Searching for Human Connection on Instagram’s Most Famous Train Ride

The magnificence of travel lies in the smallest and most genuine moments of human connection. The stranger who opens their heart to you can change everything. This is a tale of one of those experiences on the train to Ella, Sri Lanka.
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I felt the rumbling of the tracks as the ground beneath me began to shake ever so slightly. Suddenly the rumbling gave way to a roaring and screaming crescendo. I looked up just in time to see the iconic baby blue train rolling into Hatton train station. This was one of the moments I’d been looking forward to on my Sri Lankan adventure, the epic train ride to Ella. Cited as one of the world’s most beautiful train rides, this journey passes through lush hills, waterfalls, and alongside tea plantations before finally crossing the breathtaking Nine Arch Bridge and pulling into the charming Ella station.

The trip would be one to remember, but first we had to get onboard…

Train travel is one of the best ways to get around in Sri Lanka and at a price of 200 Rs (~ $1.25 USD) it definitely checks the box as a value play. The downside (or upside from an experience perspective) is that seating is seldom reserved and quite literally, rushed. When the train pulls into the station, you scan the cars quickly to find your designated class, and you push past the people coming off and boarding to try your darndest to claim a seat.

My girlfriend, Kasey, and I were determined to get a seat. Having failed during our last attempts, we figured we’d tweaked our strategy enough to ensure we’d be able to ground our curry-laden bottoms on vinyl comfort for the duration of the 4 ½ hour trip from Hatton to Ella.

The train groaned to a stop and it was go time. Kasey went one way, I went the other. Divide and conquer. Take no prisoners. I moved quickly for the open seats in the middle of the compartment only to be blocked out by a dreadlocked traveller hauling a massive hiking backpack. All my hope now lay in Kasey’s hands. I saw her move quickly from the other side, bobbing and weaving toward the open seats. Unfortunately, an elephant pant-clad female pushed her way past and settled comfortably onto the soft vinyl upholstery.

Oh well. Standing in the aisle would provide further opportunity to strengthen our legs after having pushed through the 5500 steps at Adam’s Peak only hours before…

train to ella instagram photo

Getting settled into our standing aisle position we slowly became comfortable with the gentle movement of our bodies with the train. Swaying back and forth our rhythm was interrupted only by the food vendors yelling their offerings loudly as they pushed past us with trays laden with local snacks and naturally, Coca-Cola. As the train ride progressed, I couldn’t help but notice the demographics in our 2nd class compartment were highly skewed. Sure there were Germans, French, Americans, Russians, Spanish, and a variety of other nationalities, but the train was devoid of any locals, save for the two Sri Lankan ladies sitting near us. I guess 2nd class wasn’t exactly designed as a “travel” experience. In fact, it seemed to function more as a tourist trap on rails.

Putting this thought aside, we continued to bump along the countryside as the scenery became ever more magnificent. After several more hours had passed, I began to notice something else. No one was talking to or interacting with anyone outside of the groups they had boarded with. Individuals kept to themselves and focused on getting their iconic #traingram photo, a phenomenon that seems to have become a right of passage of the millennial travel experience in Sri Lanka. To the unindoctrinated, the #traingram involves hanging out the side of the iconic blue trains and having a friend snap a pic through the window (see the photo below for reference). Those not obsessed with ‘gram capturing, scanned the blue location dot on Google Maps, hoping to get the best estimate of the time remaining to Ella. The few locals onboard demonstrated their expertise at coping with foreign invaders (Sri Lanka once served as an English, Dutch and Portuguese colony) and appeared unfazed by the tourist activity around them.

Feeling somewhat disenchanted by this dystopian scene, I craned my head down to look out the window and observe the incredible scenery passing by outside. It was at that moment, that everything changed.

I looked over at Kasey and could tell she was fading fast…The 5550 steps, limited food, and two hours of sleep that comprised our hike up Adam’s Peak had begun to take their toll. She seemed on the verge of collapse in the middle of the aisle!

Without a moment’s hesitation, the Sri Lankan lady sitting in the seat adjacent to the aisle, shoved her friend over and motioned for Kasey to join her. Kasey looked back at her and with a huge smile, willingly obliged.   

seat on the train to ella

What transpired next was truly magical. Inspired by the action of these charming Lankans, many travellers shoved over to make room for the weary aisle occupant beside them and the entire mood of the train carriage changed, if only just a bit. In a single moment, perhaps when I needed it most, everything I love about travel had been reaffirmed. Even in the busiest and most touristed of places, genuine human connection has a way of shining through.

As the train completed its crossing of the iconic Nine Arch Bridge and lumbered into the charming Ella train station, I was no longer fussed by the throngs of tourists pushing to get out to the awaiting tuk-tuks. I smiled to myself, thinking of the impact one person’s simple gesture had in changing the actions of so many.

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