Into a Sardine Press

(I didn't take this shot, but it's about right)

After 36 straight hours of travel, the logical thing to do would have been to find a hotel and rest in Colombo for my first day in Sri Lanka.

Fat chance.

No sooner was I off my 5th flight and through immigration that I found the local bus for the 90 minute sweaty ride to the train station. And here the traveling began in earnest.

The station was packed with thousands, and when the train that would take me to Kandy in the central highlands chugged in, the jostling began. People were positioning themselves for a run at the doors. For what I didn’t know, but I can jostle with the best of them, big backpack and all. Or so I thought.

The surge: hundreds of people rushing into every possible train door, everyone pushing and shoving everyone else, a mass ruthless frenzy to get on the train first. Pushing, pulling, shoving, elbowing, you name it.

I thought I’d done pretty well and was one of the first ones on the train. And overall I was. But not fast enough: every available seat was taken. Some had already been filled from the previous station, so it wasn’t an empty train to begin with, but it all happened in probably less than 5 seconds total (no exaggeration). Unbelievable.

Standing room only. Hot, humid air. No air-conditioning. A metal wagon cooked by the tropical sun while hundreds inside breathe and sweat, packed close together. And after 5 flights already I’m missing the comfort and space of economy class–the lap of luxury compared to this sweltering misery.

For 20 long minutes we waited, sweating. And sweating. The wagons got more and more full, to the point where people were standing packed in every entryway, doors open. I’d always wondered at pictures of trains with people hanging out the doors, until realizing that a) yes, the trains get that packed, b) it’s less hot by the door than inside the wagon, and c) you get a scenic view instead of the back of five other people’s heads and random limbs trying to hold on to whatever fixture possible.

Mercifully, the train started. I had carved out a spot directly at the partition between the main seating compartment and the door, so by turning my head left I could see the whole compartment, and to the right I was just tall enough to see over a half dozen heads and watch a little narrow window of scenery go by through the open door. The latter is probably the only thing that saved my sanity.

It felt like forever to the first next station, but it was probably around 40 sweaty jostling minutes. My hope had been that people would get off here and that there would be some seating space opening up. Hahaha, such naive hope.

When the train stopped, more people entered. I don’t know how. It felt like being inside a compactor, squeezing tighter and tighter. I was shoved clear up against the compartment frame, someone else’s briefcase was wedged between my legs, and there were people pressed up against me from all sides, with not an inch of space to move.

Normally, in trains I keep a wary eye out for pickpockets. This was no longer an issue: I couldn’t have reached around to my pocket if I tried, and the effort would have required displacing at least 3 other people. Not to mention that fitting a hand inside my pocket at this point would also mean pushing someone else’s hip or butt to make enough space for it to fit. Yes, we were stuffed in that tight.

Which makes me think I may have misheard the name of this train. I thought it was named the Intercity Express, but that may have been my mind refusing to accept its real name of Into a Sardine Press.

And you know those guys hanging out the doors on the side of the train? Now I realize they’re the lucky ones: plenty of space and natural air-conditioning to help keep them cool.

Five interminably long hours later, I stumbled out of the train and into Kandy, my final destination. I drank half a gallon of liquids, went on a shaky walk to rehabilitate my legs and limbs from the evil plane/train combo, and despite a full plate of chicken in front of me I nodded off and fell asleep during dinner, to the amusement of the other restaurant patrons.

And thus ended my first day in Sri Lanka.

Comments (5)

LilianJune 4th, 2011 at 7:18 pm

Oh, wow! It sounds like hell, specially after 48 hours of travel. And I thought that get crowded bus in Brazil was bad… lol

LyricJune 5th, 2011 at 1:38 am

I thought it was named the Intercity Express, but that may have been my mind refusing to accept its real name of Into a Sardine Press.


ChrisJune 5th, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Was that the only mode of transport to that city or were you just saving money?

Gabriel OpenshawJune 7th, 2011 at 2:22 am

I got to the train station and decided at the last minute to change my destination. There was a train leaving in 10 minutes and I figured it was great timing. Of course in my brilliant state of sleep deprivation I didn’t realize that this train only had 3rd class wagons…

GregJune 7th, 2011 at 9:25 am

May the Lord have mercy on those who have to do this every day. I know I would have totally freaked out, and probably lost my mind, finally ending up in an asylum.

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