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.

That big white building is a processing factory.

That big white building is a processing factory.

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.

Not crazy about how it turned out, but here's a stubby train car.

Not crazy about how it turned out, but here’s a stubby train car.

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 is the one in the yellow hat.

Wigi is the one in the yellow hat.

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.