Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ceylon Dreams III: A Dramatic Train Ride

Hemingway stood crookedly by the sofa, his head bowed, his eyes droopy, his tail wagging sadly. He closed his eyes and wagged his tail with a little more enthusiasm as Fahad scratched his back and then flopped down, curling up contently on the cool cemented floor, nuzzling Fahad’s fingers.

It was a strange setting for a lounge, the couches and chairs actually faced one another, there was no TV for all eyes to congregate on and a beautiful wooden coffee table rested in the center, with an ashtray and two glasses of water (set without coasters, little drops of condensation cooling on the rim). The wide doors and all the windows in the house were open, but the clouds had drawn together in the sky like a thick gray woolen blanket so it was dark inside, the sweet dim light of a very rainy morning. A beautifully light cool breeze filtered into the room, the faint sweet scent of wet earth and freshly bathed green grass hung around us. The smoke from the Malay lady’s Gold Leaf hung lazily in the air, blue grey swirls, pale nostalgia.

We sat listening to the Malay lady’s stories about discovering what carrots look like – “I felt like such a donkey!” she said in her clear, loud accent, learning forward to ash her cigarette and smack her knee at the same time. “I thought they were ferns. The man looked at me as if I was the stupidest thing around!”

It was an interesting group sitting around the table, listening to the rain and talking about colonialism and organic vegetables: our host, her chubby preteen daughter with her sharp sudden giggle, her brother-in-law’s Malay wife and the Malay wife’s British-Pakistani daughter-in-law. And of course, Fahad and me, the sweet (they said so) couple from Pakistan.

We were all set to leave for the train station. By the time our taxi came, a few seconds after the latest o’clock that I had hoped it would reach by, the storm had dwindled to a forgetful drizzle. However it started to rain again by the time we were lugging our positively lazy floppy blue bag (it was a perfectly good bag till we stood it up - two seconds and it would plop down heavily, crushing bugs or a stray toe under its 26 kilos. It just wanted to lie prostrate all the time, or at least be leaned against a wall or leg for support.) down the busy platform in search of our elusive ‘F-C’ buggy.

The train station was busy and complicated with so many windows selling different kinds of tickets, it was a bit shabby but still clean. We were almost late and slowly getting damp from the rain that stole through the half roofs above the platforms, but we still managed to buy interesting local crackers and peanuts from a man near our bogey.

As it turned out, F-C was first class! It was quite a lovely cabin with leather chairs and apparently wooden floors. And its own split AC that made it too cold too soon. There was something very desi about the way the AC was put there – something a smart father would do at home to save money and provide comfort all together. The lights were very orange so it felt like we were viewing everything through a fire-tinted glass.

When the train started chugging along it felt like the driver was kind of drunk or that the wheels were crooked or that a giant boy was shaking our little cart from side to side in disgruntled play. The train ride felt too much like a boat in an incessantly choppy sea. “Will it be like this the entire time?” I asked Fahad and he presumed yes. I mean we got used to the rocking soon but I was getting antsy about how I would make my way to the ‘conveniently located’ bathrooms in the cabin with all this shaking and swerving.
The storm outside continued to thunder and glow, the scenery was a smudged painting of blue, grey and green, rivulets of water flowed down the window panes as if buckets were being overturned from above.

About two hours into our trip, our train slowed to a stop. The sudden calm and stillness was almost gratifying. Also, Fahad and I were absolutely starving by now. The Sri Lankan breakfast was wholesome and delicious but it had been several hours since and all we’d had were the snacks from the station. We asked if there was food on the train and were presented with a menu – we figured the instant noodles in a cup would be easy to eat.

A few minutes later the service boy came, propped open a plastic table right in front of us and expertly swished a black cloth over the table – he then laid down our plastic cups and forks on the table. It was definitely the most proper instant-noodle eating experience! And of course, nothing turns grub into gourmet like hunger. It was the most satisfying meal imagined on a train.

However soon a discontent started rumbling through the cabin, murmurs and whispers, predictions and rumors. Turns out a huge tree had fallen across the tracks because of the storm. We were halfway between Kandy and Colombo and so, either way help from the city would take a while to reach and it was expected the train was going to stay put for at least another 3-4 hours.

It was already past 5 pm – about the time we should have reached Kandy (where our kind host was going to pick us up from the station) and completely dark outside. We were at a small station in the middle of nowhere (well actually it was right between Colombo and Kandy but fairly small, rural and lowkey) and really not in the mood to wait another three hours.  Fahad overheard some local passengers discussing renting a van to Kandy and struck up a quick friendship. The strangers were kind enough to ask us to join them; they knew someone who called a van with a chauffeur willing to take us to Kandy for another Rs1,200 per head.
“It’s really dark and I’ve heard the roads to Kandy are quite dangerous, especially in the rain,” an anxious American lady said. “I don’t want to risk anything, I’ve got my children too. And we really don’t know where we are!” I told her I would have probably done the same if I had kids, wished her luck and waving goodbye, I hopped off the train into squelchy grass.

The way was a little treacherous, winding uphill with narrow sharp curves that the driver turned around as if his was the only vehicle on a private go-kart track, a driving style that is as familiar to a Karachiite as chai. There were no lights and every now and then it would start to drizzle. The Sri Lankan who had so generously taken on two complete strangers from Pakistan was probably a couple of years younger than us, recently graduated and in the business of gems. We talked the entire 1.5 hour ride to Kandy. He even helped us coordinate with our host and gave us his number in case we needed anything else.

When we got to Kandy our host was waiting in his blue jeep, in very good spirits despite the inconvenience of our late arrival – it was around 9 pm by now. His house was on top of a winding hill, halfway between the twinkling stars in the sky and the twinkling lights of houses below. The air was sticky but cool and our apartment was completely separate with a small lounge, kitchenette and bedroom. Our hosts, Bernard and his wife, lived a staircase away in their own detached complex. He guided us to food options and a few minutes later, we walked down the steep path, which was completely dark and crowded in on both sides by trees and bushes, to the main road below.  

There were a few roadside takeaway food carts and the restaurant we were told about was above a grocery store and served halal food so there were a lot of Muslim families sitting there. We ate mediocre sandwiches that we were still grateful for and got a small bottle of instant coffee powder, sugar and milk from the store. I always get very excited about making coffee – just the thought of a bright cup full of sweet, strong coffee – or tea – brings comfort to my soul and I beamed thinking about sitting outside our room in the garden, looking out at the beautiful lights below and breathing in the smell of coffee, the warmth of the cup in our hands, the perfect end to a tiring day. However when we got back I realized there was no stove or electric kettle in our kitchenette. Ah well! Coffee would have to wait till morning.

For now, our exciting train journey turned into a friendly bus ride had finally ended with us finally in bed in Kandy – which would open up like a bright book the next day.

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