A Journey to Remember

By Assel Makhanbetova

Our trip to Jaffna had come to an end. It was 9:10 AM when I heard someone knocking on our hotel room door. My sister Anel opened it and found Johanna standing there.  She was red-faced and out of breath, it was obvious that she was in a hurry. She quickly blurted out instructions: “You’ve got fifteen minutes to pack all your stuff and get in the tuk-tuk downstairs! The train leaves at 9:35!” And then she run away upstairs to wake up the boys. After that, I randomly started to stuff my clothes into my bag, so I think you can imagine in what condition they were when I unpacked them later. Grabbing our bags, we ran downstairs, quickly checked out and headed for the tuk-tuk. I was in such a hurry that I hadn’t even dried my hair.

In the yard of our hotel, Anel and I met with Johanna. The two tuk-tuks were waiting for us. Since we were the first ones, we decided to go to the train station without the rest of our group (Rob, Henry, Michael and Kathryn) to change our tickets, because according to the original plan we were supposed to return the day after. So we headed straight to the train station. When the driver pulled up we met Kathryn with two big bags full of biscuits and bottled water. The train was waiting at the platform, we still had 6 minutes, we all breathed a sigh of relief. The time was 9:31 when we met with the rest of our group and jumped on the train. I was amazed how all of us managed to pack all our stuff, pay for the hotel, arrive at the train station and change the tickets within 20 minutes. So, we finally sat down in our Jaffna to Colombo train, little did we know we still had eleven hours to go.

The train was old. It had two rows of blue seats with a huge space for your legs, which I really liked. Next to each seat there was a window, which you can actually open if you want. Above the seats, in the middle, there were green, little and old fans with spider webs on them. In front of the car was a large window from which you could view all the beautiful tropical landscapes of Sri Lanka as well as the engine-driver’s cabin. For hours we sat there and enjoyed the passing views. It was like being in a cinema watching a mesmerizing film, like “The Jurassic Park.”

Surprisingly the carriage was almost empty; it was just us and some Sri Lankans, but that was only at the beginning. Among those locals, we met a very nice and friendly family from Colombo who had visited Jaffna for the first time and were curious about our lives and in people from outside of Sri Lanka. We chatted with the girls from that family and quickly befriended them. Then, out of the blue, they started teaching us how to do a traditional Sri Lankan dance: they played Sinhalese songs and showed us the main dance steps. Basically, as I understood it, in this dance the emphasis is on your legs, and you have to dance it in a half-upright position. Afterwards, the girls asked us to show them dances from our countries, so Anel demonstrated some basic moves from the dances of Kazakhstan. Thanks to these Sinhalese girls, 11 hours flew by, but dancing was not the only thing that kept us entertained: the other was hanging out of a moving train! That was one of the most exciting things that we did during the journey, and that was where I spent most of my time. Sitting there was an indescribable feeling: a warm and tropical breeze blowing in your face, enjoying the gorgeous views of the country.

Sitting in the doorway I saw lots of different people: passengers, passers-by, tuk-tuks, motorbikes and walks of Sri Lankan life; boys playing cricket, food sellers selling everything starting from fruits and local food such as rice and curry, ending with nuts and ice creams. It was interesting to see their reaction to me. At the beginning they just stared at me, and it seemed as though they were thinking: “Where is she from? And what is she doing here?” But after smiling at them, they immediately smiled back and waved. Sometimes they took pictures of me, and often I didn’t even notice, which I found quite embarrassing. I also saw many small houses as we passed by. Some looked well-built and others were made of sticks and mud. Some had beautiful wells in their yard and some had a lovely garden. I saw how the families gathered all together in one room and chatted with each other, watched TV, or watered their garden. Seeing this, I felt happy but at the same time a little sad. It reminded me about my family, how we all gathered together for dinner and talked about our day and discuss our plans for the following day. 

Driving through the central regions of Sri Lanka and approaching the hot and sticky south, I saw how the scenery changed; the northern part had looked emptier, while approaching the central regions you saw more trees, palms and the outline of the magnificent, lush green mountains of Kandy in the distance. The southern part was covered in jungles, more greenery, palms and rain. I also noticed how the Tamil north had been much poorer than the touristy south with a lot of damaged houses. On both sides, however, the people were amiable and curious.

The outside became darker and darker, and everyone from our group, including me, became tired. But fatigue was a pleasant feeling because I had an opportunity to contemplate all the charm of Sri Lanka and the experiences I had had with the local people.

Finally, after a two-hour delay, we arrived in Colombo where our taxi driver was waiting for us to drive us back to our home in Galle. To be honest, I don’t remember what happened during that period because as soon as we got in the car, I fell asleep. When we arrived, Janaka greeted us with his token smile and invited us in for a warm dinner where we talked with each other about the unforgettable journey we’d just had.