Friday, 04 May, 2013
Bob Percival

The Mandalay Express is scheduled to leave Yangon from Platform 1 at 3.00pm, so I arrive two hours early. Everything takes longer here. It is hot, and it will only get worse. You sweat just sitting still. In Myanmar, waiting is part of life. Waiting for the bus, waiting for the train, waiting for the rain to come. There is already talk about when the monsoon will break, and that isn’t for another two months. And of course, the biggest wait of all is that for the promised open election in 2015. I’m catching the Mandalay Express because I want to write a piece on Paul Theroux, who completed the same journey in 1971, and again in 2008.

On the platform, the old man opposite me is smoking a cheroot, sitting cross-legged on a red plastic seat, his eyes looking off into a contemplative distance. Women, children and monks fill the other seats. Across the rest of the platform, small islands of families sprawl out on the cool terrazzo floors, reading comics and newspapers, eating out of stainless-steel tiffin boxes, and cooling themselves with cheap pink paper fans. The Burmese are voracious readers. Most of the people on the platform appear silent and lethargic, relaxed and thoughtful. The piercing sound of a long whining horn belches from the departing 1.00pm train to Pyay, It sounds like a prehistoric animal in pain.

Myanmar people are proud and patient. Patient with a government that is very slowly opening up this country, and fiercely proud of their own ethnicity and religion, a pride that has the potential to rip Myanmar apart at the seams. One of Myanmar’s greatest challenges, if true democracy arrives, will be to overcome the sectarian and ethnic tension that recently has exploded into a deathly violence.

I am waiting for the train. A young man comes up and sits next to me. He is chewing beetle nut, and has a wide about-to-spit-red smile. He takes the pen from my hand and sprawls his flourishing signature across the page of my book with pride. He gives me another beetle-nut smile, red and salivating; then spends the next half-hour trying to teach me a small part of the Burmese alphabet.

With a new belching of a horn, the Mandalay Express finally arrives. There is a gentle and quite rush of passengers to the gates, a marked change from the mayhem and noise of Chinese train stations. On board, the sleeping compartment is clean and bright, with crisp white sheets and pillowcases. I am sharing the cabin with an American man, and a Burmese grandmother and her three-year-old granddaughter. The grandmother calls for the guard to change compartments, not feeling comfortable to be alone with two foreign men. She is told she has to stay-put. With a few nervous smiles we all become friends. The grandmother and child are quite. The American is loud. He starts to tell me what a great photographer he is. I decide it’s safer just to stare out the window.

As the train pulls away I see a junkyard of plastic bags littering the tracks; a continuing motif throughout the trip. In the near distance the spires of St Mary’s church rise above the grime and smog of the city; the shanty houses, built of scrap iron and timber, pass by. A nearby concrete apartment-block appears to tilt earthwards, an anarchic growth of wooden verandahs sprouting from its side. Young girls walk beside the train with crimson umbrellas. The grandmother throws a plastic bag out the window, as though throwing a flower to the gods. It took Thoreau five minutes to leave the city and enter the country. Now it takes forty.

The train rides the rail with a gentle up and down movement, like that of a cantering horse, then breaks into a galloping stride. The carriages of the train buck and sway, rearing up from the buckled rails beneath. This wild rampage will not let up for the next sixteen hours; it’s like a large fat man jumping on the end of your bed, hour after hour. What initially is an interesting travel experience becomes a nightmare of sleeplessness; a long slow torture, punctuated by brief moments of respite when the train pulls into a stop. The grandmother and her granddaughter have no trouble sleeping, curled up against each other, young and old; the American wanders into the night looking for someone to talk to.

Looking out the window of the Mandalay Express is like looking at Indian cinema. The images flash past, one continuous long camera shot … three young women dressed in exquisitely coloured longyi walking across a dusty hot field, adorned with thakata, red lipstick, and hair-ties … a wild bison runs through the dry paddy field, its dust trail picking up the colours of a crumbling sunset … two woman standing at the edge of a track, hands on hips, looking … two men walking along the banked ridges of the paddy fields, talking and smoking cheroot … a sheet of electric blue sky intersects with an expanse of spring green land …  green paddy fields lay soft against broken wooden fences … pink lilies float in green ponds … the  dusk air holds the smell  sweating vegetation … a golden pagoda catches the last light of day  …Thoreau would have seen similar images. He chose not to write about them.

We pull into Mandalay station early the next morning. I am shattered, as is the American; the grandmother is combing her luxurious hair, twisting it into a tight bun, the child looks at me, and smiles for the first time. The coming of the monsoon will be a relief. I wish Theroux could be here, waiting with me. We could sit in the teahouse, or the bar, being cynical and misanthropic, and then we could talk about all the beautiful things in life.




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