Go North and Find Your People
the train in Burma could be enjoyable but it could also be hell. The ride from
Mandalay to Katha was even more like a roller coaster that the
Rangoon-to-Mandalay leg. The thwamp-thwamp; thwamp-thwamp;
thwamp-thwamp of the boxcars bouncing both side-to-side and up-and-down
caused passengers to exclaim and squeal audibly, and the vibration of steel
wheels against steel tracks made Thomas's ears feel like they were bleeding. A
number of times the train's shock absorbers bottomed out that jolted you violently,
which were grounds for a new danger and made sleep impossible. And just to keep
things spicy, the electrical system kept blacking out. When the electricity
returned the lights came on at half power for the first ten seconds. Surreal,
it was as if they were all on an unchaproned joy ride caught in the throws of
the Burmese Express rolling forward in a drunken swagger.
was fascinating to Thomas was how the Burmese dealt with this level of dubious
operation. Even when the train was catching air or only inches from derailing
with luggage falling from the overhead shelf landing on heads and toes, they
remained cuddled up in a fetal posture snug in their sarong with their flat
feet extended at all angles. Stowaways on the roof pitter-pattered along the
length of the roof until the night when they lied down on the metal floor in
the aisle or in-between cars. For some, the scraping steel and the force of the
violent back-and-forth dance was a mobile rocking chair that caused extreme
drowsiness. But not for Thomas; he threw himself into a betel nut haze.
betel nut made the train ride bearable. With his holy task now with some
traction, the betel juice was making it downright fun. Betel nut tasted almost
like liquorice but depending on the condiments you asked for, it could taste
like soap. After the first day or so, when your mouth became used to the
abrasive splinters of the nut, your teeth are stained red. If consumed at
regular intervals, at perhaps two per hour, then by the end of day you were
bold and confident and even prone to rapid-fire hallucinations. Trying to
become better at the art of the nut, he tried to master a certain technique of
expel the excess betel juice. Due to the deep reddish-orange color of the
juice, one must spit the betel juice like a projectile away from the body for
fear of sullying your garments. Like the others on the train, he was using the
open window to spit through.
the sitting arrangements for this ride it was unfortunate for Thomas to be
sitting beside a fat man. The mass of his body was deceptive, soon taking
pinching Thomas into the corner with half his girth on his side of the seat.
Surrounded by half-starved peasants with dust in their hair, the fat man wore
his weight with pride, like a corporeal manifestation of his wealth and
success. Once the fat man had spread himself out, he began to snore. With the
swaying of the train back and forth, Thomas was forced to hold on to the
windowsill from falling against his large mass.
walked down the aisle chanting their pitch to sell their wares, saying anything
to make a sale in an endless procession. All the Burmese were treated the same
except when it came to walking past the white-skinned foreigner who stood out
like a sore thumb. They slowed down to make sure he saw their food by putting
it inches from his face. With the robust movement of the train, this meant a
boiled egg hitting his cheek or a package of nuts striking his ear. When an old
man dressed in black and gold Buddhist robes covered in swastikas walked down
the aisle for alms, Thomas reached across the fat man to give some change. He
was relieved the monk didn't thank him as if he was special.
It was one of the
processions of vendors that awoke the fat man. Stimulated by the sight of food,
he purchased a half-dozen items while Thomas bought a bag of peanuts in the
shell. The rich Burmese didn't eat for nutrition or to satiate hunger; they ate
to put on weight for status because size is their Porsche and embodiment of
wealth and degree of success.
After eating Thomas offered
the fat man a cigarette.
"Marlboro Light," he said.
"Made in America."
"Yeah, something like that,
but it really comes from the Red Indians of America," he replied, happy he
"No, that's not true, is
it?" So few people were aware that tobacco was one of the great exports of the
"It is true," he said. "The
story of tobacco is interesting. In less than a century after its discovery by
the Europeans, its use had circled the globe. First the Portuguese and Spanish
brought it to Europe in 1518 and then Jean Nicot brought to France in 1559.
It's from his name that we get the word ‘nicotine.' Tobacco use spread
to Italy, Turkey and Russia by 163o and then to Arabia by 1660. It eventually
made its way to the Philippines through the Spanish where it was cultivated and
exported to China, Siberia and then Alaska. Right around the world." The fat
man nodded at this information as he chewed on sweets.
"And the British brought it
to Burma, eh?" He offered Thomas something that had a soggy texture but
decline. "How do you know all this about tobacco?" His first reflex was to
state that he read it in a book but in his heart it wasn't the answer he wanted
"Because I'm a Canadian Métis
Indian." It was strange saying this about himself to a stranger.
"Red Indian?" He studied
Thomas for a moment.
"Yes. My great grandmother
was Ojibway Indian. I am part Red Man and part White Man." I am a painted
horse, he said to himself: a Mustang thirsting for open grasslands and freedom
to move. "I have the spirit of the Red Man and the eyes of the White Man. My
brother believes tobacco is a type of medicine."
"You look like a Lisu
man. Go north to Kachin and find your people." His response was eerie. He
closed his eyes to sleep, and soon he too was lulled by the to-and-fro of the
train, giving way to the gravity of sleep. He dreamed he and Josh were two
brothers from India. Josh was a holy man who dedicated his life to his
religious calling. Seven years passed until Thomas heard from someone by chance
where Josh was. Being the twin who was deserted, Thomas found him in a jungle
in India. To reach Josh and to protect himself from a sniper, he used a
rhinoceros as a buffer against the bullets as he approached his long-lost holy
twin. As he ran towards the hut where Josh was sitting with twelve disciples
around him, he held on to the rhino's tail that was soon covered in blood from
the sniper shooting. Just before reaching him and his disciples, Thomas saw a
desperate look on his face and then woke up.
train was stopped at a station somewhere at the foot of the Himalayas under a
sky so clear that he could almost reach out and grab a star. His guess was the
engineer stopped to catch the remainder of a football match, which men watched
on a television in the station.
he was pondering the meaning of his dream in the middle of nowhere in Burma
stopped at two in the morning, the moonlight shone through the windows showing
passengers sprawled at all angles, trying to achieve those few precious moments
of slumber to take them away from the biting cold of the mountain air. The
sleeping bodies were alive with a wide variety of bodily noises. Snoring,
different flavors of coughing, burping, farting, clucking, groaning,
nose-blowing and murmuring and the occasional cough-and-hork combination were
some of the sounds he heard in the dead of night as he sat wondering how he had
come to this point of being stranded as the only foreigner in a train full of
Kachin, Shan, Burman and the rest of the hill tribes that make up the Union of
Burma. The boxcar was a veritable cacophony of throat calisthenics uttered a
guttural chorus the likes of which few would ever witness. The deathly
background of absolute countryside silence magnified the symphony of sounds
created en masse by each grunt, groan and audio product emitted from the
depths of a collective esophagus. A woman even sang a few lines in her sleep.
And there were odors, some of which he didn't know existed. There was one smell
from the foot family of odors that made it an indescribable hell with no
escape. No place to run, no person to speak to, and no circulating air through
the closed windows. Leaving the train was too dangerous because of theft, and
sleep was out of the question because one man kept erupting into frantic
gasps for air every few minutes between snores. He had some Valium but it
was in his bag overhead and he would have to create a ruckus and wake up the
fat man to get it. One, two, three, and then four hours passed by as slow as a
tree growing. An aching despair came over him, heavy as lead. He felt like a
thirsty asthmatic who was caught in a sauna, the air thick as soup. Time stood
still, especially when the fat man began letting go a rapid-fire number of
pungent flatulent emissions that should have been enough to warrant an assault
charge. The crudeness of a people could not have been more revealed. It was in
this state of play when Thomas realized it was his 40th birthday.
But instead of feeling resentful for this passing of time, he saw that time was
not only measured in minutes, hours and years, it was measured in experience
and knowledge. In this sense he had been given something of value for his