So we decide to take the train to Chiang Mai. Why? Because it was recommended to us. Forty dollars to sleep the night away on an air-conditioned train and awake in a whole new part of Thailand. It practically shimmered with romance and intrigue.
At 6 pm, we roll our luggage noisily up the curb and enter the station. The place is large and overlit with fluorescent lights. There is a second floor, from which you can look down at the passengers camped out down below. And camped they are. Or rather, the white people are. The Thais are sitting in neat rows of chairs, their hands in their laps, their gaze focused on the large screen TV showing a Thai sitcom. The white folks are strewn about like trash, filthy and splayed over their grungy backpacks, their eyes sleepy. There is a section at the front of the station, roped off, and populated by men in orange robes. "For Monks Only" the placard reads. A few of them cup their chins in their hands and laugh at the TV show. Burdy and I go upstairs to scope out the food situation. We have no idea if we’re going to be able to eat on the train, so we figure it’s best to eat our dinner now. Before we sit down, though, we go to see the train on the platform.
Immediately we sense that we have stepped back in time. A hundred years, at least. The train is a massive, chugging, belching thing, shrouded in dirty mist. Lights from the impossibly high, arched ceiling shine down. Conductors languidly stroll along the platform, hands clasped behind their backs. There are shouts from stevedores, parcels are moved. We walk past the restaurant car. Great big shrink wrapped piles of instant noodles and boxed juice are pressed against the dirty windows. Some passengers have already settled themselves in their seats. I can see the interior: stained pink satin, aluminum trim, painted red numbers to indicate seats. No two cars alike. The smell of diesel gives me a headache. But I cannot stop staring. The train sits on its track, its sides appearing to heave in the shadows like an exhausted animal's.
Maybe because the first time I saw a modern train up close, I was sixteen and heading into New York City by myself,
Maybe because the first time I ever felt completely exhilarated at being untethered from everything I knew, I was standing on a train platform in Europe,
But the thrill and anxiety of train travel comes flooding back. The conductors look impassive in their mint green polyester shirts and dark visors. The train is noisy and filthy and my heart speeds up a little knowing we will soon be on that thing. I check and recheck to make sure I have my ticket.
We climb to the second level to have our dinner while two stray cats rub themselves against our ankles. This is on Day 2 of our honeymoon. Thus far, I have slept on a rock-hard bed in a room that smelled of burnt garlic and stale cigarettes. I stir the chili paste into my vegetables, look down at the cats and check for fleas and think: this is not the train I had hoped it would be. It is beautiful and fierce like trains are, but it is not sleek. It is not modern. It will not be comfortable. After dinner, as we walk down the narrow corridor to our seats and duck underneath the heavy salmon-colored polyester curtain, I know something else, too: I will not be sleeping tonight.
I have motion sickness almost as soon as the train lurches off its brakes.
The woman across from me, plump and dressed in shorts and a tank top, burrows down into her blanket and pulls her curtain closed.
The air conditioning is too cold. Everything smells like diesel and rotting fish. The bed feels hard, the sheets too thin.
I am about to cry. Below me, my husband, on our honeymoon, is checking his iPhone for maps and transit time. (Burdy really likes to know his coordinates at all times. By contrast, I always want to know where the nearest bookstore is). Sitting above him like this, with our disparate needs, I feel miles away from him. Suddenly, this whole trip, this train ride, and even our marriage seems like a mismatch. How did I agree to an overnight ride on an ancient train in a smelly pink compartment above my new husband? Where is the romance? The equatorial white sands? The pictures of me in a floppy sunhat and a string bikini? Before the kids and the house and the corporate job, back when we were young and free? Were these pictures in my head of a younger, more well-off bride? Was the modern thirty-something adventure-bride’s life one of sleeping separately and breathing in coal exhaust and fish sauce, and dirty linen pants and jet lag pills and thrift store sunglasses? Had we fucked up? Had we done this ALL WRONG?
I thought I should empty my bladder, at least, before I settled in for the night. Maybe some normal nighttime routine would ease some of my discomfort. But the sight of that steel hole in the floor through which I was to do my business, and the sad trickle of water coming from the sink with its faucet held upright by a length of tattered green packing strap tied to a support rail, the dirty abandoned toothbrush on the soap-stained counter, all of it only confirmed my worst suspicions: that we were being punished for being frugal and stupid.
I crawled back up the steel ladder with rungs too close together and got back into my bed. I leaned over and poked my head into Burdy’s area. I choked back tears. “Does this mean we don’t get to snuggle?” I asked. He looked up at me, searched my face for what I was really asking and then put his phone away. He motioned with his hand for me to join him below.
“Why don’t we go get a drink in the restaurant car?”, he offered. “Just one. We don’t have to stay long. Might make you feel better.” He smiled that Don’t Worry smile.
I thought about it. Trying to sip something while the train rocked. On the verge of crying. Or maybe vomiting. I was still full from dinner. I could read quietly, I thought, maybe journal some. It was only 7:45. Maybe I could make myself sleepy with a drink and some reading. I gathered up a pen and my journal and a book like an English schoolkid and we staggered towards the dining car.
We braced ourselves against the rocking, then the rush of hot air when we opened the door between cars, and then the blast of Freon from the next air-conditioned car. Every inch hit the senses: humid air, darkness, rotting garbage, the deafening roar of the engine, our kneecaps bumping cold fiberglass.
And in a moment, in the way circumstances always do when you bring attention to them, things changed.
We could hear the dining car from two cars away.
Pop music being played at top volume. A massive flat screen TV. Tiny tables and folding seats. Beer bottles and overheated Europeans chain-smoking out the open windows. We slid into its blue interior strung with Christmas lights and took the only available seat- across from a young man sipping soup. A train attendant brought him French Fries and took our order.
French Fries. A sign that Everything Is Going To Be Alright.
We drank cold beer from green bottles in two tiny glasses. And more people came to the car. We had another round. And more people came. The music got louder. The young man left. We moved seats. Three young Polish women crammed in across from us. We shook hands and laughed at the coincidence of our shared heritage. The train rocked and rocked. There were signs: No Leaning Out The Window. No Throwing Garbage Out The Window. The windows were wide open. I closed my eyes and leaned towards the darkness and let it rush over me: Cigarette smoke. The smell of beer. Music. The train whistle. The engine. The smell of the countryside. Burning coal. Foreign accents. The torn vinyl clawed at the underside of my thighs. I braced myself against the slope of the broken seat. My joints felt loose. I staggered to the bathroom and back, holding on to the warm metal rails while I squatted. The hems of my pants were soaked six inches up in piss and beer. We drank. I spilled a bottle of beer on the table and we cheered. The waitress brought another, signaling with her fingers and a coy smile how many we’d had already had and that she was going to bring another, okay? A wink and a nod. Dry pink lipstick. The suspicion that perhaps she was not a woman after all. Maybe a ladyboy, the Polish girls shouted at us. Burdy and I looked at one another. We toasted. To the ladyboy woman, we screamed.
Someone brought out a brown paper bag of rubber masks. The waitress turned up “Gangnam Style” and half the car started galloping left then right then left. We cheered each other on. Cameras flashed. Huddles formed, heads touched, emails were exchanged. One of the Polish girls wrote her name in my journal. Underneath, she wrote in block letters FROM THE CRAZY TRAIN.
Hours later, after the ashtrays were filled, and the bottles emptied, the staff turned on the lights, pointing to the clocks above. The DVD was ejected from the player. Bottles clinked as they were gathered and hauled away, stowed godknowswhere. I leaned into the waitress on my way out and passed her twenty baht note. For the spillage, my eyes said, and for standing on the seats. She smiled that Thai smile and I smiled back.
Then it was the walk back to our bunks. Hot air. The sound of the engine. Cold air. The roar again. Colder air. Pink curtains. The slide of ball bearings on a metal rod. Cold metal rungs against my palms. Thin sheets on my bare arms.
I took off my filthy pants, balled them up, and threw them towards my luggage. I stuffed my sweatshirt under my head. I ripped the loosely woven blanket from its sterilized plastic bag and pulled it over me. Everything felt cold and luscious and perfect. I slept. Peacefully. Rest-fully.
I slept the whole night through and into the next morning.
I woke to golden sunlight.