My eyes shot open as the train car lurched up and down on the uneven tracks, swaying violently from side to side as if caught in an aggressive earthquake. Jostled awake for what I’m sure was the 347th time that night, I clung to the railing on my upper berth until the extreme jerkiness subsided and the carriage returned to a light turbulence that only just allowed me to fall asleep in the first place.
I checked my phone. 4:37am. The last time I’d been suddenly jarred awake, it’d read 4:15am. Have I slept longer than 20 minutes this entire night?
I thought of Minh, a Yangon local I’d met the day before, who’d given me some parting advice when he heard I was taking the overnight train to Bagan. “You need a lot of beer to sleep on that train, my friend.”
This advice I had of course ignored. It’s not that I don’t like beer (quite the opposite), but I guess I have a newly-attained, over-confident-traveler complex that caused me to laugh off his suggestion. I’ve been on plenty of overnight trains, planes, and busses, I thought. I got this.
Now as I lay in my bunk, my shoulder blades sore from being pounded into the thin, hard mattress so many times, I regretted only having the one bottle of Mandalay a few hours earlier. I’d passed the evening hours chatting with my three fellow cabin mates, travelers from the US, Canada and the UK, about our lives back home and our favorite travel experiences.
We’d calmly rolled out of the Burmese capital, passing smiling children and farmers returning home from the market, and enjoyed the sunset over the countryside through the open windows. At one point, after we’d started to gain some speed, the train slowly rolled to a stop in a field, and we stuck our heads out of the window to find that we’d lost a carriage off of the back. The engine reversed and the crew re-attached the rogue train car while we’d all laughed it off.
I should have seen that as a bad omen, I thought as I lay trying to lull myself back to sleep. I glanced over at the small metal fan in on the ceiling. With no AC and the windows now shut for safety, this tiny ceiling fan from the seventies was the only thing keeping us moderately cool in the 80 degree heat. As it rotated, I noticed the small base was was sparking every other second. Before I could say anything, it emitted a light flare and slowly sputtered to a stop.
Great. We’re going to roast to a crisp in here.
I wiped the sweat from my brow and thought of the people sitting on the hard wooden benches of the Ordinary Class carriage I’d seen from the platform. I scolded myself for being such a spoiled wimp. At least you get to lie down in a flat bed and you have this entire compartment to yourselves. This Upper Class cabin is a nice as it gets.
But that doesn’t make this less miserable. I sighed and tried to doze off again.
The next morning, I climbed down from my bunk and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. My cabin mates had just opened the windows and we were getting our first glimpse at this new area of the country. Drier than the area surrounding Yangon, bare red dirt and rows of palm trees flew past as we coasted towards Bagan.
A village came into view. As we drew closer, barefoot children sprang out of the bamboo huts and sprinted towards the tracks. They waved frantically, huge smiles on their faces. You can tell they’d heard the train coming and wanted nothing more than to greet the parade of outsiders that rolled past their homes once a day.
I smiled and waved back. We continued on, past another village, where more children did the same thing. Boys on bicycles peddled furiously to keep up with speed, laughing and cheering us on. This was clearly a highlight of their day!
Village after village, people came out by the dozen to greet us. Waving at a smiling old man driving an ox cart, it occurred to me how lucky I was to be seeing this place at all. Despite the discomfort of the last fifteen hours, I was in an area visited by few travelers. Only those who come to this lesser-visited country and brave an infamously bumpy 17-hour train ride get to see this stuff. And I’m sitting here complaining about a ceiling fan dying?
I suddenly remembered one of my most important personal mantras – embrace the adventure.
Riding on this hot, bumpy train was a real adventure. Adventure isn’t always easy or fun (that’s tenet #5 of my 7 Tenets of Adventure) but that’s the reason it’s so worthwhile. Adventure should push you out of your comfort zone. That’s what grows your character and forces you to see the world from a different perspective.
On the train, I got a glimpse of what life is like for the people of Myanmar. The country’s infrastructure isn’t greatly developed, but until they can find a way to fix it, they have accepted it as part of life. In fact, it’s a privilege to even be able to travel around the country at all, even if it is challenging. Most people, like the ones waving at us as we passed, rarely see anything outside of the village they were born in. To some of them, the city of Yangon is just as exotic and faraway as it is to us.
As I stepped off the train in Bagan and geared up for a day of exploring, I felt grateful for being able to just be there – to see a country other than my own, to have the opportunity to learn about another culture – because most people in the world do not get that chance. Next time I start to complain about an uncomfortable journey, I’ll try to remember to be grateful just to be journey-ing anywhere in the first place.
And hopefully that will be enough to make me shut up and enjoy the adventure.