The station platform waits in 5am darkness, broken only by a single lamplight fluttering with tiny wings. The people wait with it, curved like question marks into shawls and jackets on matchstick plastic stools. A curl of cigarette smoke drifts skywards from toothless lips. A dog in a patchwork coat slinks through the puddles. Somewhere in the darkness, a train howls.
Dawn’s wavering fingers pull back the blankets of a parma-violet sky, rubbing sleepy clouds from its eyes. It crawls over the tracks, lighting on rain-warped wood and rusted couplings, stroking the hair of the children hopping across the sleepers with bags full of food, gleaming gold in the puddled remnants of last night’s storm.
The train arrives in the half-light, splintered with paint and sighing with effort. We climb into seats slick with a thousand journeys, straining at heavy shutters to allow the dawn to glimpse inside. Some of us clutch tickets, handwritten scraps of paper curling with damp; the rest stretch out on the floor amongst baskets of over ripe durian and rambutan. The smell, sweet and dark and blooming with rot, spreads through the carriage, thickening the air.
The train shudders and jerks to life, shaking rain drops from it’s rusting coat like an ageing mongrel, and we pull away into the cloud-torn morning, flanked by barefoot children who chase after the train only to stop short at the platform edge, arms windmilling for balance. We crawl along, flooded fields and stilt legged houses snapshotted by the window frame; distant shadowy mountains stamped like bruises against an ash and lemon sky.
As always, my mind settles into the rhythmic anaesthesia of movement. Absently, I consider the thoughts wandering into my consciousness as a series of punctuations in a long, indecipherable sentence; staccatos on an undulating scale. I consider writing some of them down, but my hands remain folded under my chin and I let them drift by with the brief moments of human life visible along the damp-withered tracks, those moments familiar to travellers; every one causing a minute but seismic shift in our understanding of the world, grasping us for a brief second and left reluctantly behind. The breeze drops kisses ripe with jungle on my cheeks through the open window. The woman behind me shifts restlessly and murmurs in sleep.
Hours stretch out before and behind us, unfurling with the ageing track on which we rattle and sway. We pass through stations with no name, long toed roosters scratching at the packed earth and woman made of peacock colours balancing huge woven baskets on their heads. Black almond eyes stare at our alien bodies, pale and freckled and blue-eyed, with openly unaffected curiosity. One woman peels a mango with her penknife and holds out thick slices to me with a smile that splits her face in half, calling me sister when I turn to thank her with honey sweet juice running over my wrists.
The last vestiges of light drain from the carriage as the day slips into dusty twilight. We sit in darkness, interrupted only occasionally by the red flare of a cigarette being lit. Outside, the night whistles past the open windows, heavy with the smokey smell of burning wood. The sky tastes of the coming storm; full and metallic, like blood. Fireflies swirl by as we sway lazily through the night, a dancing constellation amongst the shadowy trees. I drift in and out of sleep, eyelids fluttering, suspended in that grey place between sleep and waking as we travel on through a landscape painted in ink.
Finally, the shattered engine drags it’s carriages into the station at Moulemienne, passengers spilling out onto the stained platform and disappearing across the tracks into the darkness. We unfurl stiff bodies, crumpled and folded like second hand paper, the journey etched in dirt on our skin. We have travelled for a whole day and night, and we have much further to go.
We took the train in Myanmar from Dawei to Moulemienne in Southern Myanmar. It took around 21 hours and our first class (!) tickets cost around $8, bought directly from the station master the day before we travelled. He told us that we were the only Westerners to have made this train journey for several months.