This is a long-haul train. By and large, they keep it fairly
clean, although now and then you’ll find that someone seeing
someone off has left a hand-print on a window no one had the
time to clean before the train pulled out of the station.
The motion of the train is relatively smooth and steady.
This point cannot be emphasized enough, for it helps account for
the curious fact that while virtually every car is fully occupied—
in some cars there are passengers sitting on their luggage in the
aisles—no one ever seems to get in anyone else’s way as they pursue their various interests. Some passengers are reading
newspapers or nodding off to sleep. Others are busy knitting or
listening to music or humoring a child. One is making jam sandwiches.
Another is steeping instant noodles with hot water from
a thermos. There must be a dining car on the train because I
occasionally see someone leave the car and return an hour or so
later with soft drinks or sandwiches, but most of the passengers
appear to have either brought their own food or given up eating.
This train runs day and night and rarely stops at any stations.
When it does stop, it is for the longest time. No one is
quite sure why it stops so long, perhaps to refuel or replenish its
water supply. Oddly enough, very few people ever get on or off
the train. In fact, it seems forever since anyone did either. I suspect
the only reason the train bothers to stop at these stations is
because it has been scheduled to do so.
This train has a great many cars, so many it is a wonder it
can move at all. Time and again I have tried to count the number
of cars only to abandon the task as hopeless. In one of the
cars I passed through I saw a niche containing a sacred idol that
was so tiny and eroded by time it was impossible to tell what
deity or spiritual power it represented. For the life of me, I can’t
seem to remember if this “shrine-car,” as I call it, is located up
toward the locomotive or back toward the caboose, even though
I am reminded everyday when scores and scores of passengers
suddenly surge to their feet and move in the direction of the
shrine. During one of these passenger surges, I had such a terrific
urge to urinate that I tried to force my way against the current of the crowd in an effort to reach the bathroom, but, realizing the
futility of making headway against so many bodies pressing forward,
I returned to my seat and waited for the crowd to go by.
When the last pilgrim had finally passed (I still can’t imagine
how all these worshippers could expect to squeeze themselves
into one railroad car), I was surprised to find the compartment
had completely emptied and was filled with an unearthly light
and the faint but unmistakable sound of enraptured voices chanting
in perfect harmony. For a moment, the world seemed so
fresh and pure I could not hold back my tears.
Traveling over long distances is basically boring. But this
boredom does have its pleasures or, at least, it is something people
are pleased to put up with. I once saw a married woman on
the train laying sod across the floor in front of her seat and was
pleasantly surprised when sheep started grazing on it. Scenes
like this are really no different than the ones I see outside my
window, and there are times when they seem even closer to
nature. In another car there is a fellow who makes everyone
close all the drapes and show movies using a mechanical contraption
that harnesses a beam of sunlight streaming through a
hole in his drape. He even charges admission. Unfortunately,
we never find out how these movies end because as the sun
shifts direction, the images on the screen become fuzzier and
fuzzier until it is impossible to make out what is happening.
Under normal conditions, passengers tend to keep an eye
on their luggage even though there are bound to be losses due to
theft. With so few opportunities for a thief to get off the train,
most people find consolation in the thought that, even when you
cannot find your luggage where you think you left it, it is only a
question of time before you do. When the topic of seating came
up before, didn’t someone tell a story about two former lovers
who hadn’t seen each other in over fifteen years and even boarded
the car at opposite ends winding up in adjacent seats? And
then there was the poor married couple who were forced to sit in
separate cars but were constantly getting up to see if the other
was alright — are you comfortable, my dear? is the motion of
the carriage making you nauseous? can I get you a cup of
water? — until, that is, a kindly young lady drew their attention
to a pair of empty seats they had evidently overlooked, whereupon
the couple sat down and immediately lapsed into a gloomy silence.
Sometimes the train simply races along,....