Our three-wheeler pulls into the dusty lot used as a bus station. Several mini-buses and big red buses similar to school buses idle around, engines humming and doors open, all waiting to depart to various cities in eastern Sri Lanka. I grab my bags and step onto a patch of caked dirt.
My friend Apriliza emerges from the three-wheeler and stares at me. Two men walk by, discussing something in Tamil as another bus pulls out, kicking up dirt around us. Sri Lanka’s majority population are ethnic Sinhala, but here on the east coast are a pocket of Tamil Sri Lankans.
The Tamil Pastor stands next to me and points to a nearby bus. “This is your bus,” he declares in English.
A few days earlier I had traveled to this city called Kalmunai—a tiny dot on a map with no tourism to offer—by repeatedly mispronouncing its name to random strangers. I was in Kandy, a city in the center of the island, with a bus station many times larger than Kalmunai’s, bustling with buses and thousands of travelers. Not deterred by a few confused looks, I said “Kalmunai?” until a man with red betel nut stains between his teeth spat and pointed toward a mini-bus at the end of a long line of larger red buses.
I had stuffed myself in the back row with my backpack across my lap. During the ride, my butt flew from the seat several times as the wheels rolled over countless potholes, reminiscent of bouncing around North Sumatra’s windy broken roads. A boy in my row had vomited on the floor of the bus. For two hours I slept with one eye on the floor, hoping none of the vomit crept my way.
Another city transfer and five hours later I arrived in the coastal town of Kalmunai, one of the cities devastated in the December 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Relieved to again be standing on solid ground, I called Apriliza to come fetch me. A man approached me while I waited. Lifting his eyebrows he asked a single-worded question, “Batticaloa?” Probably assuming I intended to travel to that city an hour away, he seemed ready to guide me to the right bus. As with the man with betel nut-stained teeth, the language barrier didn’t diminish the desire to help a stranger.
“No,” I said shaking my head and pointing to the ground to indicate I meant to stay here, “Kalmunai.” I don’t think he believed me—a white lady traveling alone—until my friend arrived in a three-wheeler and whisked me away with a smile.
Now today I am going to Batticaloa. From Batticaloa I plan to take a night train across the island to Colombo, and the next day board the first of a series of flights back to North America.
The Pastor turns to the man standing outside my bus and says something in Tamil. Both men bobble their heads—body language in South Asia for mild agreement. It’s time to go. I shake hands with Pastor and thank him for his generosity.
I glance at my friend with a smile and offer my hand. Apriliza, now three months into a year-long internship with the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka, is starting to feel the loneliness of being a foreigner in a different country. She’s a former student of mine from when I taught English at the Deaconess Theological School on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. One night she came to my door (I lived an old office outside the dormitory) and saw evidence of my tears of loneliness.
“I know how you felt,” she says to me now.
In the Lutheran tradition, a deaconess is a servant minister, and in Indonesia the young women intending to be deaconesses attend a training school before spending several years on internship, during and after which they must pass series of tests in order to finally be ordained as servant minister. That’s no easy task, so I admire all my students for their courage. Apriliza’s advanced skills in the English language no doubt helped open the door for her internship program in Sri Lanka.
The waning sun glows as it sinks below the horizon. I peer out the window at the houses, backlit by the red orb. Fields, cars, and towns pass in the increasing darkness on the way to the Batticaloa train station.
The interior of the train looks rustic; the seats, which no longer recline, have probably been stuck in the same positions for quite some time. Goosebumps form on my arms as I pull out my sweater, confused by the sudden presence of air conditioning. For a brief moment, the train’s forward movement mesmerizes and inspires me much as it always has, although soon my eyes grow too heavy. Drifting in and out of sleep, I recall one rather strange experience on a train more than a decade earlier in a very different part of the world.
“My name is Hussein. You know, like Saddam.”
After three weeks traveling through Italy and Greece with two friends, circumstances arose that had me returning to my home in Germany alone. For the middle of the night journey on a train headed north, I shared a cabin with an Italian metal head. He wore a jean jacket and had spiked hair atop with shaved sides and was more eager to chat with me than I with him.
A man stepped into the cabin he and introduced himself, making light of his name, “My name is Hussein. You know, like Saddam.”
We laughed. His black hair and thick mustache helped him fit the profile of a younger Saddam. This was back in early 2002—post-9/11 but before the infamous Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was defeated and later captured.
“Do you want to listen?” The metal head asked me after Hussein turned to another passenger, offering the headphones that were blaring Metallica in my direction.
I politely accepted, but after twenty minutes of Metallica’s Master of Puppets album—as much as I could stand so late at night—I handed back the Discman nodding my head.
After positioning the headphones back on his ears, he swung his arms and banged at imaginary drums in the air. He then pulled out a rosary, said a prayer in Italian and when finished, promptly stuck out his tongue and flipped his middle finger at it. He winked at me. My mouth hung open in surprise and I forced a laugh. I couldn’t be sure if he was joking or not.
Our time together in a shared train cabin spanned only a few hours, but the memory of that moment stays with me, even almost fifteen years alter later.
Sharp pains in my back awaken me in mid-memory. I am still on the night train to Colombo; it is 1:00am, four more hours on this train. My legs sprawl across the seat next to me, just as pained and contorted as my back.
My mind wanders from the train in Italy to other encounters. In all of my travels I have met an assortment of people, mostly brief encounters with strangers I will never see again.
There was the German guy wearing a cowboy hat who I sat next to on a trans-Atlantic flight. He refused to speak German—a language I knew well—and spit his tobacco chew into a plastic bottle while calling to the flight attendant for another Budweiser. He attended college in Idaho and embraced the cowboy culture more than any German I’d known. We ended up wandering the streets of Amsterdam together for a few hours on layover.
I can’t forget the refugee man in Germany who professed his love to me after just meeting me, or some months later another man in Germany approaching me with a little more tact (I let him down more gently).
Perhaps one of the better times was with Vern, a man I met at a hostel in Wales. Both there for the purpose of ascending Mt. Snowdon, we hiked together and celebrated his birthday on the top. The next day he drove me through the Welsh countryside to catch my train.
That first encounter with Italian metal head and Hussein fell in the middle of studying abroad, and it was in the beginning of my travel independence. One year of my life so long ago led into the present, a series of life’s journeys, each building upon the last, like transferring cross-country through bus and train stations.
In the end, we are all on a journey. Some of us pass each other briefly, while others are walking companions along the way.
Sometime in the middle of the night train ride through Sri Lanka I reflect on saying goodbye to Apriliza. She had said little, her normal talkative self dampened by the quick goodbye. We shook hands, and we embraced and sniffed cheeks in the familiar Indonesian manner. Our meeting was not by chance; I had come to give her encouragement. Maybe we will meet again.
“Don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll see you again,” I said, not as sure as I sounded.
Dawn is on the horizon as the train approaches the outskirts of Colombo. In the night people have come and gone from this cabin and now stiff bodies stretch and gather belongings to get off at station. I step off the train alone, but I carry the memories of many people and places with me.
In the end, we are all on a journey. Some of us pass each other briefly, while others are walking companions along the way. I am grateful for all of it, from the brief encounters to the longer-lasting friendships that have taken me many places, including this night train to Colombo.