Taking the Burmese train

Yes, there are two types of people in this world. There are those whose body clocks rouse them early, snapping them awake at dawn and leaving them to fade hopelessly with the dusk and then there are the “night owls” – who rise foggy and confused yet come to life just in time to sample all the pleasures of the night.

I am definitely in the former category, a good thing occasionally, an annoyance frequently, from the “Can you please not be so chirpy until I’ve had my morning coffee,” grumbles to the “What do you mean you’re in bed, it’s only 9.30pm,” exclamations, to which you have to pretend you weren’t feeling well, rather than admit the truth – that you knew you were unlikely to achieve anything more with your day, so you thought you would just go to bed and allow the morning to arrive a little bit sooner.

Sometimes, though, our private habits and weirdisms reward us and never was that truer than the day I took the Burmese train.

The train left at dawn but it wasn’t just any dawn, it was a Burmese dawn – that flooding of milky pink light that warms up the alcoves and sends the rats scuttling back to their holes, quietly furious that they will have to wait 15 hours before they can once again venture out and feast on the passengers’ discarded rubbish.

And if the rats are sulky at that time then alarm clocks are even sulkier – which may explain all the passengers sleeping overnight, placing their rattan mats and blankets on the hard wooden benches, below rafters filled with pigeons, rather than risk over-sleeping and missing the off.

The train is old, of course it’s old, it’s museum worthy, what with all the seat numbers and signs in English and the carefully labelled “upper class” compartment that’s filled with huge seats, all broken and rusting. The overhead fans can’t have seen a whirr in sixty years.

I am opposite a woman who sits cross-legged as she clutches a large pink basket full of treats. To her left sits an elderly monk, his red robes and bare feet tucked carefully beneath him as he chuckles quietly at his Monk Times, a Burmese newspaper with an appropriately large cartoon of a monk on the front, also chuckling.

And then the last bags are thrown, the children are kissed, the goodbyes are shouted and we are off… clack clack thud, clack clack thud.

The monk is the first victim. He is thrown wildly into the air before the second clack has stopped clacking. Whatever it was that had previously secured his seat to the train floor exists no longer. Perhaps it was a screw, perhaps a nail but now there is nothing, save for the monk rising and crashing, rising and crashing (he gives me a look I know all too well from Colombia, that eye-rolling sigh of gentle, affectionate despair that we all cling to when it is clear our country hasn’t quite got itself together)

The ticket inspector is called for – a teenage boy in a vest and longyi– who looks horrified at the monk, but is perhaps not surprised, given that he already has a hammer and a large nail in his right hand. The monk – still caught between irritation and despair – is given a moment’s respite by the fat man opposite, who kindly shifts his weight beside the holy man, rooting their seat to the floor with more certainty than any screw.

But it remains a temporary solution and the boy hammers furiously until the monk is reduced to the ranks of the rest of us. He will still bounce, of course, but only when a particularly bad stretch of track demands it and then we will all suffer together, every few miles or so.

Looking through the window at this scene of peculiarly human futility is the dawn light, filtering its way through the trees as we lose the city to the countryside. It’s a powerful thing, the dawn light. It laughs at a great many more human failings than this one. Bouncing chairs are nothing beside our efforts to paint and capture that light, nature’s way of reminding us where we stand – the soft creamy yellow, the clash of the mist, the glint on the bicycle handles, the glare on a pointed rattan hat.

The dawn light looks into the train where, by now, our stomachs are fully awake. You could get quite fat on a Burmese train, tended by young girls and old men, the former carrying enormous baskets of snacks on their heads as they weave through the train, jumping between the carriages and riding smoothly through the jolts, their cargo intact.

Dawn makes you hungry, fortunately and I try most things, except the prawn fritters because… well, just because. I am soon left with a dirty plastic cup and a few stained napkins and the woman in front of me leans forward, smiling kindly and gesturing happily at the open window, which is clearly the intended destination for my small pile of rubbish.

And then I am stuck, you see, because I am British, torn between my reluctance to litter and my fear of appearing impolite. I smile back and clutch my chest in a pathetic attempt to explain my love for the countryside beyond the window, which is growing hotter every second and is covered in rubbish anyway.

The woman understands me – this ain’t her first rodeo – and the Tea Man is called for. He looks irritated to have a dirty cup shoved onto his tray and we know he is going to fling it into the fields the moment he enters the next carriage. Fortunately my conscience at these moments extends only to my own actions, which leaves everyone happy with the situation except, perhaps, the Tea Man and no-one seems too worried about him.

The journey is supposed to take four hours… clack clack thud, clack clack thud. It takes five, which is not bad for an old man who should have retired long ago. The monk survives, the fat man survives, even the seat survives – the only casualty is the monk’s lunch, chicken and noodles jammed into a polystyrene box, which he eats at a moment so inopportune, it takes the remains of his newspaper down with it. We all bounce together that time, afraid to look at one another lest we laugh or worse, miss-time our landings and lose our last scrap of dignity.

The dawn train is a morning train by then and it will soon be an afternoon train and then the whole thing will begin again, clack clack thud, clack clack thud. And then it’s just a race to see which comes first, the progress or the failure of the last nail, clack clack thud, clack clack crash. Hopefully it will be the former but it depends on your view of things, whether human comfort or lyrical romanticism is your thing, whether you enjoy being laughed at by the dawn light, whether you value your lunch, whether you value your bones, clack clack thud, clack clack thud.

[NB: I took a month off to visit Myanmar. I will be back in Colombia in just over a week]

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.

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3 Comments

  1. HARRY S

    Wow you really get around. Burma, fascinating. Excellent writing. I now I dont have to go to Burma because if feel as though I’ve already been there. I always feel better after reading your stuff.

  2. Cham

    Love this, and your fabulous ‘lists’ on Colombia and all else. So uplifting and heartfelt. Living vicariously through your blog and wishing to atleast ‘astrally project’ myself to Cali to learn the maddeningly beautiful Salsa Caleña..Have a lovely break in Myanmar. Que tenga un lindo dia!!!

  3. Ceri

    That photo is beautiful and I really love this piece of writing. It reminds me of reading some Paul Theroux or something. You’ve captured everything so well. It feels like I’m right there with you.

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