Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sri Lankan Holiday 4

Final Days in Kandy
28th December- Kandy:

Joy and I decided to take the day quietly so walked down from the hostel, past the President’s residence, the Municipal Chambers and local school, into town. We ambled our way around the lake admiring the bird life and, as we got nearer the Shrine of the Sacred Tooth, dodging beggars and touts advertising the Kandyan dance troupe until we came back into the bustling noise of town and air heavy with exhaust smoke and damp.

Joy managed to find a piece of local batik that suited her taste at a stall along the Queen’s Hotel arcade as a souvnier of Sri Lanka before we headed back to Forest Glen to prepare for our train trip back to Colombo in the morning.

29-30 December: Kandy to Colombo and on to Muscat:

Today was the time to try the Sri Lankan rail system so we headed down to the rail station and booked our 2nd class tickets to Colombo Fort.

The ticket office gave off an air of a tired Nineteenth century English station with the cardboard tickets plucked from little station labelled pigeon holes and punched with the date on a hand operated punch mounted on the issue desk but despite this all passengers were issued tickets quickly and allowed to hustle along the platform to find their seats on the battered carriages that made up the 2nd & 3rd class Kandy to Colombo train. The sign stencilled on the wall of the rail carriage confirmed the impression that the 19th century had been preserved.

The mid morning trip was reputed to be not so popular as the 6.30am rapid transit trip so we were expecting to have some space on the train as we rattled down from the hills to the coast. However, the rumours of an uncrowded train proved to be false as, within minutes, our carriage filled up with travellers heading to stations along the line. There were those, like us, going all the way through, other tourists doing the trip as a photographic expedition and families of Sri Lankans ready to be dropped off at any one of the little stations dotted along the line. At one stage, according to a Dutch back-packer we’d met at the booking office, the four seats behind us held 30 travellers perched on one another’s knees, squatting in the space between the seats, squeezed onto the edges of the seats and standing pressed against the window frame or seat back. We were, at least, fortunate to have only seven passengers seated in our four seat space.

The train rattled out of Kandy, past over grown abandoned rail carriages and squatter huts of tired concrete blocks, rusted roofing iron, battered boards and sacking that hugged the hillsides beside the tracks along a rail line that snaked through cuttings carved through rocks and hammered through tunnels that oozed water and then appeared to cling to the hillsides more by good fortune and the protection of any number of gods as at times the red clay looked as though it could easily slide off the hillside and take the track down onto the valley floor several metres below.

Occasionally the track burst into a clearing where, among banana and coconut palms, cows and water buffalo were tied to graze the hillsides while locals washed their clothes in the streams that cascaded into the clearing and then left the washing to dry draped across the rocks and sleepers alongside the track.

Inside the carriage passengers stared into space, drifted into fitful sleep or gazed through their camera lenses at the mist shrouded hills and jungle until the train jolted to a brief stop to pick up more passengers or drop sugar sack wrapped packages off to porters who stacked them at random in the middle of the platform.

As we got nearer to Colombo the water in the streams and rivers changed from churning brown to slow oily black, the number of rubbish shrouded shacks increased in density, and the number of rail carriages being jungle reclaimed grew until we drew to a halt in the chaos of the Colombo Fort Station

Colombo Fort Station was as crowded and noisy as any station in India as passengers headed for the narrow exit gate where two guards collected and checked the tickets before throwing them into a large cardboard box balanced on a concrete column between them. No doubt some railway apprentice would be given the job of sorting and counting them to satisfy some Lankan Rail accountant after the final passenger had been disgorged onto the Colombo streets.

Spare Parts Stall - Colombo
We emerged from the station to a road that reminded us of Dehli without the control that a few strolling cows, a bullock drawn cart, a few hazard braving cyclists and squad of rickshaws gives to a melee of tuk-tuks, thundering trucks, bellowing buses and hurrying pedestrians. Joy and I decided that there was no sense in us attempting to do any sight seeing in such a scrum, especially while towing our suitcases, so took a taxi, through the tangle of vehicles and shouting, whistling police fighting to impose order of drivers who appear to follow only one rule - “If it’s bigger than me I can squeeze in front if my horn is loud enough” - when they head in any direction on the roads, out to the airport in search of lunch and calm while we waited for our midnight check in and the overnight flight to Muscat.

At the airport we were ushered through a security check point before the terminal where our driver’s ID and licence was checked and then into the terminal where we were frisked and our baggage x rayed before being allowed into the waiting area before customs and the check-in counters.

Here, there was yet another check point, this time checking passports and tickets and then we were allowed access to the check -in and yet another baggage x-ray before the transit lounge and the wait till the 3.00am flight.

Our Sri Lankan experience at an end... and now the count down till the end of January and our leaving Muscat and the isolation of Nizwa to another adventure once CfBT get around to making decisions about when I end the contract and letting me know flights and exit provisions as we’ve had no effective contact with the Muscat office since I gave notice back in November.

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