When I was a little boy my sister and I would write letters to Santa Claus. They were really just lists of the sackful of toys and presents we feverishly hoped for. A week or so before Christmas Day we’d send them up the chimney to ride a hot air trail all the way to the North Pole.
Father Christmas never failed us.
Some years I had special requests for Santa. These were secrets between the two of us and were never written down
They were about much more than mere toys. These were dreams.
For a couple of years or so I silently pleaded with Santa to fix it so I could drive a train
It didn’t happen.
The closest I got was when the real life Santa, my dad, a railway man, got me on to the footplate of a steam engine as it stood at the station. It was good enough.
As I grew up I also grew out of my secret conversations with the man in the bright red tunic. But now and again, in an idle moment, the wishes still return and fill a quiet daydream.
And then a few weeks ago Father Christmas showed up. Was he a little early this year or was he about 45 years late? I’m not quite sure. Either way it’s not important. All that matters is that the magical man from the North Pole finally made a little boy’s silent wish come true.
The following blog is dedicated to the memory of my dad, the real life Santa, who passed away fifteen years ago today. He gave me a passion for life……and trains.
DRIVING A TRAIN IN MYANMAR
With a sharp tug on the wheel and an easing of the brakes the driver sends the train inching away from the station. Slowly, with concentrated deliberation, he takes the engine up through the gears. First, second, third and fourth all quickly gone with short clicks of the wheel.
He has one eye on the gauges, pressure and revs are both fine. The other eye intently surveys the track ahead.
The engine strains a little. Its days of top speed are long gone. It’s old but it’s still a sturdy and reliable workhorse.
Behind, it pulls seven carriages with 400 or so passengers. They hear excited and repeated bursts from the horn, otherwise they are blissfully ignorant of what’s going on up front. They’re unaware that a boyhood dream is being realized. They don’t know that I am DRIVING THE TRAIN.
Lifelong dreams, if they’re met at all, rarely come cost-free. Mine certainly didn’t. But I have to say, it was probably the best one dollar I ever spent.
That’s the fee foreigners pay for riding the Circular Train around Yangon, formerly Rangoon. It doesn’t feature in the world’s great railway journeys but it’s a wonderful ringside seat into the city, its rhythms and the people who call it home.
The British built the railway in the 1950s. It does a full circle around the sprawling city and its surrounds. The journey is almost 46 kilometres and the train stops at 39 stations.
Foreigners are usually directed to the rear carriage – quite often a cut above the others. Hard plastic or wooden benches run down either side. Outside the city is there for all to see. Some of it is grim, slums hustle in close to the line.
People live right on the trackside. They even put their washing out to dry between the rails.
But the negatives are completely overshadowed by the positives.
After 20 minutes I left my carriage and headed for the other compartments where the locals sit and stand.
I’m welcomed with huge smiles. People make room for me or come over to try some English. Young boys follow me as I get off and on at different stations to move further up the train. Girls giggle, old ladies smile. This is fun. This is Myanmar.
The circular train is the cheapest away around the city for the people. They use it for travel, transport, trading, business and a whole lot more.
On board people carry furniture, huge sacks of vegetables, electrical equipment, bundles of brushes, live chickens. When it comes to cargo nothing is off-limits.
People get off and on with huge trays of food to sell. Amazingly, there is even a passenger cooking in the middle of one compartment.
In another, without a word exchanged, the man next to me puts his hand on my leg. After a moment he starts stroking it. Is this a local custom on the circular train? I’m a little concerned.
When he moves to my thigh I’m startled and on the point of violent self-defence. But the looks of people in the carriage suggest no ill intent. I finally work out he is a masseur and this is where he works. This is his salon.
I pay him a dollar and move on.
In every carriage it’s the same, a big welcome and more surprises. Finally I run out of compartments and on the spur of the moment make a bold decision.
At the next stop I jump off and run alongside the engine. I shout at the somewhat stunned engineer and as the train begins to move he grasps I want to come on board. He makes frantic ‘hurry, hurry’ gestures as I try to haul myself up the huge gaps between the steps. As the train gathers speed I manage to jump on. The rest of the crew is equally amazed at the foreigner in their midst but they make me instantly at home.
After 20 minutes of close study I go for broke on my boyhood dream. I ask in exaggerated sign language if I can drive. I sense we’re in unchartered waters. There is a look of doubt on the driver’s face. But then he stands up and waves me into his seat. A few quick lessons later I find myself in control of a railway engine.
Like a naughty schoolboy I fulfill another dream and flog the horn to death. The driver and his men smile widely.
Top speed is pretty relaxed, the track isn’t up to breakneck. Ahead of me it buckles and bends alarmingly.
As a station approaches the driver gives me more voice and sign commands. I manage to slow us to a crawl. The people lining the track and the platform suddenly notice the new driver. All my Christmases and all of theirs seem to have come at once and there’s delirium inside and outside the cab. Wisely they scatter off the rails ahead.
With the driver gripping my hand on the air brakes we come to a stop. I’m quickly prepped on the starting procedure and seconds later I inch the train slowly out and up through the gears.
I drive the engine to the next station and exhausted by exhilaration make my grateful leave of the driver’s seat.
My dream has moved from fiction to fact and I spend the rest of the ride in a Burmese daze.
The little boy inside of me contentedly relinquishes a dream. And on the gentle breeze I’m sure I catch the sound of laughter from a dearly missed old railwayman.