15 October 2017: It was around 7 am and my friend and I were in a minivan with three Shan dudes, her sitting shotgun because of her long legs (lucky!) and me in the backseat sitting snuggly with the dudes. There were corn fields and hot wind was blowing in my face. I was listening to music and my mind started to wander.
A few days back we were up at 4:00 am groggily and gingerly trying not to step over people and dogs sleeping on the train platform while trying to find our train in the dark at the Mandalay train station. Despite being able to speak, and read Burmese, I was completely clueless but the best part of my country, the people, pointed us in the right direction without even having to ask.
Unlike the trains in Japan or in any developed country, the trains in Burma were at the other end of the spectrum – they are slow, rickety, extremely jolting and the seats were scuffed, stained and old. The bathrooms are not for the faint of heart but it was all part of the experience and I relished every minute of it while listening to music, watching the scenery as the clean cool air blew at my face. I took a quick look around and our first-class car was full of foreigners and I was the only Burmese. I remember feeling sad that no Burmese people who took these trains could afford the $20 fee and most of them were in the regular cars with wooden benches which cost around $3, which was a monumental amount of money for the regular commuters and sellers on the train I discovered after talking to the ladies who were selling sweets. After a couple of hours, the excitement of being on a train started to wear off and the realisation that I will be on this train for about 13 hours finally set in. Outside, earlier on the trip before the sunrise, I could see little ramshackle huts in occasional candle light and dimly lit train stations. As the sun started to rise, it became busier along the tracks with children and women either begging or trying to sell their Burmese breakfast food- sticky rice and peas or hot sweet tea in plastic bags. I tried to throw some money but it felt disrespectful somehow but I did it anyway and it caused a bunch of children to fight over the money. One pushed the others over and grabbed the mouldy banknote (most banknotes in Burma are mouldy) and dashed outside the station. It made me feel worse and as the train started to move, the children started running after the train with their hands stretched out while a group of stray dogs also decided to join in the run. They grew tired eventually and I sat there stunned and confused about what I have done or what I should have done. As the train started rocking towards Goteik Viaduct, I saw a herd of buffaloes bathing in a river and I scrambled to take pictures but failed. By this time, the entire group of foreigners were finally awake from their morning slumber and they were treating the entire carriage as their own and being loud and boisterous. Some took off their shoes and put up their dirty feet on the seat in front. I guess because our trains are so bad, they have forgotten how to act as proper human beings. Looking back, I do wonder why I didn’t say anything.
I began thinking about my life after the trip – I will be going back to my comfortable life in Chiang Mai with tennis matches with my friend and regular cafe hopping at the weekends. I felt emotional, grateful and extremely guilty- this is why coming back to my home country is difficult. I feel so close to heaven and so close hell at the same time. Heaven because somehow I escaped it just by the luck of being born in my family and hell because I see all the poverty, deprivation, and I feel guilt. As always coming back home is what Roxane Gaye would say “a necessary education on privilege” for me and the guilt and gratefulness is something I carry everywhere I go. This guilt either worked against me or for me but that’s another time for another post.
My life is not without difficulties but it’s a privilege and a lifelong dream come true for some to be able to sit on a $20 rickety train seat, to be able to feel the sunshine and not feel the unbearable heat which is an extra burden in earning that extra $3 for the way back home. It is a privilege to be able to run along the train tracks for fun without having to scramble for that $1 with other children some younger than you so that you can show your parents you’re pulling your weight and you deserve that meal. It’s a privilege to have time to look at the blue sky and not feel weighed down that the day is almost over and you still have a half tray of watermelons left to sell and no one to buy. It’s a privilege to sit by the train tracks and enjoy that morning breeze instead of running alongside the train until your already over-worn slippers fall off so you can sell some food while foreigners take pictures of you gasping for air, catching up with the ever moving train.