Yangon – The English Teacher on The Circular Train
I woke up and, for a split second, could not recognise where I was. I always feel exhilarated when this happens, because it means I’m visiting a new place. As soon as I left the air-conditioned room, Yangon reminded me once again that the sticky heat was not going away.
The smooth taxi ride to the train station was rather pleasant — we were lucky not to get stuck in the traffic jam that plagues the city. The refreshing breeze filled the car as we suddenly realised that although the traffic runs on the right hand side, the majority of the cars had their steering wheels on the right — they probably came from India or Thailand.
The helpful guards at the station, sensing our agitation, directed us to the right platform — the train would leave in a couple of minutes so we had to be fast. There were many people sleeping on the floor inside the the station, which reminded me a bit of India. I wasn’t sure if their train was late or if they had spent the night there.
At the ticket booth, as we were buying the tickets the cashier said, “There is the circular train arriving,” pointing to the opposite platform. “Will we have time to get it?” I asked, thinking we’d need to walk back up the stairs and over the tracks.
“Of course! Just follow me!” He replied, leaving the booth and jumping on the tracks. Well, that makes things easier, I thought to myself. Sophia and I ran across the tracks and got on the train just before the doors closed behind us.
A three hour train journey was about to begin.
To say that our train had air conditioning was a tremendous overstatement — it was merely a cool breeze, but the heat was still there. The seats were comfortable and we liked the fact that some of them were specifically reserved for monks, the same way as they are for senior citizens and pregnant ladies.
There were always the curious looks of the other passengers, smiling at us, willing to bond even in the slightest way — some waved and some looked as if we were actors in a soap opera, waiting for us to do something special I guess.
Looking outside we started seeing the landscape changing, but the smears on the filthy window blocked our view. We put it up and took some pics of the endless plantations of some sort of salad leaf. As we tried to put it back down, it got stuck.
“You shouldn’t open the window in this carriage,” a voice came from the next booth. A lady with soft eyes was pointing, letting us know of our mistake. “I’m sorry,” I replied, “we were just taking some pictures.”
We managed to bring the window down after some mild struggling and wondered if we were going to upset the other passengers by opening it again. We quickly created a strategy, where in less than 10 seconds we could open it a bit, take a pic and close it again.
“I’m sorry,” we heard the voice again, “I didn’t mean to be rude. I just thought you couldn’t read the sign in Burmese.” We didn’t think she had been rude; we were actually impressed with how good her English was.
“Don’t worry, you weren’t! How come you speak such good English?” I asked, assuming, by her looks, that she was Indian.
“I’m an English teacher.”
All of a sudden, the type of encounters I cherish the most had unexpectedly spawned — the chance to talk with a local in a stress free environment for an unlimited amount of time. I think she was as curious about us as we were about her!
Judith had been a tour guide in the past, but as she grew older, she thought it would be wiser to not move about so much. So she decided to teach English instead. One of her sons was the principal of her school and the other was in Miami, working as a chef.
She did have Indian roots after all, which explained her looks and her unusually western name — both her parents had also very British names themselves.
We were curious about the leaf plantations we had seen, especially because the farmers were constantly using water, which seemed to be sewage water. Some of the rivers, closer to the city, looked filthy, yet it didn’t seem to be a problem.
“They are watercress,” she replied after we inquired. We made a mental note not to order any watercress in Yangon!
The scenery was now filled with rice fields and every now and then it seemed as if we passed literary through a small village — we could see people’s yards, where they’d be cooking or just minding their own business.
We spoke about several subjects, ranging from the political situation in the country — the election day was just over a week away — and how little the minimum wage was. It is 3600 kyats a day ($2,60 and £1.85) for eight hours of work.
There are two things you instantly notice when you arrive in Myanmar; first is the Betel, which is some sort of leaf that men chew, as if it were tobacco in the old days and keep spitting everywhere — their teeth are in an incredible state of decay.
Judith mentioned that several women also do it! I was wondering which one was worse, the betel chewing/spitting or smoking cigarettes!
The other thing is what they call Thanaka, and it’s both a form of make-up and some sort of sun protection “cream.” The majority of women and children wear it and once in a while you see some man too.
“So where are you going?” I asked, considering it had passed nearly two hours and she was still in the carriage with her family and friends.
“I took them for a train today,” she pointed to her companions, “my sister and her children and some of my neighbours. Then we’re going to have lunch at my place.”
I’d thought only foreigners were crazy enough to take a three-hour circular train, but I was apparently mistaken — local people took it too.
As we started approaching the city, Judith started talking about our surroundings. We passed by a market that happens almost on the trains tracks and it was quite famous with the locals. There was also a station (Kyeemyindaing Station), which the name translated to “if you look, you’ll see.” I started wondering if every name of the 32 stations we had seen had such an interesting translation.
She finished inviting us to go for a walk around the Bogyoke Market, which was just a short distance from Yangon Central Station. We exchanged mobile numbers and promised to contact each other for the future encounter.
Sophia and I bid goodbye to her and her friends and before we took a taxi back to the hotel we kept thinking about how lucky we had been. We knew we would have an insight about how the outskirts of Yangon looked like — we never knew we would have an deep insight about the Burmese culture!
I’ll remember about the beautiful pagodas the city has to offer; I’ll remember about the kind staff of our hotel and I’ll remember about the chaotic traffic jam.
However, when I think about Yangon, I think about Judith and her soft eyes.