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Slow Train

May 9, 2015

 

Welcome to the Philippines National Railroad!

Welcome to the Philippines National Railroad!

Americans are quite spoiled when it comes to transportation. We expect to get places quickly and efficiently, and any delays that confront us (rush hour traffic, signal problems on the train) are usually met with a great deal of impatience. The majority of us take it as one of our inalienable rights to be able to go anywhere at any time without restriction.

During my time living overseas as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I discovered that this is most definitely not the case in the developing world. Ease of individual mobility is by no means a given, and the very notion of quick and efficient travel is rendered absurd by the conditions in these places.

In the Philippines where I lived for two years, expecting to wait for great amounts of time to get somewhere was a way of life, especially if traveling by train. The railroad line through the Bicol Province where I lived had been built back in 1938. It was a rudimentary single track system that had not changed much since its completion. However, in a Third World country that lacked a widespread modern road system, it served as the principal means of overland transportation, one that I had to depend upon to fulfill my duties. The lone track traversed the bottom section of the capital L that formed the main island of Luzon. Small towns dotted the rail line as it made its way southeast towards the provincial capital of Naga City. The town in which I lived, Pamplona, was on that line, and that pretty much fated my use of this means of travel. And thus the waiting began.

I needed to make periodic trips to Manila, and these could be accomplished in three ways: plane, bus, or train. Clearly the plane was the fastest of the three. However, because of the prohibitive cost (especially considering my $75 monthly salary) and logistical problems getting to the tiny local airport in Pili, this became the least preferable of the three. The bus ride involved a torturous journey of twenty-plus hours on a crowded old open-air bus over poor bumpy roads in tropical heat and torrential downpours. I tried this only once.

The "airport" at Pili; yet another reason to take the train.

The “airport” at Pili; yet another reason to take the train.

Actually, a fourth means of transport existed, a homemade contraption called a “skate” that operated all along the train track. Run by entrepreneurial daredevils, it consisted of a small wooden platform mounted on wheels (usually skate wheels, hence the name) with a hand pump propulsion system. As these rickety vehicles rolled down the line, each vegetation-lined low-visibility curve held the possibility of a surprise encounter with bandits, or worse yet, an oncoming locomotive. Needless to say, I avoided these like the plague.

That left the train. On the positive side, the ride was smoother than that of the bus and afforded better protection from the elements, and it had a vastly lower ticket price than the plane. On the other hand, it did have quite a few drawbacks. The railroad cars were old, not air-conditioned, and extremely crowded with people, packages, and assorted small livestock, especially in the economy class cars where we traveled. The “toilet” consisted of a hole in the floor through which one could watch the railroad ties pass as one heeded nature’s call. Worst of all, the delays were both brutally long and inevitable.

The causes of the delays varied, including anything from storms to mudslides to water buffalo blocking the tracks to derailments. But the single track line itself caused the majority of these delays. When the northbound train left Naga City, it had a scheduled time and station where it would pull off on a side rail to let the train from Manila go by. However, all too often the southbound train, thinking its timing off, would pull over further up the line waiting for the Manila-bound train to pass first. This left both trains sitting, sometimes for hours on end, waiting for the other to go by. Since the relatively primitive communications system usually malfunctioned, neither side would be aware of the situation until some local on a skate would happen along and clue the station in. Then, the train would move out at a snail’s pace (as opposed to its normal donkey’s pace) in case of faulty information. This resulted in a trip of about 230 miles taking up to twenty hours, a stupefying pace of twelve miles an hour.

Greg, my teaching partner and good friend, lived farther up the line in a small town named Ragay. We teamed up to deliver workshops to far-flung school districts in the province. Most of these required train travel. Greg and I developed expertise at timing our arrivals at mutually accessible stations so we could travel together. The two of us became somewhat of a local legend through our “traveling road show” along the train line, particularly when we became the main tourist attraction during our delays in remote towns.

"Americano! Americano!"

“Americano! Americano!”

At each station stop, vendors, many of them children, hawked all manner of goods to please the weary traveler. One could purchase water by the bottle (as in refilled coke bottle) or the glass, cigarettes individually, and portable climate control units (otherwise known as fans). All manner of snack foods were available from peanuts to fruit to the local delicacy called balut (a fertilized duck egg, embryo within, for your dining pleasure). Best of all, following a night of fitful and sweaty dozing, we’d pull into Lucena City at dawn, and the coffee vendors would enter the cars selling the black, sweet, syrupy concoction which by then seemed to us like the nectar of the gods. It woke us up and made the world right again.

"Hey, Joe, you buy egg?"

“Hey, Joe, you buy egg?”

Two of these countless train rides stand out in particular, though. The first started out as a comedy of errors for Greg and I which, fortunately, the kind hand of fate managed to salvage. When our second December in-country approached, we hatched a plan to use our accumulated leave time to travel to Hong Kong. As part of our Christmas present to ourselves, we splurged on airfare for a flight to Manila.

First we each planned to take the train from our respective towns to Pili, the stop after Naga City, and then meet at the airfield. We had provided plenty of extra time, knowing the trains as we did, but forgot to factor in the hordes of other people who would also be traveling for the holiday. My train ran so late that when I arrived at Naga, it made no sense to even attempt to catch the plane. I plopped myself down on the platform amidst the swell of humanity around me and resigned myself to facing the odyssey of a solitary train ride to Manila.

In the meantime, unbeknownst to me, Greg chugged along on an even later train than mine. He too disembarked in Naga knowing he couldn’t make the flight and figured he’d simply go to Manila by train. As Greg made his way through the crowd, he saw me, hunched over sitting on my luggage, looking as dejected as him! He told me he couldn’t remember ever being so happy to see my shaggy face. The normal lengthy, delay-filled trek ensued, but our trip to Hong Kong more than made up for all the misery we experienced on the journey there.

The other happened to be my final train trip of my two-year stay in the Philippines. On the designated day of my departure, I walked to the small Pamplona station as the evening light faded carrying all of my belongings in a duffel bag, surrounded by an entourage of friends, local dignitaries, and teachers. The scheduled seven o’clock train would have me whisked out of their lives as suddenly as I had arrived two years earlier. As the appointed time approached, we exchanged many emotional farewells. Seven o’clock arrived; the train, however, did not. Nervous jokes about Filipino time followed along with more emotional farewells, but still no train. As time ticked on, the entourage melted away one by one into the sultry tropical night until I was left standing alone with my nanay, who by now felt a bit uncomfortable at the unceremonious sendoff and tired as it now approached ten o’clock, well past her bedtime.

“It’s okay, Nanay, I can wait by myself,” I assured her. “You go home to sleep now.”

She agreed, gave me a motherly kiss goodbye, and left me in the dim light of the lone lantern. Soon another light appeared in the distance. The train had finally arrived. When it came to a halt, I hauled my bag up, found a seat, and then watched as my home away from home faded into the moonlit rice paddies. I was on my way home.

This particular train, a local, made every stop, so I prepared myself for a long night. It must have been around midnight when the train lurched to a stop in Hondagua. By now the car had been filled to standing room only capacity. Just then, at the door by where I sat, a terrible scene unfolded. A father struggled through the entrance carrying his teenaged son wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket followed by his tearful mother. I overheard another man accompanying them relate what had happened. During a dispute of some sort, an older teen had stabbed him in the side. The dark color of the blood prompted speculation that the wound had involved his kidney. Getting him to a hospital quickly would be paramount, but there was no hospital in Hondagua, and the only way to get to one was the train. This train. The slowest of the slow.

As the train began to move, the father stood helplessly in the aisle laden with that tender burden in his arms. I got up and offered him my seat. Ordinarily because of our perceived difference in stations in life, he would have refused, but he sat with a grateful look in his eyes. Hours passed, though it seemed like an eternity, and finally the train arrived in Lucena City where medical help would be found, though I feared the worst, for the ghastly pallor of the boy didn’t bode well. I spent the remainder of the ride reflecting on all the differences that the accident of one’s place of birth could cause in one’s existence and the dire consequences — such as the one I had just witnessed — that could result.

After my return to the United States, I continued riding the rails, both locally in New Jersey and New York as well as on subsequent travels through Europe, but it was nothing like those train trips of the Philippines. Though they were slow and difficult, I appreciate them now, for they taught me about how my capacity to endure discomfort and adversity is much greater than what I had thought possible. In the end, I came away with a much greater appreciation for what I have here, minor delays and all. But most of all, I they taught me patience.

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