Death on the tracks - Smiling Sri Lanka - CycleBlaze

March 4, 2020

Death on the tracks

NEGOMBO - An old railway carriage lay on its side a little north of Hikkaduwa. It was beside the single-line track that runs to Colombo, the capital. And that, you may think, is unremarkable.

But that single carriage was all that remained of an entire train hit here by a tsunami. The train was packed. Others had been stopped but for this one nobody could get a message through. And so it carried on, running a little back from the sea. Nobody could see the sea because it was hidden by houses and trees.

And on this unremarkable day, a vast wave smashed through the houses, through the trees and through the train. One moment the train was like any other, busy, roof fans turning, the uneven rails jolting the passengers. And then a huge watery darkness and a force that nobody could have guessed.

The carriages remained upright but they filled with water. Hundreds drowned. The pressure jammed the doors.

Those who did get out ran, or sheltered behind the train or climbed on its roof. And then another wave hit, six metres high, as tall as a three-storey building but even heavier. It crashed inland, more devastating than the first, and carried away the people, the houses and the trees.

Nobody knows how many died. Not even now. They could count the tickets sold but there are no checks on Sri Lankan railways, or hardly any, and any number of people could have climbed aboard for a free ride. Many bodies were never found. Others were carried away before they could be counted. Maybe 1,200 deaths, some say. Probably 2,000 or more, say others.

It was the world's worst train disaster.

"It happened about here," said the quietly-spoken man sitting next to us - so quietly spoken that we had trouble hearing him. He was 40, perhaps, with glasses. He'd been reading a book in Sinhala, its letters queueing patiently in lines of pretty curls. In a western culture, you'd say he was the sort who knew exactly where his library cards were.

He pointed out the open window. It was warmer today than it had been back then.

"Everything you see is new. There was nothing left. It has all grown or been rebuilt since. The country couldn't cope and help came from all over the world. We were very grateful."

A single carriage was left beside the line, maybe as a memorial, perhaps because nobody had taken it away. It's gone now and our man said it's in a museum. The locomotive pulling the train that day is back in service. It has a wave painted on its side.

Our friend apologised that he'd reached his station. He stood up, politely shook our hands, and left the train.

We were on the train to avoid another long haul down the coast with, we expected, ever denser traffic as we neared Colombo. In fact, from what we could see from the train and across the new sea wall, there was less traffic than we feared. But that, of course, was before we entered Colombo.

We caught the train with much officiousness from the head of parcels. A bike counts as a parcel on Sri Lankan railways and it has to be registered and logged and labelled and, on this occasion, presented with a copy of our passports. Sri Lankans are so polite and friendly that it came as a shock. The solution is never to be offended, never to retaliate. This is a Buddhist land. Let zen rule your existence and your bike will reach the train.

We got to the station in plenty of time. It was full of hip young people with surfboards heading back the way we'd come. They poised and preened and generally made themselves look obnoxious.

Eranga, with a kindly person
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Eranga came over to chat. His job was to sit at an old brown table at the entrance to the platform and check tickets. He guided us to benches where we would be away from the surfers, protected from the sun and cooled by a breeze.

"You are kindly people," he said, his choice of words betraying that he is learning English from a book. "You smile. Many tourists aren't kindly. They think I am nothing. Especially Russians. They drink too much."

He was working a 15-hour shift, he explained. He rides his scooter 14km every morning from the village where he cares for his crippled mother.

"My mom can't walk .mom wants to weel chair .that's why i work a little hardr.i am trying to keep here happy try it .you are bleblessing on me we will meet again soon.good day to you," he emailed later.

The train pulled in and he excused himself with smiles and handshakes. He waved until we were out of sight.

Kindly people, Sri Lankans.

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Catherine HastingsEnjoyed the write up Leo. We had 4 weeks in Sri Lanka on the bikes 6 years ago and loved the trip. Fancy, empty hotels with deeply confused employees also a part of our story!! Also the usefulness of bus shelters for roadside stops - seats and shade. As Australians, the tuk tuk drivers and old men that always appeared during these breaks would invariably want to talk about the current cricket season... Must write the tour up here. Thanks for the inspiration to do so.
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3 years ago
Leo WoodlandHi. So glad you enjoyed your trip. It's a lovely island, isn't it - although we got out just in time because Colombo airport closed a little while later. We were (or rather Steph was) surprised how little cricket we saw while we were there. It was on TV in caf├ęs but I think we saw only two or three games. It'd be pointless talking to me about it because cricket, to me, is a Posh Boy's Sport. There were 32 of us in class at school and 16-a-side cricket gave plenty of chance to the Keen Boys to play if they wanted to while, if we were lucky, our side batted and we could compete to be as low as possible down the list so we could lounge about in the sun and tell dirty jokes.
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3 years ago
Suzanne GibsonType your comment here
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3 years ago