Monday, March 23, 2009

The Ol' '69

I’ve always had a fascination with trains. Well, not really, but I needed a snappy intro for this piece. The truth is, I’ve never really spent much time thinking about them, since they had largely been relegated to a fond memory in Canada by the time I was born. I would often listen to the whistle of the cargo train as it passed through my hometown, but I never once fantasized about hopping onboard with my harmonica and my trusty companion, Winky the wonder dog, to ride across the country with the other hobos for parts and adventures unknown. This was probably for the best, since the only wonder about Winky was the amount of flatulence she could produce, and this likely wouldn’t have endeared us to our fellow tramps. Though it was still possible to catch a passenger train to many parts of the country when I was growing up, the romance of train travel had clearly been replaced by the convenience of using one’s own car, so it’s somewhat telling that I boarded my first train at the relatively advanced age of 25 and even more telling that the train was part of the subway system in Toronto. And believe me, there’s nothing romantic about that experience.

In the years since that magical first ride, I’ve only had a few train trips that weren’t subterranean, and most were memorably bad, with delays reducing the train schedules to works of fiction and train personnel being capably condescending in both official languages. Perhaps the best of the worst was a trip from Montreal to Toronto that was over an hour late because our train had started down the wrong track and needed to back up to avoid another train that was bearing down on us. So, count me among those who failed to get nostalgic when discussing the bygone age of locomotion. When I moved to Nigeria in 2007, I found a country with even less regard for its railway, as evidenced by the rusted hulks resting on the tracks in Kafanchan. I would sometimes use the railyard as a shortcut to the town centre, and I could confidently walk through the deserted rail cars that were blocking my path, knowing there was little chance that the train would suddenly come to life and spirit me away to Lagos.

So, the appeal of a train trip in Bangladesh was more than a little lost on me when I was told that we would be catching a ride from Chittagong University back to the city at the end of the day. We had arrived on the campus earlier that day to deliver a lecture to a group of debating society students on the prevention of domestic violence. More accurately, Kristel and I attended the lecture delivered by our YPSA colleague, since our command of the Bangla language is still limited to “Hello!” and “I’m lost. Please help me.”, neither of which would have advanced the discussion very far. Though we understood little of the presentation, it was easy to see that the students were very engaged, as many asked questions throughout and competed to provide answers whenever the opportunity arose.

With the presentation completed, we were free to wander the campus for a couple of hours. And what a tremendous place it is. Since arriving in Chittagong, Kristel and I have been searching for a refuge from the congestion of city life. With a population that hovers around the five million mark, Chittagong seems to have precious few places that could be considered peaceful. Even the parks and designated areas of nature like Foy’s Lake have a sense of being surrounded by the city, so one never really seems to get the chance to take a break from it all. But Chittagong University provided such a sanctuary, at least on this day. Said to be the largest university in the country in terms of acreage (but only fourth or fifth in student population), the school is set among a forest that, for once, wasn’t completely sacrificed in the name of settlement. Located far on the outskirts of the city, the University seems to have taken great pains to separate itself from the bustle of life there. Gone for the most part are the CNGs (also known as baby taxis) that are ubiquitous throughout the rest of the city, along with their ever-present horns and daredevil driving. Even cars seem to have largely forsaken this spot, leaving only rickshaws as the main form of transportation here, their gentle bells ringing through the forest like a convention of woodland fauns, if they had bells tied around their necks and rode bicycles.

The university itself, it must be said, has seen better days. Just over 40 years old, the university houses some buildings that are in great need of restoration. The classroom we visited for the lecture had graffiti scrawled on the doors and walls that was mostly in English, oddly enough, as though the students were eager to show off their second language skills. Years of heat, humidity and rainfall have also taken their toll, as the paint that originally covered the walls has surrendered to mould and decay, leaving the buildings discoloured and crumbling around the edges. But the natural beauty of the surroundings more than makes up for this decline, and one ends up accepting the neglect as part of the landscape.

As it turned out, even the buildings here can surprise with unexpected beauty. Leading us away from the main campus, our colleagues introduced us to a Buddhist monastery that was the essence of tranquility, except maybe for the group of monks playing cricket just inside the gates. As we walked through the courtyard, we admired the flowers and the abundance of quiet before discovering the hidden gem of the monastery, an outside staircase at the back descending to pools of water and lush greenery. These monks really know what time it is. I briefly considered chucking it all and throwing in with them, but I still don’t know how to play cricket, so I expect my application would be respectfully declined. After a short pause for some photographs and deep breaths, we looked at our watches and realized it was time for our train ride back to anxiety.

As we approached the train, Kristel and I asked where the ticket counter was and were amazed to hear that the train was free. Well, not quite. Costs for the operation of the train are included in the fees paid by the students to attend the university, so students aren’t required to pay to travel each time they boarded. This still seemed quite progressive, and not just because we were mooching a ride. The train had two departure times per day, so the students knew they had to be on the train before 5:20 pm to catch the last ride of the day. Arriving five minutes before this, we found a scene that might have existed a hundred years ago in Canada, with a crowd of people approaching all of the train cars at once, but with no sign of apprehension or frustration, just plenty of activity and energy. Finding a seat proved to be very easy and we were soon joined in our car by a group of young people who filled it to capacity. I was surprised to see a vendor come on board to begin selling nuts in the last moments before the train was due to leave. Promptly at 5:20, the train started down the track, though students were still joining the train at 5:21 and 5:22, making running jumps onboard that would likely have given their parents cardiac arrests if they had seen them.

And that was one of the surprising things about this train. There were no adults in each car to ensure order was kept and unruly behaviour discouraged. No one gated the doorways or insisted that people remain seated. And no one was needed for this. The students understood the consequences of hanging off the side of the train or sticking limbs out the windows and no one attempted this. The only evidence of delinquency that could be found was on the walls of the train, again liberally decorated with English words such as “cockpit”, and more interestingly, “’69”, which can be interpreted in a number of ways.

As we rode on to Chittagong, it began to feel as if the kids had commandeered the train and were taking it wherever they wanted. Laughter coursed up and down the aisles as the students recounted their days and likely made fun of the ancient foreigners sitting among them. Part way through the 45-minute journey, a group of students next to us started up a song that was soon joined by many others, with some providing percussion by clapping and slapping the walls next to them. The car soon swelled with music as we passed the setting sun outside. It was a great moment. All too soon it seemed, we reached our stop, and we left the train by literally jumping out the door. As we walked beside the train, the remaining passengers onboard stuck their heads out the windows to watch us pass. The train pulled away just as we turned to head to nearest intersection, and I paused to watch it go. And suddenly it dawned on me that I finally understood the enduring romance that people have with train travel. I only wished that Winky was there to share this moment with me.

1 comment:

cochrane said...

I'm amazed at how well you write: the structure, organization of thoughts, clarity, and of course, wit. I'd love to say something witty to blunt the compliment and prevent risk of serious gloating but you can take it for what it is...sincere.

Working to get the theme from Littlest Hobo from my head,