Posted by: Carolyn O'Donnell | May 28, 2012

Burma: Hot and itchy train travel

Memories of Myanmar: I might try to forget this train journey but I probably won’t

Thankfully I’m not always hot and itchy when I travel, but Burma allows many options for just that. In fact, the following describes the hottest, itchiest, and yet most memorable train journey I have ever taken.

This is an extract from a longer work, describing a journey to Myitkyina, a trading town with China in the north of the country.

A retired army officer with a pompous air developed over years of happily telling other people what to do is the other passenger in my compartment. He wants to practice his English. And sit on my berth. Seating himself comfortably on the cracked vinyl and spreading himself out, he looks me over with a disappointed air.

‘You are only tourist lady on train. So I must look after you.’ He sighs into his generous belly as if to indicate what an immense duty and burden this is. Looking up at the bunk above his head he announces: ‘My berth. Not like up that one. We both sleep here’ – indicating where we are presently ensconced – ‘sitting up.’

I don’t think so. The whole reason I have a berth is so I don’t have to sleep sitting up. Because sleeping sitting up, to me, is a contradiction in terms. In my crystal backpack I foresee this sitting up, accompanied by gnashing of teeth, cursing and much pondering of why this night never seems to end, but sleeping? That is one activity not taking place.

‘I can’t sleep sitting up,’ I inform him. ‘That’s why I got a sleeper.’ He ignores this and proceeds to spread his large body out further on my berth. Fanning himself, he leans back and looks at me resentfully as I sit by the window. I know he is having fantasies about pushing me out of this window – which by the way has no glass, just a rickety wooden shutter that looks like it hasn’t been closed since the British left.

I rather resent being resented for occupying the seat I have paid for, but I decide to ignore him and get on with the business of staring at the changing landscape and just enjoying being on a rattly train. There may be something lush and scenic to admire and I don’t want to miss that.

Unfortunately my army man starts talking again. ‘Four years ago I met a teacher and we spoke English together,’ he says.  ‘It was greatly more satisfying to talk with her.’

I am tempted to say that it is a pity she isn’t here now because then the two of them could sit on the top berth together and leave me alone. He keeps asking me the same questions and accusing me of not telling him the answers. As I repeat ‘I was in London for 12 years’ for the sixth time, I hope I am earning points in some astral place for my patience. His lack of short-term memory is only matched by his desire to give helpful tips.

‘Do you have friends in Myitkyina?’ he asks.
‘No.’
‘It would be much better for you if you had friends in Myitkyina.’
‘Well yes, I guess it would.’
‘You should have friends in Myitkyina!’ he proclaims reproachfully.
I am open to all friendly offers, but as it turns out, when we finally do get to Myitkyina, he barrels out of the carriage without so much as goodbye.

My state of friendlessness in Myitkyina is a source of concern, but a throbbingly Technicolor sunset brightens my mood. As night falls, fireflies manifest in trees by the tracks as a progressively ominous series of safety warnings manifest inside the carriage from my travelling encumbrance. I mean companion. He seems to express concern for my wellbeing, but most of this concern seems to gravitate around reasons for him not to heave himself onto that top bunk.

Being a Burmese train, ie ancient, hugely overcrowded and about to fall apart, the corridors are crammed with people. A few limbs are poking around the carriage door, which The Encumbrance refuses to shut because I am female and it would be improper for him to be alone with me (although sleeping on my berth is apparently fine). I guess people would talk – probably all those people I should be friends with in Myitkyina, along with all the people who speak
English in a satisfactory manner.

He goes on and on about safety, about the immense danger of people coming through the door or window to attack me, bellowing above the noise of the jolting, bucking train that thuds and rolls along the track, every now and then rhythmically banging its way across the sleepers.

‘I have to take care of you,’ he tells me solemnly again, in case I have forgotten. ‘You are the only tourist woman on train.’

I am not afraid, just hot mainly, but it is feasible that the person attached to the foot I can see on the floor could be desperate enough to sneak in and take my stuff in the hope of finding something useful. I wouldn’t blame them frankly, but it would be a colossal pain in the ass.

It is important to note at this point that Burma is extremely warm at any time, but during this month it probably sets some record for sweltering humidity. As I step on and over people lying in the corridor and between the carriages on the way to the dank pit that passes for toilet facilities, I think how hot they must be with other hot sweaty people lying on top of them. Some of them are lying against the door of the ‘facilities’ and they have to stand up so I can go in. To
get out I am shoving against bodies to open the door. The thought of using this again ensures no beer passes my lips. There is also no running water on this train. Amtrak and British Rail never seemed so appealing.

At stations, well I say stations, but they are more like a collection of wooden huts really, people run up and down with buckets and bowls. Selling water for hand washing is a business option here.

Assessing the situation back in the carriage, I realize the only thing I can lock my bag to safely is a pole at the foot of the top bunk. Groaning under my breath, up I go. The Encumbrance is thrilled – he can enjoy the breeze and snore away in total comfort while I stew away above.

And I am really stewing – I am so hot you could fry eggs on me, except I am so sweaty they would slide off. There is no air and no leg room because my bags are at one end of the berth. Lying in a fetal position and slowly dissolving into some kind of simmering flesh sauce, I fan myself until I doze off, only to wake again when the squashing and sweating becomes acute.

I go on like this for hours. It’s bad when we are moving, and then it gets worse.
About 10.30pm there is a momentous, apocalyptic bang and the train bucks and thuds frantically. For a moment I think the train is going to bounce off its tracks, then it spasms to a halt. Later I discover two passengers crammed between the carriages have fallen asleep and fallen onto the tracks, killing them both.

Once we’ve halted, that’s it for the next five and a half hours. I fan, doze, sweat and fan, cursing the train occasionally, but mostly The Encumbrance below whose noisily oblivious slumber is incensing me to the point where I’d like to push him under the train too.

At 4am we finally move again, the temperature drops half a degree and I doze, only to wake at 6am when the train stops again. There seems to be no compelling reason to move so I doze and fan until 9am. By then The Encumbrance has disappeared and I go in search of, well anything really.

Three people in the next compartment see me pause by their door and motion me in, but I smile and move on. I want a bathroom. Climbing down from the train, I see a collection of huts that appears to be a station, so I wander over to them. Then a young man appears and asks what I need. He helps me to find a bathroom of sorts, then urges me back to the train. He accompanies me, and turns out to be one of the three people in the next compartment.

Luxury Burmese style: My friends in First Class. Khin is on the right

Things look up here, mainly because they are friendly and have a sense of humor. The young man is a captain in the army, commanding large battalions on the Thai border at the age of only 26. He has an open smiley face, and though I didn’t notice him before, I notice him now.

He is tall and lean and his English is a bit hesitant, but he manages to tell me that he likes the pop group Westlife and Britain’s Chelsea Football Club. I am finding him quite appealing, and he just becomes more appealing as the day goes on.

What is with me? Am I turning into some kind of lecherous cougar-type creature preying on young men? I was never like this when I was younger; I harbored certain unrealistic fantasies about soulmates and romantic love but lust made me anxious.

A friend and I used to lunch in town together and she was always swiveling about peering at any blokes passing by while I was trying to explain my latest existential crisis, getting to the bit where I tried to reconcile my affinity for popular culture with the yearning to contribute something substantial to the world and she’d typically look into the distance and say: ‘He’s cute.’

To which I’d say, ‘Who? Where?’ and I’d explain the bit about the dream with Meryl Streep hiding in the laundry basket again. Another friend from that era used to decide she needed a man and just go to a bar and find one. Or retreat to her room – if you could hear the buzzing of the little motor in her vibrator at the door you knew it was best to return later.

Gay men like to ‘shop’ too. I drove around Germany with a pal called Martin who fretted every day about his tan fading because he wasn’t spending enough time at the solarium. His head bobbed around like a cork as he walked down the street checking out any passing talent. When we reached Dresden, he said: ‘Men are looking at you.’
‘What men? Where?’
‘Yes,’ he sniffed. ‘They are looking at you, and then they are looking at me, and then they think we are a couple. Get over there!’ He indicated a space two or three meters away, but I liked to torment him, so I moved closer.

Frisky was once a word that only entered my vocabulary when I was talking about ponies. But I was feeling frisky now. I guess being broiled alive and lack of sleep can do that to a person.

After an hour or so of coaxing bits of information from my new military friend, whose name sounded something like Khin, I know that he is going back to his posting, and his companions are a husband and wife on a business trip. She has circles of thanaka on her cheeks and is clutching a plastic reproduction of a designer bag. I think I make her nervous, but she looks pleased when I compliment her fake ‘French’ accessory.

Her husband is dressed in a lungyi and singlet, and looks frequently amused by our conversation, even though his English is non-existent. I tell them I am hungry so my new menfriends and I return to the huts where they insist on buying lunch. The food is dubiously oily, but I manage to eat some egg and rice. The businessman wanders off so I ask Khin what he does.

Khin thinks for a few minutes. ‘He is … does … in … treasure.’
Treasure?
When I hear treasure it makes me think of pirates, possibly in the Caribbean, but definitely chests and deep sea divers and idiots throwing gemstones off the Titanic.

Lateral thinking eventually solves the puzzle. He is a gold and diamond merchant. No wonder he looks happy, Burma is rich in gemstones, particularly rubies and sapphires. I’ve seen a fabulous gold knuckleduster of a ring in Mandalay studded with what I think are sapphires for a few hundred dollars, and a gloriously large flat ruby the size of a squashed coin in Rangoon. However it’s buyer beware, and it wouldn’t hurt to deploy some resources in gem appraisal beyond, ‘This one’s a nice color … Oooh, that’s a nice shape. Wow, this one is a nice color AND a nice shape.’

After food and sugary coffee and the kind of laughter that is a welcome release of pent-up hysteria, I am almost glad to be on the train. Though we are still stationary. Every time I get off my new friends seem to panic – I guess they don’t want me to get left behind, but we sit and sit and sit. I want to go and see what is wrong with this locomotive, but there’s no enthusiasm from my new mates.

About 1pm there is a great commotion and skinny legs are bolting for the train from all directions. About 2pm we creak off. Twenty minutes later we come to a halt again. But now apparently we’re all getting off. I don’t know how my friends know this, but I am hustled back to my compartment.

Impromptu trek: Try to avoid getting trampled

The Encumbrance is nowhere to be seen or heard. As I am packing my things and hoisting my pack, Khin appears at the window and silently takes the bag from me. Climbing down, I join the other three and then the four of us tramp through bushes and long grass up the side of the train trying not to be trampled by the rest of the passengers who are fighting to get past, most of them dragging children or dazed relatives, balancing boxes on their heads and banging into each other with plastic bags full of lumpy goods.
Khin takes me up the front now, and I am astounded to see the engine and first carriage are completely derailed: they have fallen off the tracks and are lying on their sides. Looking at the state of the rails and the train itself I am not that surprised this doddery locomotive has given up the will to remain upright, I am just amazed that the train could be affected in such a terminal and dramatic fashion while gliding to a halt as though there was a contradictory signal up ahead.

Time to get off: This train is ready for rehab

I snap a few quick photos before someone takes the camera off me, and these images not only give me something to talk about the rest of the time I am in the country, but when I describe the accident they provide vital verification.
‘Yes, there were three accidents. After the last one, we had to get off because the front of  the train was derailed.’
‘Uh huh.’
‘It was a pretty definitive derailment. That train wasn’t going anywhere. Let me show you the photos.’
‘Good God! You were on THAT train? What happened? Did anyone die?’
‘Well yes, but that was the first accident. Weren’t you listening?’

Newspaper reports at the time said the line was closed due to floods. Burmese
misinformation. As I wander about, saying no, this is why the line was closed, I feel I am doing a small act to disseminate the truth and eliminate some minor propaganda. Minor, that is unless you expect to travel north by rail.

The truth about the impromptu trek along the track is that it is damn hot. We reach a small ravine that has a few bits of wood laid across it. A railway employee stands at the side, directing the hiking hordes to the middle of the planks – too near the edge and there is nothing to prevent you tumbling off. I just concentrate on putting my feet on wood and not tripping over anything.

To my surprise, there is actually another train up ahead. Chickens and bags of rice are being tossed about but we ascend to the relative calm of what passes for first class, Myanmar style. At this point I am grateful to sit down.

‘Where you been?’ huffs The Encumbrance, who doesn’t listen to the answer. He
grumpily sorts through his belongings as I stare out the window and ignore him. Fifteen minutes later, we halt at the next station and we all have to get off again. Khin appears, I hand him the pack and we dismount. The train manager pops in to see if I am OK.

Waiting pain: Passengers at the station hoping another train will appear

Again I say station, but it is a collection of shack-like wooden buildings surrounded by people squatting in the dirt. Apart from the plants, pretty much everything is brown. Being the only tourist lady on the train, my welfare is, rather embarrassingly, of some
importance to the railway management. As everyone takes up a position in the dust, me and my
entourage are ushered into Shack No 1, which is the nucleus of power. It contains a wooden bench and a table and a couple of men in uniform who seem unused to foreign visitors. We dump our bags on the bench and the men in uniform find me a place to sit. I look around to see if
there is anything resembling a bathroom, but there doesn’t appear to be a any running water.

Then the train manager decides the tourist lady will be more comfortable outside sitting on what passes for a verandah in the breeze. Somebody finds an enormous wooden chair with huge flat armrests and two of them drag it outside, where it sits, parked on its own, looking down on the squatting multitudes.

The railway staff are very pleased with themselves now and gesture proudly towards to what looks like a large wooden throne that has been arranged for visiting minor royalty.

As I place myself in it, I suddenly know how Princess Margaret must have felt on a tour of the provinces. I feel like I should be waving and smiling at my people as I survey my territory. My friends meanwhile are perched on a rock and laughing at me.

While inexpressibly grateful for how incredibly nice everyone is being, it is a little boring being the Most Important Guest. After about ten minutes on my throne, I am quite happy to vacate it and join the proletariat again. Khin brings me a can of beer then, so I sit on the throne a bit longer, consuming that with as much regal dignity as I can muster, though I have some concern about bladders and bathrooms. When the can is empty, I am more than ready to join the people, and I have stopped caring how long this journey takes, or what happens next. In fact, now I think I may even be doing real travel. No one can accuse me of blindly following the tourist track here.

Hot and smiley: A small passenger ventilates the abdomen while waiting for developments

Then I meet a lovely monk, who speaks perfect English and tells me what happened to the poor people who fell under the train in the first accident.
‘In Myanmar you need to be patient,’ he says. Then he teaches me to say ‘Mingalaba,’ which means hello, or royal saluations and great fortune to meet you – something like that.

With some sadness, I see our next rain arrive and Khin takes my pack and we climb aboard. Even more sadly I am back with The Encumbrance.
‘Mingalaba,’ I greet him when he appears.

‘Where you learn mingalaba?’ he demands crossly. I want to ignore him but he gets out his book collection. Dear God, I am so bored I want to give myself paper cuts just to relieve the monotony as he massacres some Readers Digest version of Hamlet and wants to discuss it.


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