Friday, April 16, 2010

A brief encounter on a crowded Sri Lankan train

April 13th - Matara, Sri Lanka.

Tuesday, April 13 and Wednesday, April 14 are Sinhalese New Year. This is a time when many Colombo dwellers leave the city and return to home for family celebrations. When I set aside April 9-16 for a brief Sri Lankan stay, New Year’s holiday celebrations did not enter into my calculations. My plans included a trip to Matara, located on the Southernmost tip of the island to visit a new friend with whom I had connected, through common interests in Buddhism, on my last trip. (More about my Matara visit in another blog).

I had been warned that trains would be crowded with holiday travelers. Those giving the warnings were not exaggerating. Though Sri Lanka is touting itself, once again, as a tourist destination, the word has not yet filtered down to station managers and staff of Sri Lanka’s National Railways. Rail travel has become a Singala only experience. Such such snippets of as English as remain, on an occasional sign, are clearly colonial era vestiges. Once, intercity trains had postings on the side of cars, as European trains do, listing the station of origin and final destination. No longer. One needs to be persistent about asking questions of officials and cross check the answers for consistency. Example: Q. “Is this the train to Matara?” A. “No, the train will be at least an hour late.” Q. “Will it be on this track?” A. “I don’t know, maybe track 5, maybe track 6.” Q. “How will I know?” A. “You have to listen for the announcements.” Q. “What if you don’t understand Sinhala?” A. Shrug of shoulders.

In the end, there was no problem locating the train. There had been few waiting by track 6 at 10 AM, the scheduled departure time, but by 11 AM a large crowd had gathered. When the train pulled in passengers were already hanging off the sides of the Third Class carriages. Second Class carriages were nearly as full. There is supposed to be limit on the number of Second Class tickets issued so that passengers have a reasonable expectation of a seat but tickets appeared to have been sold without limit and there were no conductors on board. It was survival of the fittest, though with most passengers accepting their lot with reasonable humor. I staked out a claim a Second class car vestibule where I would have a wall to lean against and where there would be reasonable circulation of air. As other passengers boarded or disembarked and itinerant snack sellers crowded by with their wares, I smiled benignly, but held my ground immovably.

Opposite me in the narrow compartment, having also staked out a claim to a bit of wall, was a young Dutch woman of about 30, one of the most attractive, in a wholesome Dutch way, that I have ever met. As the train lurched forward, we struck up a conversation. She was a business school graduate and a become a successful business executive for an international corporation. But the “grind” of corporate life did not agree with her and she had chosen to take three months off to back pack through Asia, a part of the world she loved, while considering the next phase of her life.

After a number of weeks in India, which included a month studying yoga, she told me, crowded trains no longer bothered her. It was her first trip to Sri Lanka so I shared my impressions of the country and commented on her planned itinerary to visit beaches and cultural highlights. In addition to India, she had already visited Cambodia and Viet Nam and through her work, many other parts of the world. This exchange began a wide ranging conversation about international travel, politics, international development, international business. spirituality and future career options she was considering that continued, almost uninterrupted, for the more than two and a half hours that we stood facing one another in the crowded, hot, noisy vestibule. As our conversation ebbed and flowed, it was easy to forget about the uncomfortable circumstances. The time passed quickly.

Her stop was Hikkaduwa, a surfing and resort area. She had no reservation but told me that was not a problem. She preferred to negotiate a place to stay on the spur of the moment and was confident she would find one. As she hefted a heavy back pack to disembark, I realized we had not thought to exchange our names. I gave her my card told her to send me an email if I could be of help with her future plans. If this were a novel, our paths might well cross again, but this is life. It is improbable.

The Lord Buddha reminds us that life is impermanent. All the more reason to treasure special moments, events, relationships and brief encounters, without clinging to them.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home