I have never loved crowds. I have quite the knack for avoiding situations where I have to deal with being crushed against hundreds of sweaty bodies. I shun most events that mean that I’ll have to jostle, fight, bite and scratch the people around me, just to stand in place or make it from A to B. Now, having reached the ripe, old age of 33 – my ire at being forced to navigate the sea of humanity spewing forth from such places as the local mall, or the city clubs on a Saturday night has intensified to a fully-fledged loathing. Considering this, one might justifiably assume that travelling in Asia would be far from my cup of tea. When shuffling along behind an ignorant, inconsiderate Neanderthal, six screaming children and a dozen hipsters standing in the middle of the path at my local shopping centre, I am liable to become anything from tersely irritated to catatonic with rage and it is often only the patience and skill of my long-suffering girlfriend that stops me from expressing my distemper at the crowd etiquette of others. When I travel out of the country, however, I seem to be soothed by some hitherto unseen sense of goodwill and patience (which I hesitate to call wanderlust only because I can’t abide the stereotypical stigma of a travel blogger that it evokes and that I reinforce enough without throwing such jargon around willy-nilly. I don’t begrudge the term, I just can’t bring myself to use it.) This mysterious imbalance between my hometown Mister Hyde and my abroad Doctor Jekyll served me well recently when we arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka and attempted to navigate the majestically rustic railway network – at peak hour.
We touched down in Ngombo after 13 hours in transit, uncharacteristically unprepared for the adventure – something to which we’d be eagerly looking forward – and were promptly ripped off by the cabbie at the airport who both over-charged, and dropped a station away from our desired station. While this station was closer to our intended destination of Kandy (in Sri Lanka’s central highlands), and significantly less crowded than Fort station (the usual start of a tourist’s journey into the mountains), the unscheduled change managed to confuse us. We purchased a second class ticket to Kandy (for 190 rupees – about $2 AUD – barely enough to make it from Claremont to Perth City) and spent the ensuing 25 minutes trying to work out which platform would be our Launchpad into the wonders of Sri Lanka and eventually had enough vague directions to select platform 7 (one of the 14 or so options that were presented to us). We asked a few people if we were on the right track (the pun was lost on them though) and decided we were in the right place. As the 4.30pm departure approached, a train arrived and, anticipating the crush to get a seat, leaped on board before anyone else sat down. By the time we’d taken a seat and stowed our bags, we noticed that very few people joined us on the train and as we pulled away from the station, we realised after a few quick queries that we were both on the wrong train and heading in the wrong direction.
Thankfully we arrived at Fort Station a few minutes later and were able to correct our mistake. Unfortunately this coincided almost exactly with the arrival of what seemed to be every other commuter in Colombo. Carrying our packs through the very sea of humanity that would normally drive me up the wall, we rushed towards the platform where the Kandy train was waiting, arriving just in time to watch it pull away. Instantly my strange travel serenity kicked in, and we settled down on a wooden cart to while away the hour until the next train. With a minimum of mumbling, we engaged in some people watching at what could very well be the best spot in Colombo to do so.
Part busy Asian commuter hub and part a Victorian English railway legacy, Fort Station was atmospheric to say the least – complete with wrought iron overpasses and Empirical British timepieces. The train arrived punctually at 5.30pm, interrupting an awkward, silent discussion with a mother and her daughters who wanted nothing more than to sit next to Linh and say hello. This time we had the presence of mind to ask one of the charmingly gawking youngsters if we were in the right place. Having confirmed that we were finally in the right place at the right time, we leaped aboard without any consideration for the face that we had secured second class tickets. We found ourselves crush on all sides by more commuters one could reasonably imagine would fit into a carriage. Again, you could be forgiven for expecting my proximity alerts to sound, but I was as Zen as a monk in a rock garden. The garish paint and harsh, flickering light imprisoned behind a small cage were almost soothing and I found being forced into the coupling between carriages almost pleasant. Likewise, the next hour and a half of crushing, rocking motion was less annoying than it was interesting and I found myself reflecting on how anyone could possibly do this every day! Eventually the crowds thinned as the daily commuters disembarked at their allotted stations which became smaller and smaller as we began to climb. By the time there was a seat free, I had become more interested in hanging out the carriage door that taking the seat that I initially craved.
Leaning in the open door of the carriage and looking out over the hills, I realised that even our Bennie Hill routine between stations and platforms had been fortuitous. Not only did it facilitate our experience of the daily transit that thousands of Sri Lankans endure on a daily basis (up to three hours each way, every day in what could only be describe as less than ideal conditions), but the night trip up the mountains to Kandy with a waxing moon was also a fantastic experience. As I stood on the carriage step and the train made its way laboriously up into the central highlands, I let the wind blow through what is left of my hair and decided that my travel Zen comes because I feel most at home when I am abroad. It is precisely because we make mistakes while travelling that we find so much to remember, and my moods become stable because being on the road is where I feel most at rest (and I guess it will stay that way for a few more years – or at least I hope so). I suppose that’s part of why I have to put up with the existence of the word ‘wanderlust’.