became friends.  After a few minutes, the woman pointed at the seats across the aisle from us. Occupied by the two elder gentleman who’d since finished their tea, she told me without restraint that we’d picked the boring side of the train. She was intentionally a bit loud in her following comments and soon the men turned to us, stood up, and through their movements requested we switch spots.

I gave a shy laugh, but she brushed it away and sat down in her preferred spot. Beckoning me to follow, I quickly bowed my head to the men and slid over to the train’s right side. I couldn’t imagine we’d have a better view, but knew to trust a local’s opinion more than my own.

As views of mountain valleys and tea gardens extended for miles around us, the mother told me a diary of secrets. Her English was not perfect, but it was exceptional. Her daughter was a seven year old who’d taken the day off from school to travel with Mom to Grandmother’s house for the weekend. She was shy but got up courage every occasional moment to smile once more and whisper a few words in my direction. When the sway of the train caused the young girl to drift off to sleep, I learned of the mother’s marriage situation. It was one which saddened her deeply, and it was clear she was anxious to see her own mother and sister. “I wish I could stay there forever,” she spoke, no longer looking in my direction.

She wasn’t complaining. She was simply talking. Sometimes with tears in her eyes, other times with a smile on her face. Her and I both knew it was a conversation she’d kept to herself for far too long.

As we continued toward Kandy, the train’s aisles became full and seats turned from single- to triple-seaters. Next to me, a man in his sixties unwrapped a freshly made sweets. He was on his way to visit a son at Kandy University, and had made it the day before. He proudly handed me a large piece, broken from a corner and wrapped in newspaper. “For you.”
But none for my friends, apparently.

I smiled, thanking him for this courtesy and nodding to the two across from us, who’d pretended not to notice our exchange. “May I share?” I asked. He did not fully understand my question, but smiled as I broke the sweet further into four smaller pieces and handed one to each of them. Soon after, a man walked by selling tea from a portable kettle and I asked for four as well. The sweet mixture of condensed milk and black tea would go perfectly with our Kiri Aluwa, Sri Lanka’s classic milk toffee.

As we neared Kandy, she looked at me. Tears had collected in her eyes, and the minute I took notice, she let them fall.

“You are my sister. My American Sister.”

“And you are my Sri Lankan Sister.”
Note : I tend to make things extra sappy. But in this case, we really did say this. I wrote it down immediately afterward. 😉

Click on an image to view photos from the Ella Kandy train ride up close:

I did not do anything special that day, but whatever secrets of pain and happiness which had built up inside of her needed releasing. And I was that confused foreign lady who would allow just that to happen. We left the train and exchanged small tokens as reminders. For me, a heart shaped key chain from the younger. For them, my flower scarf which they’d been using as a blanket of protection from the wind.

As we got off the train in Kandy, we said goodbye several times, finally letting go when the  connecting train to see her true family arrived.

My Sri Lankan Sister - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps -
My Sri Lankan Sister – by Anika Mikkelson – Miss Maps –

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