If I’d had a clue, I wouldn’t have met the Wigi
I’m traveling without a guide book. I love it, recommend it, and understand completely why so few do it. There is an amazing amount of information in those things, but guide books are dangerously easy to obey, too effective for planning, and too capable of convincing you they know everything.
I left my hotel in Kandy about 9:30 to go to Ella. The general map of Sri Lanka in my head said the two towns are not that far apart, and you can take the train. That distance…with mountains…maybe an hour or two? I guessed I would be in Ella early afternoon.
With a guide book, I would have known the next train wasn’t until 12:25, and wouldn’t have been surprised by the 7 hour circuitous route. (Fortunately the people on board were Sri Lankan, ie incredibly friendly, and the scenery through the tea estates was stunning.)
But if I’d known about the train schedule, I wouldn’t have been wandering around the empty tracks for two hours, taking pictures of the stubby flatbed cars that have been left in the sun so long they have become accidental gardens. And if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have met Wigi.
Wigi is not in the guide book.
I was climbing off one of the nearly-abandoned cars, warm metal under my fingers, when a voice called to me. I turned, wiping flecks of sticky rust off my fingertips and was happy to see it wasn’t a railroad cop. A smiling man in slacks and a collared shirt unbuttoned halfway down stood looking at me, greasy blue work gloves held in one hand. He asked the traditional Sri Lankan greeting.
“Hello sir! What is your country?” I love Sri Lanka. I have had a hundred conversations that started this way, and enjoyed every one of them. He asked the usual follow-up question as well.
“Are you married?” He inquired, and soon I knew that he has four daughters, lives outside Colombo, and is a happy man. The first two I knew from disclosure, the last by observation. He told me his name was Wigi, and he worked for the railroad, and invited me to come see his work. “Come, see, take photo, no problem!”
Wigi’s crew had removed a rotted wooden support beam, and was about to replace it with a metal one. Wigi talked while he hammered at soil turned hard as concrete by years of trains passing overheard. The claw hammer was old though, and the head kept coming off. Each time, he would patiently pick it up in his well-worn gloves and wedge it back onto the splintered handle. When the hole was deep enough, he switched to scraping with a pry bar. He told me the job doesn’t pay well, and they have to buy their own gloves. There was not a single piece of protective gear in sight.
“I have go six countries.” He told me between strikes. “I work in Kuwait, Dubai, and Iraq. I go Australia but cannot get work visa. I am kidnapped in Iraq because they thought I am CIA!” He told me he likes America, and would like to go there, but does not like that we are in so many military conflicts.
“Why America is always killing?” He asked. I had no good answer.
A little later I was back on a bench, waiting for the train when he passed by. “Our work today finish. Now we go home.” But he couldn’t resist talking to me for a couple more minutes before his train left, telling my about himself and reminding me that Sri Lanka is a former British colony. “I take train home, but in the morning I take bus because the bloody train can always be late.”
Wigi just wanted to talk, and had no angle or scheme on the tourist. But I told him I would like to buy him and his crew lunch, but he said there was unfortunately no time, his train would leave in a few minutes.
“Can I give this to you?” I ask, handing him all the money in my pocket. 250 rupees.
Wigi was astonished. He sat back down, and thanked me to the point that it was getting uncomfortable. He wrote his contact info in my journal in precise schoolbook handwriting and told me that if I ever come back to Sri Lanka he can help me buy land.
“Land here very cheap. Colombo, very expensive, but other place, very cheap. You come back Sri Lanka, you call me, I help you. Thank you sir, thank you.”
He thanked me some more, seemed blown away, gratitude spilling out of him, then had to run to catch his train. He stopped to wave twice more.
250 rupees is $2.
What a lovely story! I definitely relate to your thoughts on guidebooks…sometimes I’ve been really close to something famous without knowing, and other times not seen anything you “should see”. But interactions with people like Wigi can’t be planned!!
I’m glad I’m not the only one! If I’d gotten comments like “No guide book? You fool!” I…well, I wouldn’t really care, but I still prefer yours.
Great story about you and Wigi.
Maybe it’s because you’re used to traveling a lot that you don’t acquired a guide book.
You’re right I think, I wouldn’t have tried it on my first trip or two. Still, I probably would have brought one for Sri Lanka, but those things are heavy! The trick will be using the book to just the right extent once I’m in SE Asia…
many people live on less than one dollar per day. the $2 you gave Wigi was a lifeline. sad but true 🙂
That’s true. It makes it hard when everyone is always asking for money. I can spare $1, but can’t spare it all day every day for everyone who asks, and I have serious doubts about the real effect of doing that. I used to believe the phrase “a culture of dependency” was a right-wing justification for selfishness, but now I see it can happen. It’s a tough line to walk.
I love this! I too am a fan of the unexpected encounters we allow ourselves to have when we travel with an open and curious mind. Guidebooks can be super helpful, but you have to know when to step away from the plan. I just found your blog and really like it. I’ve been an ESL teacher as well, in Thailand and China. Where do you teach?
Exactly! Use a guide book for help, but without letting it become blinders. I’m between teaching gigs at the moment, but do it less formally than you, I suspect, although I’m headed towards SE Asia (I fly to Myanmar…tomorrow) and it’s certainly a possibility. Were both Thailand and China good places to teach? Did you prefer one or the other?
I much preferred teaching in China over Thailand, but every other aspect of the journey I enjoyed more in Thailand. I could be biased, though, because I taught university (my favorite) in China, and only younger students in Thailand. However, I found the Chinese students to be a little more motivated in the classroom.
I’m envious you’re going to Myanmar! I can’t wait to read about it. Let me know if you have any questions about teaching – I’m happy to help!
I can imagine university would be more interesting. Wow, I want to try that! How much homework did you give? I never appreciated how important students’ motivation levels were when I was a student, although I bet that’s typical. I want to go back and apologize to my 11th grade English teacher. I was too distracted by hormones to pay attention to The Great Gatsby! (I bet he already knew that.) I’ll let you know on teaching questions, thank you!
I myself wasn’t the best high school student, so I tried to keep that in mind while teaching high school in Thailand, but it’s difficult! They were pretty terrible, for the most part.
Really? That surprises me, Thailand has a reputation as more dedicated students than that. (I’ve heard Korea/Japan has the best students and the worst are in…nevermind, I like Spain too much to spread rumors about them.) I think that empathy is a good place to start. I just hope I don’t get any who were like me! I spent a lot of time outside on the bench during elementary school…
I’ve heard that about Korea too! I don’t know much about Spanish students, but teaching in Spain would be awesome. I studied there in college and loved it. Where were you?
I have only done a week-long volunteer thing in Spain, and it was only slightly hard to get them to participate, but I’ve heard the preference for partying extends from high school through Master’s Degrees. The country is beautiful though, so as long as you have the right attitude towards it, committed to trying but not linking your wellbeing to results…I agree, it would be a great place to teach!
Good point! They do love a good party there.
Guidebooks, are after all, only guides, not mandates or bibles. Keep it in your back pocket, but walk forward with your eyes open to all the side roads where adventures hide.
–> The one of the men on the tracks should be the May image of your calendar.
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