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Galle bladder

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Galle, Sri Lanka
Sunday, 3 February 2019

Four days after I arrived in Sri Lanka culture shock, or something like it, has finally set in. It's not like the sudden traumatic shock that I had soon after arriving in South Korea or Brussels, but a more gradual build-up of a thousand little frustrations, chief among which would have to be the hordes of touts, con artists and tuk-tuk drivers all contriving to part me with my hard-earned money.

To take an extreme example from last night. I was leaving Galle Face Green after sunset intending to return to my hotel via a one-station train ride from Kompannavidiya station. At the busy intersection opposite the Galle Face Hotel a friendly man about my age approached me. He showed me what he claimed to be an official employee ID card from the Galle Face Hotel. We made innocent small talk until he told me about this temple festival that I just had to see! It was the biggest Buddhist festival of the year! Hundreds of thousands of people will be in attendance!

"Oh wow, I didn't know about this festival thingie, where is it?" I asked.

He gave the name of some temple I hadn't heard of.

"I might be able to walk there, so show me where it is," I said as I opened Google Maps on my iPhone.

"No! You can't walk there! You must take a tuk-tuk!" And what do you know, a tuk-tuk driven by somebody who by pure chance happened to be this man's best friend appeared out of nowhere.

"But I don't want a tuk-tuk! I would rather walk or take a bus. So please tell me where it is."

"It's in Colombo 7," the so-called hotel employee said as the tuk-tuk driver revved his engine to tell me to get a move on.

"Cinnamon Gardens? That's not far, so please point to me on this map where it is."

"It's there!" he exclaimed as he pointed to a location in Slave Island in Colombo 2.

"Hang on, you said it was Colombo 7, but you're pointing at Colombo 2. So where is it? Please zoom in to where this festival is."

He zoomed into some random location in a whole other postal district where there was certainly no temple, not one visible on Google Maps in any case.

"Listen, I had other plans, I'll go to this festival some other time."

"No! You cannot miss this festival. There is a giant Buddha with a giant necklace made of blue sapphires. This festival is only one night of the year and it goes for one hour, starts at 6:35, it is now 6:30. Do you know what sapphires are?"

I made some sarcastic remark about how Australia has a functional education system and that I was therefore familiar with the major gemstones of the world.

"So you cannot miss this festival. It is the biggest Buddhist festival of the year. You cannot miss it! The festival costs forty-eight million dollars!"

My bullshit detector, already going haywire, melted down after short-circuiting. Even the Sydney New Year's Eve fireworks on the harbour costs less than six million Australian dollars.

"I'm sorry, I had better go now, I will miss my train."

"No. You must not go. You cannot walk away. You must go to this festival!" that scumbag shouted at me as he and the tuk-tuk stalked me from close behind. I quickened my pace and ended up in a district of expensive business hotels with dozens of soldiers standing guard outside protecting the VIPs therein. The sight of so many soldiers and policemen with high-powered rifles standing in stern martial poses must have scared them off because they stopped following me.

Not all the dozens of touts and hawkers and scam artists who approach me every single day are quite so noxious, but it's bad enough and extraordinarily tiresome when it happens so often every day. Needless to say I missed that train and took some other tuk-tuk back to where I was staying in Kollupitiya.

These ratbags are turning me into a terrible person. A cynical, distrustful, anxious, unfriendly person. The day before I was trying to navigate through Lipton Circus on foot, a dizzying complex of two roundabouts and roads radiating in every direction. I was looking at the map in my Lonely Planet trying to make sense of this nonsensical junction. A random stranger came up to me and offered to help.

"No, thank you," I said sharply.

"I'm terribly sorry, sir. You looked lost so I was just trying to help. Please have a nice day."

I instantly felt gut-wrenching remorse. But truth be told, it's hard to tell in this country who is honest and genuine and who just wants to stick a vaccuum cleaner in my wallet.

I got back to my hotel, was pleased that my shitbox Samsung Galaxy tablet was now fully charged - saints be praised! - finished a few more blog entries, and had a satisfying sleep before the alarm woke me promptly at seven in the morning. In my ordinary life I am a terrible insomniac and it takes me an hour to drag myself out of bed after the alarm goes off at half past seven. Why can't I be such a morning person all the time?

I packed my bags and checked out of the City Holiday Bungalow, a hotel I can certainly recommend. It's close to buses and trains and food, had wi-fi, air conditioning, was clean and secure and the management was reasonably diligent, and my room only cost about fifty Australian dollars a night. What more could you ask for?

I caught the inbound 8:30 commuter train from Kollupitiya to Colombo Fort, grabbed some roti, dhal curry, coffee and an apple for breakfast from a café on the station forecourt, stocked up on water for the train trip ahead, and went to buy my ticket to Galle. I looked at the big sign telling me which counter to go to to buy a ticket for the line to Galle and Matara. I went to the Slave Island to Matara counter at Counter 13 and waited, and when I was finally served I was told that this counter only sells third-class tickets, and if I wanted second-class tickets I would have to go to the All Railway Stations counter at Counter 4. Sigh.

I had a wait of about an hour for my train. Platform 5 was a mixture of locals and a large number of foreign tourists with enormous suitcases and bulging backpacks on their way to southern Sri Lanka's famous coastal resort towns. A lady smiled at me and we struck up a conversation. Her name was Natalie and she was from the Greater New York City area, an intelligent and engaging young woman who owns a gourmet cheese wholesale business back home and spends several months a year travelling the world. We talked about our travel plans, where we had been before, our observations about Sri Lanka, shared hints and tips. One of the things I love most about travelling is about meeting all the kindred spirits along the way, my fellow oddballs for whom the curiosity to see as much of this world as we can before we die burns just as brightly in their chest as it does in mine.

The train arrived, a lengthy rake of ancient-looking red carriages with tiny rectangular windows hauled by a sooty M4 class diesel locomotive that looked like it would be eligible for the age pension by now. Both Natalie and I had bought second-class tickets, all the carriages along the part of the platform where we were waiting were third-class so we ran with our backpacks down the platform towards the front of the train where we had seen second-class carriages passing us as the train arrived. As we got to the second-class carriages, every door was a jumble of suitcases and backpacks and people. The doors and vestibules and aisles were so narrow nobody could get on board. Natalie was in front of me on the top step and I was right behind on the step below with my backpack and body hanging out of the train. There was no way in which I could move forward. I have ridden on enough Sri Lankan trains by now that I know that trains start moving with little warning. I had a disturbing premonition of my early death caused by my backpack striking a signal post as the train passed it at speed.

Thankfully, a short time before the train moved off, enough space opened up in the vestibule for me to lunge forward. Natalie and I squirmed our way into the saloon. Every seat was taken, as was nearly every standing spot. We managed to carve out enough space for us to stand in the crowded, airless cabin. Electric fans ineffectually swivelled on the ceiling above us. The train was so crowded that very little airflow came in through the open doors and windows. It was made so much worse by the fact that every couple of minutes, hawkers made their way up and down the carriage. Every time one of these hollering salesmen passed with buckets of soft drinks or fruit or peanuts balanced on their heads, everyone had to bend over the seats to make way for them.

Natalie and I continued talking as we made our way down the coast, the Indian Ocean lapping at the rocky seawall to our west, scattered suburbs and villages and farms to our east. Occasionally the train would slow to a crawl as it passed along a truss bridge over wide, smelly estuaries. At other times the train would get up to 95 kilometres an hour. That's faster than some Australian trains. The track quality was mostly very good. I suspect that the Coast Line was comprehensively rebuilt after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. A crowded train along this very track was washed away by the tidal wave. At least 1,700 people died on that train, the deadliest railway accident in history.

Natalie's destination was Hikkaduwa, well before my destination of Galle. We said our goodbyes, promised to keep in touch, hoped that our paths would cross again.

I eventually got a seat as more people got off as the train increased its distance from Colombo. Some two and a half hours after leaving Fort, the train arrived at Galle. Galle station is on a terminus stub, trains continuing on to Matara have to reverse direction, so I took pleny of video footage of the shunting procedures.

It was a short walk through yet another swarm of tuk-tuk touts who wouldn't take no for an answer before I arrived at the Main Gate of the Galle Fort. The fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (my first in Sri Lanka), was built by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. It is located on a small rocky peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus.

I walked through the Main Gate and found myself in the most charming little place. Imagine your typical small Dutch town with straight, narrow, cobblestone streets. Throw in a few buildings with curved Dutch gables and long floor-to-ceiling windows just to increase that amount of Dutchiness. Now transpose all of this to a tropical location with whitewashed walls, terracotta roof tiles, verandahs, luxurious green vegetation with gardens full of orchids and vines and epiphytes, the aroma of tropical fruits. Tropical Holland - that's Galle.

Another thing that is typically Dutch is that in this historic town centre, entry to motor vehicles is heavily restricted. Except for tuk-tuks and privately owned motor scooters and a very small number of cars, the streets belong to pedestrians. After the madness of Colombo which would have to be one of the most hostile places for a pedestrian to walk I have ever seen, this place is just paradise.

I checked into the Old Dutch House guesthouse on Lighthouse Street. My room was already prepared with the key in the door. The friendly owner showed me around and gave me a complimentary bottle of Coke Zero. The Old Dutch House has a large courtyard that reminds me of many of the backyards of houses I lived in in Brisbane - a verdant riot of orchids and aloes and pawpaws and palms and hanging pot-plants. Lizards dart to and fro through the foliage as hundreds of invisible birds sing their quiet songs.

Four days in Colombo and the train journey had left me a nervous wreck. I sat out in the courtyard for a few hours, just listening to the birds tweeting in the cool garden. This place is a refreshing balm and I feel better already.

After two hours I felt I had recovered enough to start exploring the Galle Fort. But I could hear thunder in the distance. I went to open my phone's Australian weather app to check the radar until I realised it wouldn't work here. I tried searching for a Sri Lankan weather radar online to no avail. I could only find Japanese satellite imagery which only shows upper-level mass cloud movements across continents which give little indication of ground conditions in a particular location.

There is so much we take for granted in the West. Public transport maps and timetables available online in PDF format. Universal map literacy due to geography classes in every primary school. Safe, clean tap water that is as pure as anything from a bottle. Weather radars that allow the common citizen to see an approaching thunderstorm and gauge its severity, what time it will arrive and how long it will last, so they can plan their day accordingly. How did we Westerners ever survive without these things? It wasn't so long ago. I don't think I ever saw an online weather radar until about 1999.

Sri Lanka is a country that is going places. I have never seen so many cranes and construction sites as I did in Colombo. But there is still such a long way to go. I have no doubt that Sri Lanka will get there eventually and will take its rightful place in the world's list of developed countries. But not just yet.

I patiently waited for the heavens to break. And boy, did they break. A torrent of water fell from the grey heavens. Without a weather radar I had no idea when it would stop. The storm eventually stopped about half an hour before sunset, too late for me to go for a walk on the Fort's ramparts. Exploring Galle would just have to wait.


Posted by urbanreverie 21:37 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trains fort sri_lanka colombo railways galle

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