Staring out the window of the second-class train carriage, getting closer to Colombo after weeks in the countryside, the first thing I noticed was an old Massey Ferguson tractor. It was in a rice paddy to the left of the train, and two men were kneeling a few meters away, looking at something in the mud. I was confused, because in this quintessentially agricultural scene, a tractor looked completely out of place. It took me a moment to realize that it was the first farm machine I’d seen in the Sri Lankan countryside; the only tools I’d seen were long, broad hoes that men used to hack away at greedy jungle vines, or clear drainage channels between tea bushes, or mix concrete at building sites. Everything else was done by hand – like the man I’d seen earlier in the day pulling up kohlrabi from his roadside farm, or the armies of women picking tea leaves for a few dollars a day, their calloused fingers pinching and pulling. Looking at the men in the field, one now leaning against the engine, I marvelled at how much money they must have had to afford a machine to do their work.
Thinking back, there had been other subtle changes that kept me looking out the window on the seven-hour trip. Houses had been getting bigger, and I’d even seen a few two-story mansions. I’d leaned out the window when I first saw glass windowpanes and red tile roofs, instead of open shutters and patchwork corrugated iron over one-room farmers’ hovels. The stations were also changing. At Habarana, where we got on the train, they’d stacked bricks every few meters next to the rails – the idea being that some stacks would inevitably line up with the doors of arriving cars. I’d waited for ninety minutes near this “platform,” sitting on a bench, swatting flies, watching stray dogs lying in the shade. The five other passengers at the station were peeling, slicing, and packing mangoes into plastic bags. They‘d paid for third-class seats, but would spend the journey walking up and down the aisles selling these mangoes to passengers, as well as vegetable samosas, roasted peanuts, yogurt, Coca-Cola, water, and chocolate malts.
Closer to Colombo, the stations had wide concrete platforms, and people rushed to jump on moving trains. Some of the new passengers chose to stand, even though there were empty seats. I wondered if it was because of the soil caked into the fabric of the cushions, turning the formerly blue fibres black. If the fabric hadn’t fallen off the armrests, revealing shiny stainless steel, then the pads were slick with decades of elbow grease, which at first made me cringe, but now seemed as unremarkable as the diesel smoke pouring from the engine.
At the central station, I gave the tuk-tuk driver an address and asked for his first price, from which we would start bargaining. “Maybe…150 rupees,” he said, “depends on the meter.” It took me a moment to realise that he wasn’t trying to haggle; he actually had a working meter. I got in and, as he turned a corner and the meter ticked up ten rupees, I noticed that he also had a working Seiko watch. I remembered the army officers in Kandy, and the broken watches they wore like jewelry, and I marvelled at how in Colombo, a tuk-tuk driver could be better off than a soldier.
After a shower with hot water, I went to eat. A “hotel” in Sri Lanka is actually a diner that sells kottu, roti, fried rice, and rice-and-curry; in countless small towns, I’d grown used to getting a meal for 150 rupees, or just under a dollar. But in Colombo, I would pay 2,000 rupees for two wraps and two juices in a cafe – not a sweet-tea shop, but a leaf-in-your-cappuccino-milk cafe, the kind they have in cities. That night, a bottle of wine, a few weak gin-and-tonics and tapas would cost 23,000 rupees, or more than a tea picker makes in a month. Afterward, on an uncomfortably sober walk to my AirBNB, I remembered the bar full of tea plantation workers in Hapatule, where I’d gotten tremendously drunk on a 100 rupee bottle of coconut toddy. The workers laughed when I showed them the betel nuts I was learning to chew, then offered me beedis to smoke. Upon learning I was from America, they kept mentioning Hulk Hogan – “Hulk Hogan!” “Ah, Hulk Hogan.” – as if, in November 2016, a relic of the 1980s was the most famous and well-regarded of my countrymen.
The next morning, I took a walk. I didn’t have bug spray, or a whistle; with so little standing water, mosquitoes didn’t breed like in Udawalawe, and unlike Sigiriya, wild elephants would not threaten me on unknown streets. I found a farmers’ market with stands selling the same things you’d see at farmers markets in Austin, Berkeley or Chicago. One, with a particularly pretty red tablecloth, was selling organic honey from wild bees. The non-negotiable price was eight times what I’d bargained for a pint of fresh honey at a fruit stand near Ella, bee legs still suspended with the comb. I walked past a traditional curry stand, a traditional wicker basket stand, and a traditional pickled mango stand, and two children ran past me, shouting at each other in slightly accented English. I paused. They didn’t know it, but they were part of a first generation that would inherit Friedman’s Flat World, my world, full of all of its first-world troubles and frustrations. I was seized with the desire to board a train back to the countryside, to the toddy and curry, the open shutters, the mosquitos, the rampaging elephants, the sweat-black seats and the mango sellers working to buy pencils and paper for their children to use at school.
But I didn’t. I knew that train had already left the station, and besides, I had a plane to catch, to go back home.