Death on a Train in Sri Lanka

December 8, 2016

Not so panicked, but not wanting to wait another two hours until the next train, I decided on something stupid. I saddled my reliable blue and grey duffel over my shoulder, made my way towards the open door, and gestured to the confused kid to get out of the way. He may have been young, but even he was concerned about why this sweaty unshaven foreign man was so desperate to get off a moving train. With the way clear and the train just about to leave the relative safety of the smooth concrete and move on to adjacent steel tracks and sharp rocks, I acted quickly. Within five seconds, I had tossed my duffel a few feet out the door. Not wanting to risk damaging my laptop, I kept my Timbuk2 day pack on one shoulder. Then, finally, I jumped from a train moving about 15 kph.

This is just one of the adventures I’ve been having since taking an overnight flight from Dubai to Colombo a week ago. The country is still technically in recovery since a 26-year civil war ended in 2009, but the people seem to have taken a shine to foreign tourists. I have no doubt we’ll soon be seeing massage booths on every corner filled with Sri Lankan women violently yelling at shy men to buy from them. In the meantime, tuk tuk drivers certainly uphold the reputation of their counterparts in other southeast Asian cities.

Because the infrastructure is still being developed, Sri Lanka is fully quipped to deal with their current influx of tourism, but may strain themselves once things really start picking up. Uber is available in Colombo, and there are private “airport transfer” vehicles to hire. The problem is, the cost rarely justifies that kind of convenience. Nearly all hotels and guest houses across the country offer airport transfers directly from arrivals to their front door, but for 60-100 USD, depending on the area of Sri Lanka. Buses are available at about 1/200th the price, but the roads are in bad shape, leading to an uncomfortable ride and the possibility of being trapped in traffic.

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Sri Lankan Trains, while not reaching everywhere across the country, are the way to go in my opinion. For only 100-500 rupees (1-3 USD), you can have a ride to distant areas without traffic. Granted, like India, you may find yourself standing for the majority of the ride, but this still beats the alternative. When I jumped off the train I believed had been heading to Matara, I was surprised it had left on time; I had assumed a 5- to 10-minute buffer would be necessary, but no: precisely at 2:15, on the same platform my 2:25 train would be arriving.

We dashed along the coast, coming close enough to the ocean to get a nice breeze while I stood sandwiched between two Sri Lankan men with a poor perception of personal space. After about two hours, the train finally pulled into Galle, a mere 20 km from my final destination of Weligama. Then, we started to reverse.

I’m the type of traveler who can only relax when I know things are moving in the right direction, figuratively speaking. I don’t care how long my flight is going to be, but I do notice when we’re delayed or diverted. When that happens, I can’t distract myself with books, movies, food, or drink. Only once we’re back on track do I slump my shoulders and settle in for the ride.

So, when the train started moving in the opposite direction after stopping in Galle, I closed my book and consulted the map, my mind racing with possibilities: “Did I get on the wrong train? No, it’s the only track going south. Was there another ending in Galle, another going to Matara? No… so why are we reversing?” Google maps showed that the track continuing on down the coast requiring us to make a loop around Galle to avoid hitting an inlet. No panicking. No worries. Back to reading…

…for about five minutes. Then we just stopped. It’s Sri Lanka; it happens. I wasn’t really concerned, and kept reading. However, when level of chatter on the train started to pick up and more people stuck their heads out of the windows and open doors, I was curious. The train hadn’t derailed, of that much I was certain, but there was clearly something that had stopped us.

Suddenly, we resumed going forward. Back towards Galle. Something definitely wasn’t right. People were outside the train, standing around the irrigation ditch next to the tracks. Then I saw him.

A man was face down in the ditch, both legs spread and extended towards the train tracks, one of his feet separated just above the ankle. I nearly threw up seeing the whiteness of the bone sticking out from what remained. It wasn’t clear what had happened – if he had jumped, been caught trying to cross, or was just unaware until it was too late – but two things were certain: he was dead, and people were angry. The group looked on with scowls, not touching his body. Fortunately, no one was insensitive enough to snap a picture and post it to their Instagram, as one might expect on a crowded train of tourists.

I’ve witnessed the aftermath of a few accidents during my travels: someone getting drunk and stepping into the path of a car in Japan; a fellow Texan waking up after a crazy night, not knowing how there came to be a huge cut in his hand. Never have I seen anything quite as gruesome and horrific as this, a man with his own foot lying beside him after being run over by the train I was on.

For safety reasons, travelers to Sri Lanka should be particularly mindful when on the road or approaching train tracks. I’ve said it before, but my number one goal in every country to which I travel is to not be hit by a car. It’s quite a challenge in South Korea, and in southeast Asia, with all the motorbikes and tuk tuks coupled with a lack of traffic laws, it’s easy to believe you can just be knocked from behind or to the side and not have the driver care in the slightest. Those barriers, lights, and sounds associated with trains crossing streets in the US? They don’t exist in Sri Lanka. One or two warnings from the oncoming engine is the best you’ll get, and they can’t slow down if you’re in the way.

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