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Holding the Fort

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Colombo and Avissawella, Sri Lanka
Thursday, 31 January 2019

I awoke at midday after a surprisingly short nine hours' sleep and almost instantly got dressed and started exploring. First, I needed to attend to the practical matter of obtaining a local SIM card and getting something to eat. There is a shopping centre a short distance from my hotel, Liberty Plaza. Dialog, one of the three main mobile phone operators in Sri Lanka, has a store there. I obtained a local prepaid SIM card with hopefully enough data for all the train photos and videos I intend to take and upload.

I then went downstairs to the shopping centre's subterranean food court. I bought my first meal in Sri Lanka, the national dish, "rice and curry". Rice and curry consists of an enormous mound of rice surrounded by small dollops of different curries and a small piece of the meat or egg of your choice. What a spendid symphony of tastes and textures! One curry will be spicy, another will be salty, another will be sweet, another will be tangy, and if your taste buds need a short break from all the powerful flavours you can simply take a spoonful of the milder rice. No conductor could ever get such a perfect balance between all the sections of the most talented orchestra.

Most people when they arrive in a new country will hit the beaches, go to a museum, drink enormous amounts of alcohol at some sports bar full of other tourists. But I am not "most people". I am an incorrigible train buff and I don't care if people think I am weird. My guest house is only about a hundred metres from Kollupitiya station on the Coast Line that leads south from Colombo to Galle and Matara.

First, to get to the station I had to cross the busy Galle Road, a roaring four-lane artery where it seems the traffic never ceases, not even for red lights. I tarried a while and watched how the locals cross the road. This is how you do it. You wait at the side of the road next to someone else who is also waiting. Soon enough there will be a critical mass - typically four or five people - who will then be in such noticeable numbers that nobody will dare hit you. Then, and only then, do you cross in one determined tight-knit group. The courts might forgive some psychotic maniac bus driver if he kills one person, but five? That might actually make the front pages of the morning papers.

I soon arrived at Kollupitiya station, suburban station three stops south of Fort station, the country's main rail hub. I set up shop with my iPhone in video mode along a wall outside the station to record video footage of the passing trains. Soon enoigh a friendly guy named Fernando struck up conversation with me. He kept trying to convince me to go to some temple nearby and would often not be dissuaded from talking about the manifold wonders to be found therein.

When he wasn't banging on about this temple, Fernando was a good bloke to talk to. Fernando is a chef at the nearby Mövenpick Hotel and had some time off work to come and talk to random people on the street like me. He asked me what I was doing at the station and I said I was a railfan and that I wanted to take videos of the trains. I told him about my plans to travel to Avissawella that afternoon on the Kelani Valley Line.

"No, you can't get to Avissawella from here," he said.

"Yes I can, I just have to change trains at Fort."

"No, you can't get to Fort from Kollupitiya. They don't sell tickets here, only monthly passes."

"So how are people supposed to get to Fort from here, then?"

"Everyone here has monthly passes!"

"So all those people waiting on the platform there" - I pointed to them - "they all have monthly passes?"

"Yes, they all have monthly passes."

"OK, then I will just board without a ticket."

"No! You can't do that!"

"So how am I supposed to get to Fort then?"

"You can't get to Fort from here!"

The conversation was going nowhere so I said my farewell and went into the station. I went to the ticket counter and asked for a one-way ticket to Avissawella.

"No! No train to Avissawella from here. You can only buy a ticket to Fort, then you buy another ticket to Avissawella at Fort." The ticket seller sold me a third-class one-way ticket to Fort for Rs. 10 (eight Australian cents), certainly not a monthly pass, so Fernando was just full of crap. They still use Edmondson tickets here, thick little pre-printed cardboard stubs where the ticket seller pulls a lever and the date is embossed onto the ticket. They used Edmondson tickets on the New South Wales state railways until about 1990 when they were replaced with magnetic-stripe tickets made of much thinner cardboard.

It does seem, however, that in Sri Lanka you can only buy tickets for direct journeys. Train journeys that require a change of trains mean you have to buy separate tickets for each leg at each station where you board a train.

Soon enough a red Class S11 diesel multiple unit arrived. I boarded the train, took my seat, and was instantly overcome with nostalgia as I was transported back to the days when I rode to school on Red Rattlers in Sydney in the early 1990s. Sliding louvred shutters on the windows, schoolboys in white uniforms hanging out the doors of the moving train - just like in my youth!

After about ten minutes I arrived at the Colombo Fort station, a busy facility with trains and people constantly moving back and forth. Though there are footbridges, there is also a pedestrian level crossing at one end of the platforms where moving trains would blast their horns to warn the crossing pedestrians of their impending doom.

I went to the booking hall at the front of the station. There were a number of counters, one for each group of destinations. I couldn't see Avissawella on any of them so I went to the All Other Stations counter.

"No, not here! Go to Counter 10! That way, on the corner!"

So I had to go outside the station and walk down to the far end of the station building. There was a long queue at Counter 10 but the counter was closed. After an eternity the window finally opened and soon I bought my little date-stamped cardboard ticket to Avissawella for Rs. 80.

The train to Avissawella was waiting for me on platform 10. All the seats were already taken but there was plenty of room to stand. The Class S8 push-pull diesel multiple unit looked much older than the class's 1991 introduction. Many of the external panels were rusted to buggery. The interior was blackened with soot and mould. The diesel engines poured forth acrid black smoke.

I travelled in the rear car. The lead car and end car were half-locomotive, half-passenger accommodation. There is no through way between the carriages; the ends of the carriages are solid walls without doors or windows, greatly restricting air flow. Passenger comfort on the S8 units is basic; just a row of hard plastic orange seats along each side of the carriage.

The train I caught travelled on the Kelani Valley Line, a 61 kilometre railway that travels through Colombo's southeastern suburbs then climbs off the coastal plain into the hilly terrain and terminates at the hill town of Avissawella. The line is for commuter traffic only and sees only several trains a day; westbound in the mornings and eastbound in the evenings. I caught the first outbound train of the afternoon at 16:10.

The train left Colombo Fort on time at 16:10 reasonably lightly loaded, my car had about five standing passangers. Then more got on at Maradana. Then more at Baseline Road. Then even more at the next station.

When the train arrived at Narahenpita there was a huge crowd waiting at the station, mostly young male technical college students. The train became unbearably crowded. Trains in Sydney usually leave the city crowded and get less crowded as the train travels through the suburbs. The reverse was true with this train. Even at Homagama people were still getting on. There was a period when I couldn't even reach a handrail but it didn't matter. The heaving, sticky, smelly sweaty mass of people hemming me in on every side of the body was more than enough to keep me upright on the train that jolted and swayed over every single poorly-connected joint in the track.

Eventually the train emerged from the sprawling suburbs and started climbing into the hills as it passed forlorn little commuter towns and dusty level crossings where feral dogs copulated on the road. The houses were mostly weathered little stucco cottages with terracotta tiles and backyards full of banana trees and palms with coconuts the size of watermelons. Soon there were misty hills clad in thick jungle greenery with little farms in the valleys with cow paddocks and rice paddies.

I finally got a seat somewhere around Padukka and the train slowly emptied as it pulled up to half-forgotten little stations with no platforms, just a name board and a little station master's hut. The sun set and the train pulled into the terminus at Avissawella a few minutes after its scheduled arrival time of 18:30.

It was a walk of about one kilometre along the A4 highway to Avissawella's bus station. As the Kelani Valley Line operates inbound in the mornings and outbound in the evenings, I had a catch a bus back to Colombo. I am so grateful to whatever deity may exist that I survived the walk from the railway station to the bus station. The A4 was a narrow, congested, busy road with no street lighting and no footpaths. The pedestrian had no choice but to walk on the road with all the buses and trucks and cars and tuk-tuks.

I soon reached the centre of Avissawella, a gritty, featureless town with shopkeeper's merchandise spilling out directly onto the narrow highway, and made my way to the bus station. I tried asking a few people which buses went back to Colombo and only got inaccurate, conflicting information. Does anybody in this country know how to give a straight, honest answer?

After ambling around the dismal, soul-crushing bus station - is there a bus station anywhere in the world that is anything but? - I found a bus parked at a stop signed "122 COLOMBO". I asked an adjacent shopkeeper and he said the bus was parked there for the night and wouldn't leave until tomorrow morning. He pointed me to another bus a few stands away and said that would go to Colombo.

I boarded the other bus and asked the passengers, they said the bus was going to Maharagama in Colombo's outer southeastern suburbs. That was close enough for me. I boarded this bus and as it departed, a man got on board and started playing a tambourine and singing some Sinhala song. After he finished he travelled down the bus as passengers threw coins and small banknotes into the tambourine. I guess he was a busker.

Then someone else got on board as the bus pulled out of the station. He was reciting Sinhala poetry, or perhaps it was a prayer, or simply some stump speech or beggar's sob story. I asked the passenger sitting next to me but he was so softly spoken (as many Sri Lankans are) that I couldn't hear his explanation over the throbbing engine and rattling windows. After he had stopped his incantations, he walked down the bus and the passengers showered him with Rs. 100 and Rs. 500 notes. Your guess is as good as mine.

The bus squealed, shuddered, roared, swerved and thundered its way down the hills and bends of the A4. I now know why Sri Lankans take religion so seriously. You'd be religious too if you had to deal with Sri Lankan driving standards. I may have said a little prayer myself and expressed regret that I hadn't drafted a will before I left Australia.

After about ninety minutes of repeatedly coming close to rectal incontinence, I arrived at Maharagama where I promptly boarded the connecting 138. This bus was operated by a private company. On board there were dazzling laser disco lights darting around the interior and loud Sinhalese dance music pulsating from subwoofers above the passenger seats. A pity that nobody was dancing!

I wanted to go to the nearest stop to my hotel, Colombo Public Library. I tried to explain to the conductor where I wanted to go. He didn't understand me so I got out my iPhone and showed him where it was on Google Maps. He just stared at the screen with blank incomprehension. It was then that I realised that he did not know how to read a map. Coming from Australia where every schollchild is taught map reading skills, it is an every day task we take for granted back home, even if some people have to spin a map around so the top of the map is the way the map user is facing. But I guess if an education system doesn't teach this skill, or if you never went to school in the first place, that it is something you wouldn't know how to do.

The passenger sitting next to me helped me translate my destination. The fare was Rs. 40. The smallest note I had was Rs. 1,000. The only other cash I had was a Rs. 20 note and a Rs. 1 coin. The conductor snatched the Rs 1,000 note grumpily and didn't give me change. My fellow seat-mate told me this was usual, the conductor would give me my chsnge when more passengers paid their fares. After about half an hour I got my Rs. 960 change. I don't blame the conductor for his surliness. I guess it would be the equivalent of paying for a $4 Australian bus fare with a $100 note. I guess this underlies the importance of maintaining a healthy stock of small change to pay for bus rides, a habit I have lost now that Sydneysiders use Opal cards to pay for fares.

It was a leisurely walk back to Kollupitiya from the Public Library. I had a late night meal at Britannia Fried Chicken, chicken kottu, a dish consisting of fried strips of roti flatbread hashed with chicken, vegetables, scrambled eggs and a truckload of chilli. Please pray for my digestive system.

Posted by urbanreverie 06:28 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trains buses sri_lanka colombo railways avissawella kelani_valley fort_station

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