One of the pitfalls of modern travel seems to be that the better we succeed, the less likely we are to experience the magical moments that captured us in the first place.
Better, I mean that frequent travelers tend to favor convenience and comfort, actively encouraged by airline and hotel loyalty programs. We get sucked into the pursuit of the status of silver, gold and platinum, attracted by advantages such as access to the lounges, updates and rapid tracking through the boring fragments from A to B. In the end we begin to evaluate the prestige and recognition as highly – or above – the thrill of discovering new places, cultures and peoples.
It is easy to lose sight of why we travel when we are constantly obsessed with the way we travel. I am as guilty of this as anyone, at the moment I have enrolled in at least four frequent flyer programs, two hotel loyalty programs and I am always looking for ways to travel smarter, more easily.
But last month I received a reminder to remember that it’s the unexpected encounters, the episodes that we don’t foresee, that are much more satisfying than a status update.
It happened on a train in Sri Lanka. The Podi Menike travel a scenic route across the highlands through the tea estates and hill stations before descending through the coastal jungle to the Indian Ocean capital of Colombo.
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I went up to Nuwara Eliya, a former summer retreat nicknamed Little England for its half-timbered houses and English gardens. It is a popular stop so the platform was busy but I had a local guide to help me find my seat on the second class carriage.
But as soon as he left, there was a problem. It was not my place. It wasn’t even my carriage, as I found out when the driver arrived to inspect my ticket and announced that it was a third class fare, not a second fare.
It is embarrassing to admit that my first reaction was a shock, perhaps even a shiver of horror, as I imagined a full and uncomfortable carriage and wondered how I would survive this misery on the seven-hour trip to Colombo.
My seat was at the end of the (very long) train. I panicked and ran – the locomotive was about to leave at any moment – and jumped into my carriage just as the stationmaster blew a whistle.
At first glance, it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. I had an assigned seat next to the window facing the direction of travel with ceiling fans and a table. On the downside, there were four Japanese women in good spirits and high pitched in front and a group of over a dozen college students armed with a guitar, a hand drum and a seemingly endless enthusiasm for singing and dancing.
Oh my god, I thought. Not this. Not for seven hours.
I looked out the window, too busy to be grumpy with the mixture of tickets to appreciate the beauty of the terraced hills, the orderly cities and the wide panoramas that opened before me.
But the college kids, fresh-faced friends of Sri Lanka’s Moratuwa Technical University, proved so pleasantly disarming – all the big smiles and outstretched arms to all the kids who want to dance – that my cold heart loose and I realized this third class carriage was actually a blessing, not a curse.
I had become so used to status, so spoiled by traveling well that I would have cut myself at the prospect of casual adventures like this. There was a warm and natural camaraderie at stake that you would never have found in closed or first-class business. Here, strangers talk to each other. For hours.
The guy in front of me, Mr. Fernando, chatted with knowledge of Australia, his job and his family, and insisted that I will be at his hotel as his guest the next time I visit the country.
He showed me pictures of relatives in Australia and, when a family sat down next to us, spoke to them warmly as if he had known them for a lifetime.
Another family went up further and soon they also became solid friends. The children stared at me, the strange stranger, and offered timid smiles when our eyes met.
Families summoned food from their bags and passed it around. It is not a meal unless it is shared. Students jumped to the stations to stock up on snacks. We all feasted on fried foods, fruit and soft drinks as we made our way to the plain.
As the heat increased, we dozed off against each other without thinking twice. In various stages I have had children and fathers slumped over me. The head of a child rested on my arm as if it were the most natural thing. And I didn’t care at all because at that point we were all friends, all looking for each other.
The serendipity of that slow train to Colombo was an appropriate reminder that the best travel rewards are not found in a frequent flyer program but in the real world, among real people. I doubt anyone has ever had a similar epiphany in an airline lounge.
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