Monday, June 12, 2006

Getting Train-ed

I have a love/hate relationship with the train. Every time we book a ticket, and most especially when we reserve a sleeping berth, it sounds romantic and fun -- such a charming alternative to the bus. Then we board the train and everything changes. Romance is out the open window and splatting unattractively on to the tracks like the sewage from the bathrooms.

Inevitably, there is someone in our seats. From India to Vietnam, we've experienced this and it's so awkward. First, we're always some of the only Westerners on the train, so you're self-conscious as it is and don't want to seem rude by appearing inflexible. Plus, you're guaranteed to be asked "Where you from?" and I never want to perpetuate bad impressions of Americans abroad, so there's more pressure. But, Andy and I try to book specific seats for windows, or a top and bottom bunk so we have a place sit and sleep for the 15 hours on board, which are small things but can be hugely important when swaying aboard a foreign train for hours on end. In Goa, we did the "nice" thing and switched seats with a giant Indian family, only to end up in a section where another family stowed two extra children away, hiding them in the top bunk behind boxes and luggage when the conductor came, and thus we sat eight people in a six person space for seven hours!!!

The ride from Hue to Hanoi on the "Reunification Express" was no different. We waddled onto the tracks with our packs and struggled up the steep steps into our air conditioned "soft chair" car. No, I'm not kidding! The trains in Vietnam are classed in the most honest way by the following categories: hard chair, soft chair, hard bed, soft bed. Needless to say, we're all about the softness here in Asia. The Asian beds and toilet paper didn't portend hope and comfort to me, but since we had a 15 hour ride, we went for soft chairs. This time, we found a Vietnamese lady with her top askance, sporting a lot of breast and nursing her young son..~> read more

  She wanted nothing to do with us, ignored us for a bit and then waved us forward to other seats. As Andy double-checked our tickets and I made sure she was indeed in our seats, I kept seeing nipple out of the corner of my eye and it was say the least. You don't plan to have a confrontation with a total stranger who's half topless with a cute baby!

We were at a loss and weren't sure what to do as we looked around the car which had at least 50 other Vietnamese, a ton of conical hats hanging from hooks by the windows and overhead bins bursting with everything from hanging plants to rice bags. A man jumped forward and spoke to us in English, saying that the lady wanted our seats and could we please sit in hers, which were a few rows up. Unfortunately for her and us, these seats faced other people head-on (not front to back like ours) and posessed a lot less leg room. We'd be riding directly below the blaring tv and staring at strangers two feet in front of us for 15 hours. I wavered but Andy, bless him!, held strong and politely explained that we wanted to keep our original seats. The lady wasn't happy and wouldn't get up, but Andy showed the man how much less legroom there was in her seats and showed him how tall we were in comparison to pretty much everyone in the whole car. She finally pulled her son off her breast, straightened her top and stood up. Soon, she was talking loudly to the people in the row in front of us and displaced them into her original seats and she sat in front of us with her toddler daughter, baby son, frequently exposed breasts and a pouty look on her face.

Sigh... Bygones!!! Sometimes, you have to do what's best for yourself. And I think a 15 hour train ride warranted it.

As the train rolled forward, we settled in for the ride with books and earplugs. Our car had two tvs mounted from the ceiling and they blared louder than an amp at a Metallica concert. Only the music was much, much worse. The tones of Vietnamese are high and clashing to our Western ears, and at a piercing volume in an enclosed space, it's murder. The programming was an ecelctic choice; I'll give Vietnamese Rail props for that. First, they played a B movie with Vietnamese dubbed above (not replacing) the English, then it was a BBC travel show. Next came Kung Fu and finally, the last straw for us, cartoons! Stupified and forlorn, Andy looked over at me and said: "I never thought I'd be watching 'Tom and Jerry' in Vietnamese!" It's one thing to watch Looney Tunes, but it's another thing to watch them when you feel like you're about to go looney tunes!!! Empowered by the fact the tv was blaring louder than the conductor's announcements, I went back to the rail worker in a blue uniform in our car and asked if he spoke English. His head wagged negatively, so in a sudden moment of non-verbal inspiration, I clapped my hands over my ears and made a painful, wincing expression with my faces. He understood immediately and went back to the control panel and turned it down. Yeeessssssss!!!

However, just as I reveled in my victory in my soft seat, the meal carts rolled into our car. As did the unmistakable smell of meat. Damn it! Such a shortlived triumph. Soft seats and soft beds include meals in Vietnam a nice touch but mixed blessing. Normally, a man in a blue outfit similar to a postman serves a partitioned tray of food as on the the old days. Usually there's rice, mixed meats in a stir fry, soggy vegetables that smell vaguely of formaldahyde and soup. This was the same...but with an unbelievabe addtion. Behind the tray cart, came the grilled chicken cart! And this was not a cart with sanitary plastic containers of chicken; it was a full banquet cart with chicken legs, wings, breasts and god knows whatever else, heaped to spilling on an open platter. No saran wrap, no foil, no lids, no net, nothing. It seemed they'd had a massive barbeque in the caboose and us passengers could now purchase grilled bird flu to eat over the rice. It was too much for me. Truly the pinnacle of our train travels and travails. As the open chicken cart greasily skimmed by my elbow in the aisle seat, I took a photo. The porter/chicken roller gave me a puzzled-peeved look, but continued pushing on precariously down the aisle, both cart and train jiggling along the tracks like jell-o. As the bird flu on wheels disappeared down the aisle and through the doors into the next train car, I thought with wonder and relief, "That is something you'd never, never-ever see in America."

Thus, just as I'm grappling my dislike of the train, similar to how I grapple with the handrail while squatting to go to the bathroom without falling in--vigorously-- something wonderful happens. And it seems to happen every time we're on the train! Andy and I are just about at the end of our good humour, and suddenly a local shyly but proudly talks to us in English. Or offers us to share in their cup of tea, or try a homemade biscuit. On the trip to Lao Cai, we met two agricultural inspectors heading north to manage the influx of illegal plants from China. Despite the fact they were sleeping in their business attire and had to get off the train with at 5:30am and go directly to work, the men stayed up late and told us about their lives in Vietnam plus gave us tips on where to visit in Sapa. Another gentle old man, who looked a lot like Uncle Ho, made sure we got our complimentary bottles of water and baguettes for the overnight ride. Many of the locals are thrilled to practice their English and it's fun for us to break down our own language to its simplest form to ask questions and answer others return. And even the ones who don't speak any English at all, like the grizzled old couple of at least 70 that looked like elves to us in size, bowed their graying heads and said "thank you" and "good bye" with bashful pride when we parted ways outside of our berth since we'd switched places so they could sleep above and below each other.

The train makes companions of total strangers who don't share the same language. We're stuck in the same 'soft' place for numerous, sometimes innumerable, hours and it's our best, most pure opportunity to interact with local people. On our 14+ hour ride to Hanoi that started off poorly, I had a moment that derailed my negative feelings o the ride. A young, moon-faced college girl sat behind me and finally worked up the courage to speak to me after Andy went off to explore the other classes of service. Shyly, she asked to talk with me in English and questioned where I was from. When I responded, "America", her face lit up brighter than a full lunar eclipse and a look of longing and hope making her black eyes shimmer-shine. "Oh, America!!! I want so badly to go to America! I know of Hollywood and the big cities and I want to eat pizza. And Bill Gates...I admire him so much! I don't think I ever get to go, but I hope and if I work hard and study hard, then maybe."

Oooofff! I felt kicked in the gut. A few sentences of heavily accented, imperfect English and I'm rendered speechless by the impact of the words. Pizza. Hollywood. Bill Gates. America. I can eat pizza every day, visit Hollywood any time I want to brave LA's traffic and get to live in America. Forever, if I so choose, and travel any where else with my American passport. All without having to work and study too hard. Bill Gates, well I probably take his brilliance for granted, as he's VERY popular in Asia but that's excusable since I adore Apple products.

Hearing the young woman voice those simple, innocent things as velvety green rice paddies, dotted with straw-hatted peasants bent over in work, whipped by reminded me of how lucky I am. And how easy it easy is in my 'real life' to lose perspective on that. As we've traveled about and encountered America's past and present, especially in Vietnam, I've found I sometimes have a love/hate relationship with my country. But that's mostly the politics of today and the actions of yesterday. Distilling things like citizenship, fortune and opportunity in to their most basic form, I'm grateful to be American. Trite as it seem, there is truly much to love about carrying a navy blue passport with the United States of America stamped indelibly on it in gold.


Blogger Paul Kekai Manansala said...

That looks like a very modern train service.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Andy said...

Thank you for your comment, Paul. You can find more photos of train interiors from vietnam and neighboring countries here:

We used that excellent site so we would know what to expect. It can't quite convey some of the noise, however!

9:19 PM  
Anonymous Mommy Moore said...

I wish every American could read the last three paragraphs of this story. Wish Bill Gates could read it too--wouldn't he be surprised by this young woman's dream!

A great story as is every story!!!

9:50 AM  

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