EVIE FARRELL revisits her backpacker days in Sri Lanka during a life-changing adventure with her six-year-old daughter, Emmie
Sri Lanka had lovely memories for me. Twenty years before, I’d travelled solo around the country and then met up with my friend, George, on its southern coast. I could still picture us on the beach at Unawatuna – young, happy and carefree. I love how travel transports me emotionally, and remembering those days made me smile. There’s so much freedom travelling with kids, but it’s freedom with responsibility. Backpacking when you’re young is an experience that can’t be replicated with little ones in tow.
Emmie and I had been on the road for almost 18 months when we arrived in Sri Lanka. I was trying to teach Emmie again, which meant we were arguing, and I was getting tired of it. All of a sudden, I was finding it difficult to back my own decisions, second-guessing myself and being short tempered and grumpy.
What was bugging me at the time was money – or lack of it. I loved the way we’d travelled. It had been easy in part because we didn’t have a strict budget to stick to. I tried to keep us mostly low spending, staying in hostels and cheap guesthouses, and eating local and riding public transport. But if Emmie or I wanted to do something, we did it, and our dwindling funds reflected that.
The guesthouse we’d booked in Kandy was questionable at best. It was reasonably clean but far out of town, and young men were lounging around on the couches in tracksuit pants, playing on their phones. I didn’t want to stay, so we decided to head north for a bit. We grabbed a tuk tuk to the bus station, found a minibus to Dambulla, bought some pakoras and vegetable pastries at one of the shops, and jumped on. At Dambulla, we took another tuk tuk to Sigiriya.
The next morning we were up early, to climb to the top of the ancient rock fortress at Sigiriya. It reminded me a little of Uluru, jutting 200m out of the flat earth, red and rusty. We walked through some of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world, up staircases and past moats and rock murals. Then came the final ascent, past the huge carved Lion’s Paw and up a narrow staircase to the top, and the stunning ancient palace ruins.
After lunch, we were picked up in a jeep, by a couple of young blokes, for our elephant safari. It cost us $50, and we had the whole vehicle to ourselves as we set off into the park, stopping almost straight away to peer through the trees at a family of elephants mooching around the bush. Suddenly we turned onto a huge open plain, and Emmie and I burst into tears. In front of us were hundreds of elephants wandering in the grass and playing in the ancient reservoir. They roamed together, guarding their little ones, running and hanging out under the blue sky, happy and free. It was the most amazing and unexpected sight I’d ever seen, and we spent hours watching them.
Driving back to our guesthouse, Emmie screamed and grabbed my arm. “No! Mummy, look, the elephant has chains on,” she cried, tears on her cheeks. We stopped and got out to see the elephant. Her owner came to us to offer us a ride.
“I would never ride your beautiful elephant,” said Emmie. “Why can’t you let her free?”
“It is my income,” he answered. “But you can buy her for US$18,000.”
This poor elephant was standing on dirt under the shade of the small tree she was tied to. Her skin was mottled and she was swaying while, only a few kilometres away, wild elephants were free.
“We have to tell people not to ride elephants, mum,” Emmie said. And she did. We made a little video and shared it on our Facebook and Instagram pages. I loved that she was becoming passionate about the things she was seeing and thinking of ways to raise awareness.
The next day, we took a bus back to Kandy. There were no seats, so Emmie perched on the console right next to the driver, while I stood. As we drove on, the kind Sri Lankan people rearranged themselves like a puzzle to make room for Emmie on a seat. We bumped along in an audio soup of blaring pop music from the driver’s radio, videos with information of wild elephants on roadways playing on the TV, and horns honking at us.
We had an early start the next day for a ride on the blue train to the mountains of Ella. Sitting in train doorways, when I was exploring Sri Lanka alone all those years before, was one of my favourite memories of that trip. I was so looking forward to sharing the doorway-hang magic with Emmie, but first I had to buy tickets.
Getting train tickets can be tricky in Sri Lanka, especially since the blue train route between Kandy and Ella is such an iconic trip. There were no tickets left for our train, but we were going to try to get two of the few that were sold on the day, by queuing super early at the ticket counter. In fact, we went one better, after a couple of backpackers we were chatting to during a cultural dance performance that afternoon suggested driving 20 minutes’ to the next town, which was non-touristy, so we could buy our tickets quickly without having to queue.
We followed their advice and had our seats within minutes. We bought some short eats — curry puffs, savoury pastries and bread — and water for our ride, stowed our pack in the overhead rack and checked our seats. We were ready to go.
“Come on, Emmie, let’s sit in the doorway,” I said with a huge smile as the train slowly moved out of town. I couldn’t wait to share this with her.
We wandered to the vestibule at the end of the carriage, pulled open the heavy door and sat down next to each other, thongs off and stashed behind us, bums on the carriage floor and feet hanging below. We held on to the smooth silver handrails as the hypnotic beat of the wheels clicking over the tracks filled our heads and vibrated through our bodies, and we gazed out over the bush, green paddies, palms, waterfalls and mountains. We passed villages and locals waiting alongside the tracks for the train to pass – children in school uniforms, women in bright, colourful saris and men in their traditional loose pants. We watched women picking leaves in tea plantations that grew up mountainsides, and passed through old white train stations with colonial architecture and names painted in a distinctive black font. Long, golden weeds whipped our feet, and we bought peanuts and samosas from men who sold them as the train sped between stations, the food wrapped in their children’s handwritten pages of homework. It was serene, it was peaceful, it was everything I needed to calm my churning mind.
I knew we would have to go home soon to work and save, but knowing that magic like this would be waiting for us to come back to made it all OK.
MORE INFORMATION: sltda.gov.lk