The railway track in Sri Lanka not only forges a path for the trains, but for human feet as well. Amila planned walks for us along the line from Heeloya to Ella, with a detour up the steep hillside to Ella Rock, and from Idalgashinna to Haputale on the second day. For two days we lived the Railway Children life. They were gentle days that cradled us between the railway banks.
We rise early, and slide down through the path between the vegetables, skidding on the red earth, our feet wet from the damp ground.
The light eases in with the dawn, washing the Hill Country a watery green. On the track, we find our own rhythm – like the train.
The sleepers dictate our stride. Sometimes, they are too close together, and we slow shuffle. Sometimes, they are further apart, and we stride in a purposeful march. The softened wood of the older sleepers allows us to bounce along, light-footed. The metal has little give, and no embrace. The concrete sleepers require us to balance delicately on its thin ledge like ballerinas in a music box. Arms automatically extend.
Amila’s feet hardly seem to touch the ground. He walks with a sure-footed lightness, wrists slightly turned out in a stride that is all at once graceful and masculine.
Supun, his sister, and I follow behind, our quiet early morning chitter-chatter disappearing into the damp air with the birds.
Just outside Ella, Amila listens for the train. We hear it in the distance. We hear the metal sing and feel the vibrations beneath our feet. Amila takes a small stone and places it on the rail.
“Aren’t you afraid it might derail the train?” I ask.
He’s as familiar with these tracks as the wheels of the Hill Country locomotives. This was his playground growing up. He and his friends had placed one rupee coins on the metal rail and watched the train’s wheels flatten them out to twice their size – like a rolling pin.
And so, we sit on the low wall as the train rocks past, and watch Amila’s pebble reduce to powder – just as he knew it would.
Life for those who grow up in the Hill Country is still in the outdoors – a childhood of scouting. On the path up to Ella Rock, Amila finds a stick to create a windmill, and the bark of the turpentine tree for the sails. He sets his homespun windmill in a crack on the flat stone of Ella Rock, and I watch its sails spin with the land hundreds of feet beneath my feet.
Back on the track, Amila tells me he’d recently walked the railway line from Heeloya to Peradeniya near Kandy – a distance of almost 100 miles.
“You walked the railway line from Heeloya to Perqdeniya! How long did it take you?”
And so Amila tells me his ten-in-a-bed story – or twenty-on-a-track tale.
He had started out with 20 friends, 20 students, on the line. At each passing station, one or more students fell away – too tired, too injured, too bored to continue, until at Peradeniya, only five students remained.
Amila took the equivalent of £10 with him – and spent just over two on his railway journey. He bought cheap and filling rotee (the flat, charred bread with its fluffy coconut and flour centre) and cooked noodles by the railway track.
One impish student told the local people a cock-and-bull story; that they were students assessing landslips – and so, impressed, they brought the ‘research students’ food to eat.
A couple of times, the young men slept on the station benches (promising the Station Master they’d be gone by the first train of the day) or stayed with friends and relatives along the way – until at last, bedraggled and footsore they walked into Peradeniya Junction – much diminished in size.
On the second day, we take the train to the Idalgashinna and walk back down to Haputale. We’re on top of Sri Lanka. The tea plantations swirl around us; trees march across the skyline. But we have to watch our feet.
And so we observe, not the hills and the skyline and the vapour valleys, but the flora and fauna: the wildflowers that grow in the gravel; the out-sized bugs and the railway men with their out-sized spanners, tightening bolts – and the stray dogs that defecate on the line.
We dare not look at the world beyond as we must watch our feet on the sleepers, but we tune into the sounds: the honk of horn; the hum of traffic; the trill of folk music on a radio somewhere; the bark of dog; the disembodied voices.
There’s a rhythm to life in the Hill Country, and there’s a rhythm to our feet on the railway track.