First of all, it was hot. The temperature outside was around 40 degrees Celsius and it felt like twice that in the cramped car. We were near a window so we figured we would get a nice breeze once the train started moving. We didn’t realize that the train would never really start moving. It crawled along so slowly that the only way you could get any breeze was to stick your head out the window, but that obviously wasn’t possible. I suppose you could sit up on the roof—a lot of people were doing just that. We did get quite a bit of rain during our journey, so they probably weren’t all that comfortable either, but at least they weren’t being cooked alive.
The slow speeds are necessary because Burmese trains run on extremely old, narrow gauge tracks. This means that even with the slow speed, the cars bounce around like a carnival ride, making it 100% certain that we would not sleep for a single minute. Not that we would have been able to sleep had the ride been smooth. Nor did we want to. The train would arrive at our stop between 1 and 5am—with no announcement in the train and no electricity outside, so we wouldn’t be able to read the sign, even if it were in English. Even awake, we would need a good bit of luck to get off at the right station.
I think I was just about the only person on the train who wasn’t smoking and I was definitely alone in not chewing betel nuts. As a result, the hot, suffocating air was made even less pleasant and the betel nut spit was flying freely. People who were near a window were constantly launching mouthfuls of blood-red saliva out of the train. Of course it’s hard to be accurate in a car that never stops jumping so a lot of the spit just bounced off the sides of the windows and left little red droplets all over us all. Those who weren’t near a window just spit their mouthfuls on the floor. Since the floor was generally located under about a layer of luggage and two layers of humans, a lot more people left the train wearing red than got on.
Every time one of the people near a window felt a drop of rain, they would immediately slam the window shut, followed almost instantly by every other window on the train. Even if all the people by a window were sleeping, the sound of one window shutting had them awake and groping for their own window in an instant. They’ve clearly been trained from birth. Thankfully.
Try to imagine what would have happened if they’d left the window open for even a few seconds more. First, fresh air would have continued to very slowly make its way into and through the car. It may have even pushed out some of the tobacco smoke. Our eyes may have stopped tearing.
But much, much worse, some of us might have been hit by one (or even several) drops of water. Who wants to feel the refreshing coolness of water after spending hours—hot, sweaty and dusty—in a steaming, smoking train car? It may have even washed some of the betel nut spit off us. But, like I said, we didn’t have to worry about that. Our Burmese neighbors were on top of it. My friend did try to open our window once when the rain had not yet completely let up, but luckily the guy across from us flipped out and slammed it back shut immediately. Crisis averted.
Despite there being absolutely zero free space in the train (and apparently also on top of the train), all day and all night a constant stream of vendors made their way through (and over) our car. Men, women and children were selling all the same things as the hawkers on the platform at every station, but it seemed those who sold things with a high potential to be annoying were doing the best business: basically that includes betel nuts first and foremost, all forms of tobacco next and then alcohol and noise-making kids’ toys.
You’re probably wondering how they made it through the car given the bags, boxes and bodies crammed into every space large enough to hold them and into all the spaces not large enough as well. They climbed. Holding onto luggage racks, light fixtures and anything else they could use to keep their balance, they monkeyed their way over seat-backs and armrests at a rate of about one every two minutes. That’s an average. Most of the time three or four would come through at the same time and usually in opposite directions. And somehow, every single one of the vendors managed to hit my head with their foot or their basket.
One of the women selling homemade meals (these were actually good and I bought a bunch of them over the 20 hours) was very pregnant. My friend estimated eight or nine months. Probably nine. I was fully prepared to have a baby land in my lap every time she passed overhead.
After 20 hours of that, we were more than ready to get off that train. With some help from our fellow victims passengers, we actually managed to locate our stop. We climbed out the window to avoid disturbing everyone and landed in almost total darkness. Once the train had left, the only light remaining came from some of the other passengers who had gotten off at our stop. They were locals though and all had someone meet them, so we were soon left alone on the platform.
Series continued in part 5: I will cheat you and you will like it!