You may remember, I was just leaving Mandalay, a city that certainly held beautiful and interesting things, but for me was just a mess of tangled streets and uninspiring buildings. Perhaps I’ll give it another go one day, but after so many incredible places visited in Burma, Mandalay was never built to compete. Anyway, I had booked myself a train journey to the Northern town of Hsipaw, and was suitably excited to experience a train journey in a new country. (I really, really like train journeys).
The train was due to leave at 4AM, which was a tad annoying – I really didn’t want to pay $10 for half a night’s sleep, but I had a plan all worked out. I would eat a later dinner with my lovely friend José along with a beer or two until around midnight (when everything shuts!) and then head back to my hotel. There were always staff lounging around in the lobby sleeping and watching television. Despite it being a hell-hole of a hotel (which actually, I admit I ended up growing a bit of a soft spot for, despite the prison cell room (link)), I figured I would hang out with them, use the wifi, maybe take a nap on one of the couches and wander off to the train station at about 3AM to be there in good time.
This plan didn’t work out. Not at all.
After dinner with José, I went back, greeted the staff, parked myself on a free couch and applauded my own planning skills. At around 1AM, the door burst open and an unknown man marched in and demanded I leave. I’d never seen him before, so I decided to write him off as a crazy man and ignore him. This didn’t go down too well – turns out he was the owner. Oops. I tried to reason with him and explained I’d been an excellent customer of his for the last three nights, and that I’d only be here for a few more hours. He wasn’t having any of it. His furious response was “YOU STAY? YOU PAY” I obviously had no intention of paying $10 for the privilege of a prison cell, so I tried a little harder to reason with him. This resulted in more angry shouting.
I tried to use the “But I’m a helpless girl lost in a big city” card, debating whether to use false tears or not. My pride wouldn’t let me go that far though and so I sadly picked up my bags and trudged out onto the street, considering my next move. I’ll admit I felt a little down at this – until this moment, I’d had a pretty great rapport with the staff and it was sad to leave this way.
I decided to walk in the direction of the train station and hope for some nicer folk to spend my time with. A dog started chasing me. As I write this, it’s pretty hysterical to imagine my stroppy face with an enormous backpack and day pack, waddling away from the dog, silently wishing I’d gotten my rabies shot. At the time, I didn’t find it quite so hilarious.
Fortunately the dog soon tired of this turtle-like girl, scuffling along the ground and ran off to terrorise someone else. A group of drunken Burmese men coming round the corner started pointing and laughing at me. I’m usually pretty good at being made fun of, but at that moment it just added to my annoyance – I attempted a smile and hurried my pace. A tuk-tuk driver started driving alongside me, screaming “TUK-TUK” for a good five minutes, despite my polite “No thank you” responses. Finally, I saw the lights of the train station and felt a little relief. I decided I’d find a quiet corner, fashion a bed out of my backpack and take a nap until my train came.
As I approached the station I saw a row of plastic chairs in a quiet spot near the ticket window – perfect! I started to shrug off my layers of baggage, keen to lie down and cheer myself up with some shut-eye. A security guard stepped up and started shaking his head, miming that I couldn’t lay there. I stared at him. Was this really happening?
Reluctantly, I heaved my bags back onto my back and allowed him to escort me to a brightly lit waiting area with lots of excitable young Burmese men staring at me. Again, normally I pride myself on being sociable and more than happy to hang out with the locals, but by this point, I was just a bit fed up with how my night had gone.
I stubbornly walked past the men, over to a corner and took off my bags for the second time. I made a pillow out of my day pack, a footrest out of my rucksack and lay down. A second uniformed man came over and started pointing to another area. This time, I’d had enough. I exhaustedly attempt to smile at him, shook my head and turned onto my side to ignore him, pulling a t-shirt over my face to block out the ridiculously bright lights. I immediately wished I hadn’t. Turns out I was in the middle of a swarm of mosquitos. Fantastic.
The guard left. I lay in my stubborn foetal position and started to question the decision I had made. A couple of minutes later I felt a tap on my shoulder. The guard was back. I turned over and stared. And within a millisecond, my bad mood melted. He had a huge grin on his face and proudly held up some cardboard he’d found me to sleep on. I watched in silent appreciation as he lay down the cardboard and scurried off again. Turns out he was a night guard on the platform and had his own little sleeping area under a mosquito net with all sorts of tricks and treats. He reappeared with three mosquito coils used to detract the nasty little buggers, delicately placing them at each corner of my cardboard ‘bed’. His friend came over and handed me a bottle of mosquito repellent, helped me apply it and insisted I keep it. I cannot even begin to describe how thankful I was. I didn’t even know where to begin in saying thank you. I just sat, silently smiling, repeating thank you to them. A loud guffaw of laughter came from a rowdy group of guys across the hall, clearly amused by the funny looking white girl sleeping on cardboard. The guard and his friend stood up and picked up a row of plastic chairs and arranged three ‘walls’ of chairs around me to give me some privacy. We chatted for a few minutes and then the guard ushered his friend away, smiled at me and said “You sleep?”
I did sleep. I set my alarm for half an hour before my train was due to leave and I had two hours of wonderful, uninterrupted, non-mosquito biting sleep. Just before my alarm went off, the security guard gently woke me up and picked up my rucksack for me, ready to carry it across the tracks to my train. Before we got to the train, he showed me where the toilet was, (which I never would have found on my own), carried my two big bottles of water across the tracks, found my seat for me on the train, dropped off my bags and informed the train conductor that I was on the train and not to bother me, as I would be sleeping.
Any of you who follow along on this blog may remember that I had a similar incident to this in India (Click here!), where I was humbled almost to the point of tears by the kindness that a stranger had shown me. In truth, I know that I will never see this train guard again, I know that for him, what he did was simply part of his daily routine and that he probably didn’t feel like he did something astonishing. But he did. He had no idea of my grumpy mood, he had no idea that this was exactly the kindness that I needed, he just did a nice thing. He has no idea that he changed my entire final experience of the people of Mandalay. I think when you’ve been away for home for a few weeks/months/years/whatever, you have days when you simply can’t remember why you left you house, your routine, your home comforts, your own bed. And in one kind gesture, people like this train guard brought it all back, and turn it all around.
Have you ever had a moment like this? I would love to hear about it. Are you inspired to go and rescue a grumpy girl with backpacks? Please do!