Sunday, March 19, 2006

Rolling Stock

It seems like when I was a kid, every other black and white film had a train scene where the main characters were up to some sort of shenanigans, climbing in and out of each others’ sleeping compartments. Everyone inevitably ended up in one bunk and the conductor inevitably found them out. The only one of these films I can name is “Some Like it Hot,” but if any of you out there in cyberland can name another, please hit the comment button and remind me.

As you may have imagined by now, I am on such a train. We’re en route to Bangkok from Nong Khai, the town just across the Mekong from Vientiane, Laos. The only berth available yesterday for today’s train was “upper, fan,” (as opposed to “lower, aircon”). What this means is my window is wide open and the clatter of the tracks fills the car, my world, and soon, my dreams.

I took today off from writing to do some sightseeing in Vientiane. I saw a couple of nice temples, one happily infested with bats, the other less happily with tourists, but I didn’t mind either. In the afternoon I made a quick trip through the Lao National Museum. The following caption from a photo there should represent the flavor the exhibition: “The U.S. imperialist set up the bureau for the assistance to the Vietnamese puppets aiming at expanding the war in Laos.” I find their candor refreshing in this land where so much is thought but unsaid.

It is 8:30 PM or so. We’ll roll into steamy Bangkok at 7:30 AM or so, but for now the wind feels great and there is practically nothing but darkness outside the window.

The upper berth, by the way, has no window. I have a window now because the porter hasn’t made up the beds yet. In a few minutes I’ll go brush my teeth in the luxurious air-con car sink area, while he performs his magic, then climb into my little capsule and read some more Conrad.

OK, I’m back.

Just like in the movies, several different shenanigans are going on right now, let me tell you. Marilyn Monroe just went by with a bottle of champagne, looking someone with a bag of potato chips.

I happen to have a bag of chips. Roasted lobster flavor, incidentally, but I’m saving them to eat with the green papaya salad I had packed for me in Vientiane.

I originally considered staying long-term in Vientiane. It’s a charming town, but too hot for me, as it turns out. Now I’m stoked, dudes, to be heading for India, finally, twenty years after my first trip to Asia. I’ll fly into Delhi Monday night and then make my way north until I find a hospitable town where the afternoons are cool enough that my brain can still function. Thanks, Andrew, for the suggestion.

A “farang” (Thai for “guava,” which for some reason is the term for “whitey”) has hooked up his exercise pulleys to a luggage rack and is doing his nightly regimen here in the car. A little Thai girl in a compartment across the way peeks out from behind her curtains every ten minutes at another farang, who is typing on his Mac laptop. There are a lot of kids in this car. At only $20 per berth, the trip is affordable to middle-class Thai families.

Across from me is the bottom half of a Thai granny that isn’t curtained off. She knows very well what she’s doing, flaunting her black polyester ankle-highs, and that naughty inch of bare skin between them and her purple slacks, which she’s hiked up to mid-calf. I pray she’ll pull the curtain all the way and stop toying with me. Too warm in her compartment? Sure.

She’s traveling with her daughter and two granddaughters, who are sharing the lower berths, so it’s going to be very difficult to make my move.

The upper berth is cheaper than the lower, I suppose because people don’t like to have to climb up and down. I prefer the upper, especially since there is no window. My first ride on one of these sleeper trains was a trip from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in 1987. As soon as the porter fixed up my berth, I pulled the curtains and got ready for bed. It took me about five minutes wrestling with the rickety aluminum shutters, but I eventually got them up so that I could watch what little scenery floating by was illuminated.

A few minutes later we pulled into a station and I found myself on display to everyone on the platform, reclining in my underwear like an Amsterdam prostitute.

I’m just glad I had put on my nice blue lacy set, instead of the Captain America jammies that were a bit worse for the wear.

As for tonight, I think I’ll play it by ear.

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