The Bar Car & Betel Nut
train swayed south to the capital, the au naturale expanse of teak and
palm groves and distant mountain ranges was how it had been intended to be
during the times of Eden. The undisturbed and tranquil jungles of Burma looked
as old as time itself. Rustled by wind and nourished by light, it slept and
grew while man burned out long before like shooting stars.
his enjoyment of the scenery was marred by a man in a bomber jacket on the
other side of the aisle who gawked at him like a zoo animal. Thomas made a
feeble effort to convince himself that he might not be a target, but it was
entirely possible that this man could be spying on him because the authorities
had found the hole in the church wall and had found his name and seat number in
the train log, though he comforted himself that for a domestic agent of Burmese
intelligence he didn't appear to have the minimum degree of subtlety. Amid the
orchestra of clanging metal along the uneven tracks, boxcars shimmying and
parrying with vigor, he wondered about the danger snowballing in Myskyina. If he were a messenger then how was he
worthy when he failed the third Kachin proverb? Can a flawed man be the right
choice for such a noble and holy task?
"If you sit in a fish bowl, don't resent people for staring,"
he said to no one.
He recognized the town outside where the General had
dropped off the fifty bags of coal. Across the river there was a fort complete
with canons still intact along a wall made of grass. The fort had been dug into
the earth and the guns are still perched on earthen walls covered with
He bought some betel nut from a vender through the window
and was relieved when the man in the bomber jacket left. More comfortable now,
Thomas sank into his soft seat and drifted off to sleep. He dreamed he was in a
vast labyrinth of vertical corridors. After fighting gravity for so long, he
let go and fell freely, bouncing off walls as he descended deeper and deeper
into a bottomless void, believing he was falling to his death. But he suddenly
believed he would land safely. It wasn't knowledge but faith. So he conquered
his ingrained fear of heights and enjoyed the free fall down an intricate
complex of corridors letting the welling-up in his belly thrill rather than
frighten. The fall went on until he was just about to land safely when he was
awoken when a drunken man bumped his arm walking down the aisle with his
were loud and drunk. Sloppiness in the dragging of their flip-flops but it
didn't rile him because he figured there must be a bar car on the express
train. Invigorated and aware of a surreptitious return to his cavalier ways, he
made sure his bag was secure, took his backpack with the stone and walked down
the aisle in the direction where the two drunkards had come from. Passing a man
between cars smoking who looked familiar, he swayed to the rhythm down four
cars to an old pair of wooden salon doors.
rocking of the train didn't appear to affect the men sitting with beers talking
at tables as the countryside rolled past them. Sitting at one of the two-person
tables in the corner by the window, the barman came by to take his order.
beer in the bottle." He returned with a big bottle of Myanmar Lager, placed it
on the table and opened it but Thomas stopped him before he poured it into a
glass. It was his way of trying to keep at bay the Burmese killers such as
cholera, jungle rot, dysentery and brush typhus, the last being a spicy
indigenous number. Looking around at the faces staring at him, he raised his bottle
and nodded, adhering to the unwritten code of mead hall etiquette. He
drank deeply as the half-dozen metal fans roared overhead.
bar car was the epicenter of the train, and an experience apart from the
crowded aisles of steerage and the soft seats in first class. Rustic and
weathered, simple yet functional, the bar car played host to men of appetite. A
meal, a beer and a smoke with a package of betel nut was the opening bid. It
was the place for those who felt at home with other breadwinners of their ilk,
and where one could endure the ache of the hammering steel wheels in peace
together rather than alone. Escaping the concerns of the trip, he very quickly
experienced the brotherhood with the other drinkers as they rambled south to
the Indian Ocean.
out the window at the land of a thousand pagodas and putting on his jacket, he
smiled at the man at the next table. There was no reaction so he stood up to
offer him and his friend a betel nut. He accepted and gestured for him to sit
down at his four-man table in the middle of the car. His friend declined the
betel nut but accepted the cigarette he offered. The one who took the betel nut
leaned closer to him.
you from?" All it took was one guy with a bit of broken English to translate
until there were a half-dozen guys sitting at the table. Such little exposure
these isolated Burmese had to foreigners that he felt he was speaking on behalf
of an entire continent to clarify and destroy the government-created paranoid
myths of evil foreigners who were obsessed with cheating others and robbing the
Burmese people blind. Soon Thomas was passing out betel nut like candy, and
smokes like chocolate eggs on Easter Sunday. Even the most skeptical of the
bunch found reason for a full-bodied guffaw at one of his exaggerating antics.
No doubt the fair drooping moustache had something to do with it and the
burgundy beret bespoke a certain cool acceptability in the army culture of
Burma. Despite the choppy language going back and forth, it was a chance for them
all to share the pains of injustice and melt away unfounded fears. Just the
proximity and acceptance helped heal festering resentments and undecided
opinions that ushered in a renewed faith in themselves to stick to what they
had always thought but had been told not to believe. Sitting together was a
revelation for all, sitting at the worn-out linoleum tables under the noisy
fans and chewing betel nut between the tobacco-stained green walls.
attendants began to retire from the day's service and took a seat at the table.
Some with tattoos and with looks of doubt and caution were soon taking the
cigarettes out of his hands and wrapped narcotics from his endless baggie. They
laughed at the way he drank, the way he used his hands and arms when he he communicated,
and the way he spat out betel juice. They even laughed at the red-stained teeth
every time Thomas smiled. But it was okay; the Burmese had given him what he
had come for. These descendents of Manessah had enabled him to become the twin
messenger to bring a holy relic back home to North America that might have the
power to heal, not just the Métis, but of all four races of mankind.
That thought in itself filled his own scarred heart with healing medicine.
the train slowed because workers were fixing the track, the guy across from
Thomas threw out some cigarettes at the workers. The workers waved back and
yelled thank you as they picked up the freebies and lit them. He joined in and
threw clusters of cigarettes through the window except his throws were harder
than theirs. This generated laughter, soon the cigarettes were whipped outside
was one guy nursing a thin moustache who sat apart in the corner giving Thomas
a rude look, looking like he didn't want to join the fun. He recalled an old
Chinese proverb: rudeness is the weak man's imitation of trying to be a
strong man, so he thought he could help him with some good-hearted
posturing. He bought two Mandalay beers and went to his corner leaving the
others to continue laughing at his ways and celebrating their new insights.
When he offered him betel nut, he declined but Thomas noticed that he had the
betel-red teeth so he insisted. He looked tired so I left the baggie in front
of him and looked out the window to give him some space. That was when he
reached out and took one, and that was when he gave him the Myanmar Lager. They
had a toast with Thomas saying a few mispronounced Burmese words. He took a nut
for himself and smiled, purposely showing him his blood-red teeth. That was
enough to bring a smile across his face. After a few more quick Chinese toasts
of Gam Bai, he loosened up nicely.
put his finger to his upper lip and then points at Thomas's moustache and
nodded. It looked like he simply didn't have the raw material to establish any
substantial presence on his upper lip, so Thomas nodded back and began to twirl
his droopy moustache at the sides, which really gave him spark. Using beer as
moustache wax, he made the handlebars stick out. It was this that brought him into
the fold and soon he was at the main table with everybody.
wondered when the last time was this guy had swigged a cold beer to seep away
the aches and pains of dead-end thoughts after a long work shift.
the sun downshifted from orange to red, the entire populace of the bar car sat
at the table listening to a foreigner with betel-stained teeth speak choppy
Burmese, which was enough for some youngsters to consume at a more rapid rate.
It wasn't what was said that they will remember, but how they felt when it was
it was his unconditional acceptance of them as Burmese that they will remember
long after the evening is over.
It took stamina to indulge with gusto, so like
all good things Thomas knew it would come to an end when the attendants, who
slept in the bar car at night after it closed, began to lie down across the
seats and make their beds for the night. He stood up when there was still a
robust level of enthusiasm, gave away his last cigarettes and betel nuts except
for one of each, and then said goodbye with handshakes and high fives. Four
hours in the bar car was enough to get his mind off the pressures of the trip
and the stress of getting the sacred relic out of the Burma.