To avoid the “stress” to say farewell to our friends’ right before our departure, we decided to meet them the weekend before, inviting them all for lunch in Colombo.
Instead of renting a car with a driver, we planned to take the train. As there was only one single railroad track from Bentota to the 60 km. afar Colombo, we would only have to switch trains in Moratuwa, so there was nothing that could go wrong. We looked forward to the special experience.
For as little as 1.10 Swiss francs, we bought two tickets and the adventure could start. While the Third Class compartments were very full, there was plenty of space in the Second Class. Needless to say, there was no First Class. A man tried repeatedly to sell us some roasted nuts and after he had given up, he kept himself busy with hair care. After searching around for a while he had a close look at what he had found and then snipped it away.
As always, the best way to meet fear is knowledge: Asian lice are not able to hold on to the European hair; and vice-versa.
In Moratuwa, we had to wait only five minutes for the train and that one was a bit fuller. There, we also could watch a mother taking care of her daughter’s hair, the snipping away seemed to be part of the procedure.
The railroad tracks follow the coast line. We were used to the sight of the shanties from the road; the look of them from the rear was harder to bear.
Our friends were more than surprised, to say the least, to hear how we had made it to Colombo. They all agreed that it would have been much wiser to take one of the private luxury buses.
We had a great lunch and a great time together. After we said farewell, we went with Humaid to an exhibition at the BMICH (Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall) and started in the evening for our journey back.
It had been hard work to convince Humaid that we would love to take a bus, only for the experience and refused to be driven by him. He was jumping back and forth between the different buses quite clueless. When he found a bus going to Bentota, we had 10 seconds to board it. “Stop on Demand” in Sri Lanka does not mean that the bus stops completely.
The job of the usher was to scream the name of the destination and to collect the fare. As it was a comfortable bus it added up to 1.40 Swiss francs for both of us.
Comfortable was relative. The bus was in pretty poor shape: there were about 25 seats and a very small aisle. I grabbed the last seat on the aisle while Michel had to do some climbing to get to a closed row of four seats, right behind the driver. There he sat one head higher than all the others around him with his knees up to his ears. Four rows behind him, I tried to put my bags with presents and my belongings into the non-existent foot room and to control my chuckle.
It was already dark and heavy rain had set in. My chuckle died off as the usher was cramming more and more passengers into the bus. I was thinking of handing him all my cash if he only would not board any more passengers. To add to my misery, the lady sitting next to me had to leave the bus. I still don’t know how she managed. As I was trying to reshuffle my bags, there was a new passenger sitting next to me.
Because the floor of the bus had gotten very wet, my paper bags had disintegrated and I was yelling to Michel that he somehow had to take some of the things. Our fellow passengers were very helpful, and one piece after the other found its way over their heads to Michel in the front.
Finally, more than 50 passengers were in the bus and it was quite a spectacle whenever one in the back of the bus wanted to get out, as the only door was in the front. It was unthinkable that all passengers in front would leave the bus to make space and then board again, as the bus hardly stopped. Therefore, a big shuffle in the mode of the Rubik’s cube started until the passenger in question was in front. Because there was hardly enough space on the aisle for feet, the shuffle took place in the air space of the sitting passengers and I found myself several times squeezed between the cheek of my neighbor (that had changed four times in a speed that left no chance for me to move to the window seat) and the back of one of the Rubik’s cube participants.
A couple of times I was about to lose my countenance, then again, I burst out in hysterical giggles much to the surprise of the other passengers. When we were about 30 kilometers from Colombo, for the first time more passengers left the bus than new ones boarded and I had the chance to study the performance of the bus driver. In the past, from the outside it looked quite scary and yet I had seen sleeping passengers at the window seats.
Now as I rode inside, I knew better: they were all praying with their eyes closed ……….
At Bentota, at least the aisle was empty and we jumped from the bus right into a puddle, happy to have survived our adventure and with the certainty to never, ever see a public bus in Sri Lanka from the inside again!
We got a call at the hotel from a completely hysterical Humaid. He had put us into the wrong bus. There would be much more comfortable ones and he was terribly sorry. He had been worrying so much and was going on and on. It took quite some time to convince him that we were perfectly fine and had a heck of a time!
He admitted that he had never set a foot in a bus in Sri Lanka but he had been on a train ride once: two stations to show his sons what a train was.