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Published: June 22nd 2009
Sri Lanka keep offering me only gifts directly sent by the Lord himself. In the past it had been described to me as a lot of hassle, persistence and intrusiveness. In hindsight I must confess that I can’t disagree more with such description. Sinhalese people seemed to me wonderfully generous men, not at all intrusive, less than less aggressive.
Climbed down from the Adam’s Peak, I wanted to go to Kandy. I’d even bought the ticket, but while I was at Hatton station taking some pics of a train that was about to leave towards east, an old man with a prophetic white beard and a perfectly round shaped belly approached me and we start chatting. He was the engine driver. I told him about my passion for trains and that once in my childhood my uncle, who was also an engine driver, took me with him for a ride on the locomotive. And the old man said that if I wanted he would take me on too. Only problem, his train was going in the opposite direction to where I was headed to. I answered that that was not a problem at all, since my plans exist only to
be abandoned at some point. I also asked if carrying a passenger on the locomotive wouldn’t cause him problems. He said No, and that: "If your uncle took you on, I can take you on too."
And off we were. I still remember that trip with my Uncle Tony. I might have been 9 or 10 then, a quarter of a century ago! I remember the excitement of that day, and the present one was not any inferior. These are the moments when I feel 100% alive; when I feel that every single molecule in my body really exists. How can I explain it? A bell is metal, isn’t it? It is substance and is always there. But if there isn’t a hand to pull the clapper (or press a button) that metal, that substance doesn’t vibrate, it exists but doesn’t live!
The locomotive was a 1959 electro-diesel Canadian engine! A jewel of ancient engineering that, apart from having not a single scratch (here doesn’t exist that sad sub-culture "vandalism=freedom" that rules in Europe), daily climbs the Sinhalese mountains up to 2000 meters above sea level, following the tortuous path designed with great skill by the British in
mid-nineteenth century. This railway is still entirely manual: switches are manual, communication is manual, in Morse code between stations, traffic control is manual, with a system called "Lock & Block." The stationmaster has 28 metal disks inserted into a kind of deposit slot from which he can extract only one disc at any given time. If one disc is out, the system gets blocked, not allowing the stationmaster to take a second disc out. The disc is handed over to the departing train and that train is consequently the only one entitled to travel that stretch of railway at that time. At the next station the disc is returned to the stationmaster who in turn will deliver it to a new train proceeding in the reverse direction, and so forth. A sort of pass of the kind that, during Middle Age, popes used to issue to illustrious travellers. An apparently "obsolete" system but which has, in fact, a lower accident rate than the semi-automatic traffic lights system and even the ultra-modern "smart” trains.
The old machinist was proud of his locomotive, of the British for the railways and of Allah for the surrounding nature. We crossed tea plantations, vegetable
crops, and finally forest. Then, climbing down from the other side of the mountain, the three landscapes were there again, in reverse order. I was fascinated by what I saw inside the locomotive as well as by the landscape flowing away out of the window. Reyal showed me the engine controls, their use and the reason why any of them was actually there. I couldn’t see the speedometer. I asked him how he managed without. He answered that after 45 years in service he didn’t need an instrument to know the speed of his locomotive.
On top there was fog. A thick one. And it was cold. Outside was dark and suddenly, in the mysterious jungle mist, the cabin door slammed open and a smiling and moustached, massively built guy entered the small room. It scared the hell out of me. I asked the driver how he came on board. He answered: "Experience." The guy, a railway’s maintenance worker who lived in a shack built next to the track itself, had climbed on the moving locomotive in the pitch dark. Not only that, he had a one litre glass bottle full for three quarters with a muddy coloured liquid
in one hand. It was white coffee. And it was hot, I had to place it on the toolbox to pour a cup for myself without getting burnt. And he had climbed up on a train in motion holding that ball of fire in one hand! Then, with equal quietness, he disappeared.
I asked the seventy years old engine driver if he ever take his grandchildren on the locomotive. He said that they are still too young, but that in old times he had taken all his four children on it, and that nowadays still take on any child who so wish. And in that moment I really became fond of him. He was a happy man who distributes happiness. Then he added that he recently took along with him a young German couple. He said that the girl didn’t stop taking notes, with time and everything: "15:33: Pulled the siren lever. 15:36: Crossed tea plantation with waterfall. 15:40: Tunnel, 500 meters long” and so on for the entire trip. He seemed puzzled, I told him not to worry, that she was German, she just couldn’t help, and that I had no intention of spending four hours as human
flight (or ride) recorder. The charm of such experiences lies in the lack of Germanic ideas (in the meaning of hyper-efficient).
He also asked me if I was married. "No". He shook his head. "Do you live by yourself?" "Yes." Another shake of the head. "When you are old you will regret it." And it is true. If a person who’s happy at work and is obviously happy at home surrounded by children and grandchildren say so, it can only be true. I told him that happiness is the only thing that really matters and that he was one of those blessed by God with this gift. He answered that it was true. He was aware and grateful.
At Bandarawela station I thanked Reyal and his assistant driver, and gave them a thousand blessings for having given me such a special day. But it wasn’t over. Outside a downpour was in full swing. The two drivers talked the matter over in Sinhalese for a while, then they said that they would stop the train near a hotel, so that I wouldn’t get wet in the journey from the station. I asked him -again- if he was sure that
such a thing wouldn’t put him in troubles. After all, a train is not a taxi, you can’t really stop wherever you want. He said: "Troubles? I’m the master of the train." ITALIANO
La versione Italiana di questo articolo è su Vagabondo.net
Link: La Locomotiva
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