Railway ties

A traveler discovers the real Burma on a train to Mandalay.


Morrie Erickson
February 27, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

The railway station's platform was teeming with people, choking with cargo. Burmese scrambled in every direction, hands clutching tickets and parcels, like the onslaught of spectators entering a sporting event. Suitcases and tiny children were handed through windows, hands were shaken, families embraced. Porters manhandled bulging rice bags up cramped staircases and through narrow corridors, returning to fetch oversized boxes labeled Sony. Bamboo poles were loaded. So were pottery and woven baskets, crates of oranges, avocados and tomatoes, piles of coiled rope, cages of squawking chickens, bamboo trays of eggs, straw-cushioned cases of Chinese beer, layers of stinking fish. It looked more like an exodus than a journey.

My friend Tammy and I were taking our own journey from Myitkyina, in northern Burma, to Mandalay, a city only about 250 miles south, but that would take us about 24 hours to reach. We got on the train in the afternoon in a compartment labeled "upper class" -- a first for both of us -- only to find out that we were sharing it with two Burmese men, one pint-sized and in his 30s, the other heavy-set and in his 60s.

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The train's whistle blew, its cars squeaked and jerked into motion, and those staying behind shouted good-byes and walked alongside, waving, until we were gone. Beyond the station, we stared out the window into the faces of hundreds of Myitkyinans turning to look, most on foot, others pedaling bicycles, riding oxcarts, straddling water buffalo, their faces showing wonder, yearning, a desire to be on that train.

We rolled slowly but inevitably out of town, then Tammy sliced the top off an avocado, which we passed back and forth, spooning out its soft, buttery flesh with crackers. The Burmese declined a dip, politely waving us no. Tammy knotted the rind and seed in a plastic bag, shoving it into the cavity below. The Burmese watched quizzically, then signaled to chuck it out the window. We shrugged them off with a smile, then settled back to watch Upper Burma pass by. Rails clack-clacked rhythmically; the tiny, skinny Burmese dozed quietly at one end of his bench while his husky companion snored noisily like a buzz-saw at the other. I checked my watch. Twenty-three hours to go.

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The train ground to a halt in a tiny village. It was a lazy place, with dogs sleeping in the shade beneath trees, pigs wallowing in mud pits, chickens slowly pecking dirt. Across the platform stood a dinky shop. I crossed to the store. On display were the usual products, ranging from toothpaste to sunglasses to bolt cutters. Being upper class and feeling extravagant, I selected a bottle of Chinese beer the size of a bowling pin, a flask of Mandalay Rum, a chocolate brick to satisfy Tammy's craving and a box of cheese-flavored crackers. I handed the purchases through to Tammy, who was gnawing on the chocolate before I could hoist myself through the window.

It was early evening when boxed dinners were handed out. Tammy and I weren't hungry. Stupidly, we hadn't bothered to ask if food would be served, simply assuming it wouldn't. Tiny and Buzz-Saw attacked theirs with a vengeance, while Tammy and I nibbled on some barbecued fowl on a spindly bone. It might have been chicken or pigeon. Maybe duck. I don't know. Tasty, though, whatever it was, its fiery sauce begging to be chased with Chinese beer. So, we chased it. Next was a plastic bag of sticky rice laced with spices and peppers, followed by another packed with soybeans softened in oil and vinegar. We stashed our leftovers beneath the bench, then watched Tiny and Buzz-Saw fling theirs out the window, Frisbee-style. Slamming onto the ground, the boxes burst open. From other parts of the train, more boxes went flying. So did newspapers, plastic bags, orange rinds, banana skins.

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Like other Southeast Asian countries, Burma litters. The casual tossing of trash menaces the landscape. At the outskirts of villages, the obscenity of the plastic bags dotted the landscape within blowing distance of the tracks, bags impaled on thorny bushes, tangled in root clusters, knotted around wagon wheels and fence posts, wedged into building slats.

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It was dark now and we were feeling the evening chill. Earlier, Tammy had climbed into the upper bunk, wrapped herself in a soft blanket she had purchased in Myitkyina and settled in with a book.

"So-o-o-o glad I bought this blanket," she said cockily, knowing I had left mine behind.

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"Bet so," was all I could muster. Wearing only shorts and a T-shirt, with goose-bumps rising on my arms like pimples on a teenager's face, I was coveting that blanket. I would have to drag out trousers and a sweater from my backpack and make do. Lowering the window stopped the breeze but not the chill.

The Burmese were turning in. Tiny scampered into his upper bunk, stripped down to a T-shirt and slacks, then stretched out beneath his bedding. It looked warm up there. Buzz-Saw pulled out a couple of blankets and what looked like a rolled-up sleeping bag. I stared hard at the sleeping bag, then watched as he made up his bed with the blankets. He wouldn't be cold under all that. I shivered, then tugged on a sweater and was ready to dig for long trousers when Buzz-Saw came to the rescue. He fumbled with the sleeping bag, not sure how to unravel it, then handed it across. "I no need," he said. "Me never use."

Slapping him on the shoulder with thanks, I grabbed the bag greedily, undid a couple strips of Velcro, rolled it out across my bench and crawled in. Tammy peered down from her upper bunk. "You lucky SOB," she said.

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About midnight, a steward came by, stood on a stool and switched off the ceiling lamp. It was pitch dark after that. Night passes strangely on a train. There are stops, occasional noises outside with passengers getting off and on, dogs barking, other trains passing on parallel tracks, whistles that become part of your dreams, the persistent clack-clacking, gentle rocking, swaying. Time dawdles and lags; clocks slowly tick out the minutes. Hours pass grudgingly. Once, I checked my watch hesitantly, fearful it would be only 2:30, but secretly hoping for 4. Shockingly, it was just 1:30. I wouldn't look again.

Sometime after that, Buzz-Saw began to snore. His performance was world-class. He led off with a snort, followed with something that sounded like a belch, then wheezed, growled and inhaled so drastically, it was like sucking water off linoleum with a vacuum. Exhaling sounded like a barking dog with a coughing fit. This wasn't snoring, it was an eruption. Nobody said a word, then I heard Tammy mutter an obscenity and flop into another sleeping position, as if that would do any good. Buzz-Saw snored on. I sat upright, zipped open my bag and started across to prod him onto his side when he grunted himself awake, turned onto his stomach and eased into a quiet sleep. Thank goodness, I thought, slipping back inside my warm bag. It was then I began wrestling with an idea forming at the edge of my mind that I needed to visit the toilet.

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When Rudyard Kipling wrote "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," he probably didn't have toilets in mind, but could have. Western toilets amount to porcelain chairs where you take a seat, do your business, then leave. Asian toilets, too, are made of porcelain, but any similarity stops there, for the Asian version is little more than a gently-sloping, floor-level pit, resembling a conical hat turned upside down, its point sliced off to about the size of an archery bull's-eye. Both are cultural statements. Let's face it, when we Westerners want to rest, we take a seat; when Asians are tired, they squat. Toilets reflect each society.

Flashlight in hand, I shuffled my way along the corridor to the rear of the car, balancing myself as the train rocked and swayed. No larger than a shower stall, the solitary toilet booth reeked of my predecessors. I finally spotted the pit, with railway ties flashing beneath it. I prepared for action, impersonating a baseball catcher, except straddling, rather than crouching behind, home plate. The train seemed to pick up speed, swaying around one bend, then another. Remaining upright was a chore. I patted the walls frantically, searching for hand grips. Surely, somebody had dropped that idea in the suggestion box. But they were nowhere to be found. It was then I remembered bringing no paper. You always bring paper into an Asian toilet. I had violated the cardinal rule and then recalled a hotel receipt in my pocket. I rode the porcelain bobsled for another minute or so, leaning into the curves, then gathered myself and retreated to the compartment where everyone -- even Buzz-Saw -- was sleeping peacefully. I crawled into my bag and dozed.

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When I awakened to daylight, both windows were open, and a brisk breeze was swirling around the compartment. Tiny and Buzz-Saw were braving the chill in tank tops, while lathering their faces with shaving foam. After that, tooth brushing got under way. Then the spitting started.

If throat clearing were an Olympic sport, Burmese would take home the gold. Hocking and spitting must be the national pastime. Passengers in other cars were brushing and spraying white globs from nearly every window. The train looked like a toothpaste commercial, sounded like a Kung Fu movie. No gender bias here. Men and women went after the clearing, hocking, retching and launching of phlegm like they had swallowed a mouthful of poison.

Truth is, it looked like fun, so I joined in. Brushing vigorously near the window, I launched a good one, careful not to stick my head out too far. Lots of goobers were airborne out there. I gargled with bottled water, then spit again, careful to avoid foot traffic and hit only weeds. I brushed again, spit, gargled noisily, then aimed a few squirts through bridge girders and doused a couple utility poles, hocking my way to Mandalay. It was more like target practice than dental care. Later, the steward came by, delivering hot tea and slices of yellow cake. We shared bananas and oranges that Buzz-Saw and Tiny bought off women outside our window at a siding. Afterward, Buzz-Saw and Tiny littered; Tammy and I stashed.

Outside, Burma was on the move. On the trail parallel to the railroad were ox carts loaded with bags of grain and baskets of vegetables; children carrying schoolbooks; hunters toting rifles; women lugging baskets stuffed with thatch; fishermen standing waist-deep in rivers; farmers watering vegetable plots from shoulder-mounted, big-headed cans. Water buffalo with the day off wandered through browned-out fields chewing stubble. This was central Burma, rice bowl of the nation, the massive plain between the mountains of Shan state to the east and Chin state on the west, most of its fields fallow now, rock-hard and empty until the summer monsoon. Hard-working people lived here, scratching out a living. Basic existence, day after day, dawn until dusk. By mid-morning, the devilish sun rose higher, beating down fiercely on villagers with only straw hats for shade.

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At noon we picked over another serving of rice and unidentifiable fowl. Soon thereafter, we stopped at another village. Locals gathered to sell us food, but the train's passengers weren't hungry, and instead handed over their half-eaten lunch boxes to the villagers, who grabbed them shamelessly. We rolled onward, skirting gold-domed pagodas, larger towns. Burmese rode double on motorcycles while overloaded trucks belched black fumes. Billboards for Lucky Strike and Marlboro, Pepsi and Budweiser littered the landscape. We passed men and women bathing in traditional, saronglike longyis at community wells, and finally crossed the Ayeyarwady, Burma's vital waterway, which stretches 1,250 miles from north of Myitkyina to the Bay of Bengal south of Yangon, the capital city formerly called Rangoon.

The platform at Mandalay station swarmed with passengers and well-wishers. Touts rushed trainside offering taxis, shouting like traders at a stock exchange, arms thrust high. Teenagers dashed inside compartments, confiscating upper-class trash. Slinging on backpacks, we descended into the masses. Twenty-four hours of upper class had been enough. It felt good to be ordinary again.


Morrie Erickson

Morrie Erickson is a freelance writer.

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