One of the pitfalls of modern travel seems to be that the better we get at it, the less likely we are to experience the magic moments that got us hooked in the first place.
By better, I mean that frequent travellers tend to favour convenience and comfort, actively encouraged by airline and hotel loyalty schemes. We get sucked into chasing silver, gold and platinum status, lured by perks such as lounge access, upgrades and being fast-tracked through the boring bits of A to B. Eventually we start to value prestige and recognition as highly – or higher than – the thrill of actually discovering new places, cultures and peoples.
It’s easy to lose sight of why we travel when we’re constantly obsessing about how we travel. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, currently signed up to at least four frequent flyer schemes, two hotel loyalty programs and always looking for ways to travel smarter, more smoothly.
But last month I got a lovely reminder that it’s the unexpected encounters, the episodes we don’t plan for, that are way more satisfying than a status upgrade.
It happened on a train in Sri Lanka. The Podi Menike plies a scenic highlands route through tea estates and hill stations before descending through coastal jungle to the Indian Ocean capital of Colombo.
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I boarded at Nuwara Eliya, a former summer retreat nicknamed Little England for its half-timbered houses and English gardens. It’s a popular stop so the platform was busy but I had a local guide to help me find my seat in the second-class carriage.
But as soon as he left, there was a problem. It wasn’t my seat. It wasn’t even my carriage, as I found out when the conductor arrived to inspect my ticket and announced it was a third-class fare, not second.
It’s embarrassing to admit my first reaction was shock, maybe even a shiver of horror, as I pictured a packed, uncomfortable carriage and wondered how I’d survive such misery on the seven-hour journey to Colombo.
My reassigned seat was at the far end of the (very long) train. I panicked and ran – the locomotive was about to depart any minute – and leapt into my carriage just as the stationmaster sounded his whistle.
At first glance, it wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined. I had an assigned seat, beside the window and facing the direction of travel, with overhead fans and a table. On the downside, there were four high-spirited and high-pitched Japanese women opposite and a group of more than a dozen university students armed with a guitar, a hand drum and a seemingly endless enthusiasm for singing and dancing.
Oh dear god, I thought. Not this. Not for seven hours.
I stared out the window, too busy being grumpy at the ticketing mix-up to appreciate the beauty of the terraced hills, the neat townships and vast panoramas unfurling before me.
But the college kids, fresh-faced friends from Sri Lanka’s Moratuwa technical university, turned out to be so disarmingly nice – all big smiles and outstretched arms to any children wanting to dance – that my cold heart melted and I realised this third-class carriage was actually a blessing, not a curse.
I’d become so accustomed to status, so spoiled by travelling well that I’d cut myself off to the prospect of random adventures like this. There was a warm, natural camaraderie at play that you’d never find in stuffy business or first class. Here, strangers talk to each other. For hours.
The guy opposite me, Mr Fernando, chatted knowledgeably about Australia, about his work and family, and insisted that I stay at his hotel, as his guest, next time I visit the country.
He showed me pictures of relatives in Australia and, when a family sat down beside us, he spoke to them as warmly as if he’d known them all his life.
Another family got on further down the track and they were all soon firm friends too. The children stared at me, the strange foreigner, and offered shy smiles when our eyes met.
The families conjured food from their bags and passed it around. It’s not a meal unless it’s shared. The students leapt off at stations to stock up on snacks. Everyone feasted on fried things, fruits and soft drinks as we wound down to the lowlands.
As the heat rose we dozed off against each other without a second thought. At various stages I had children and fathers slumped on me. An infant’s head rested on my arm as if it was the most natural thing. And I didn’t mind in the slightest because by that stage we were all friends, all looking out for each other.
The serendipity of that slow train to Colombo was a fitting reminder that the best travel rewards aren’t found in a frequent flyer program but in the real world, among real people. I doubt anyone’s ever had an epiphany like that in an airline lounge.
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