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Chapter Nineteen 


 

Go North and Find Your People

۞

Riding the train in Burma could be enjoyable but it could also be hell. The ride from Mandalay to Katha was even more like a roller coaster that the Rangoon-to-Mandalay leg. The thwamp-thwamp; thwamp-thwamp; thwamp-thwamp of the boxcars bouncing both side-to-side and up-and-down caused passengers to exclaim and squeal audibly, and the vibration of steel wheels against steel tracks made Thomas's ears feel like they were bleeding. A number of times the train's shock absorbers bottomed out that jolted you violently, which were grounds for a new danger and made sleep impossible. And just to keep things spicy, the electrical system kept blacking out. When the electricity returned the lights came on at half power for the first ten seconds. Surreal, it was as if they were all on an unchaproned joy ride caught in the throws of the Burmese Express rolling forward in a drunken swagger.

What was fascinating to Thomas was how the Burmese dealt with this level of dubious operation. Even when the train was catching air or only inches from derailing with luggage falling from the overhead shelf landing on heads and toes, they remained cuddled up in a fetal posture snug in their sarong with their flat feet extended at all angles. Stowaways on the roof pitter-pattered along the length of the roof until the night when they lied down on the metal floor in the aisle or in-between cars. For some, the scraping steel and the force of the violent back-and-forth dance was a mobile rocking chair that caused extreme drowsiness. But not for Thomas; he threw himself into a betel nut haze.

Chewing betel nut made the train ride bearable. With his holy task now with some traction, the betel juice was making it downright fun. Betel nut tasted almost like liquorice but depending on the condiments you asked for, it could taste like soap. After the first day or so, when your mouth became used to the abrasive splinters of the nut, your teeth are stained red. If consumed at regular intervals, at perhaps two per hour, then by the end of day you were bold and confident and even prone to rapid-fire hallucinations. Trying to become better at the art of the nut, he tried to master a certain technique of expel the excess betel juice. Due to the deep reddish-orange color of the juice, one must spit the betel juice like a projectile away from the body for fear of sullying your garments. Like the others on the train, he was using the open window to spit through.

In the sitting arrangements for this ride it was unfortunate for Thomas to be sitting beside a fat man. The mass of his body was deceptive, soon taking pinching Thomas into the corner with half his girth on his side of the seat. Surrounded by half-starved peasants with dust in their hair, the fat man wore his weight with pride, like a corporeal manifestation of his wealth and success. Once the fat man had spread himself out, he began to snore. With the swaying of the train back and forth, Thomas was forced to hold on to the windowsill from falling against his large mass.

Vendors walked down the aisle chanting their pitch to sell their wares, saying anything to make a sale in an endless procession. All the Burmese were treated the same except when it came to walking past the white-skinned foreigner who stood out like a sore thumb. They slowed down to make sure he saw their food by putting it inches from his face. With the robust movement of the train, this meant a boiled egg hitting his cheek or a package of nuts striking his ear. When an old man dressed in black and gold Buddhist robes covered in swastikas walked down the aisle for alms, Thomas reached across the fat man to give some change. He was relieved the monk didn't thank him as if he was special.

It was one of the processions of vendors that awoke the fat man. Stimulated by the sight of food, he purchased a half-dozen items while Thomas bought a bag of peanuts in the shell. The rich Burmese didn't eat for nutrition or to satiate hunger; they ate to put on weight for status because size is their Porsche and embodiment of wealth and degree of success.

After eating Thomas offered the fat man a cigarette.

"Marlboro Light," he said. "Made in America."

"Yeah, something like that, but it really comes from the Red Indians of America," he replied, happy he spoke English.

"No, that's not true, is it?" So few people were aware that tobacco was one of the great exports of the Red Man.

"It is true," he said. "The story of tobacco is interesting. In less than a century after its discovery by the Europeans, its use had circled the globe. First the Portuguese and Spanish brought it to Europe in 1518 and then Jean Nicot brought to France in 1559. It's from his name that we get the word ‘nicotine.' Tobacco use spread to Italy, Turkey and Russia by 163o and then to Arabia by 1660. It eventually made its way to the Philippines through the Spanish where it was cultivated and exported to China, Siberia and then Alaska. Right around the world." The fat man nodded at this information as he chewed on sweets.

"And the British brought it to Burma, eh?" He offered Thomas something that had a soggy texture but decline. "How do you know all this about tobacco?" His first reflex was to state that he read it in a book but in his heart it wasn't the answer he wanted to give.

"Because I'm a Canadian Métis Indian." It was strange saying this about himself to a stranger.

"Red Indian?" He studied Thomas for a moment.

"Yes. My great grandmother was Ojibway Indian. I am part Red Man and part White Man." I am a painted horse, he said to himself: a Mustang thirsting for open grasslands and freedom to move. "I have the spirit of the Red Man and the eyes of the White Man. My brother believes tobacco is a type of medicine."

"You look like a Lisu man. Go north to Kachin and find your people." His response was eerie. He closed his eyes to sleep, and soon he too was lulled by the to-and-fro of the train, giving way to the gravity of sleep. He dreamed he and Josh were two brothers from India. Josh was a holy man who dedicated his life to his religious calling. Seven years passed until Thomas heard from someone by chance where Josh was. Being the twin who was deserted, Thomas found him in a jungle in India. To reach Josh and to protect himself from a sniper, he used a rhinoceros as a buffer against the bullets as he approached his long-lost holy twin. As he ran towards the hut where Josh was sitting with twelve disciples around him, he held on to the rhino's tail that was soon covered in blood from the sniper shooting. Just before reaching him and his disciples, Thomas saw a desperate look on his face and then woke up.

The train was stopped at a station somewhere at the foot of the Himalayas under a sky so clear that he could almost reach out and grab a star. His guess was the engineer stopped to catch the remainder of a football match, which men watched on a television in the station.

As he was pondering the meaning of his dream in the middle of nowhere in Burma stopped at two in the morning, the moonlight shone through the windows showing passengers sprawled at all angles, trying to achieve those few precious moments of slumber to take them away from the biting cold of the mountain air. The sleeping bodies were alive with a wide variety of bodily noises. Snoring, different flavors of coughing, burping, farting, clucking, groaning, nose-blowing and murmuring and the occasional cough-and-hork combination were some of the sounds he heard in the dead of night as he sat wondering how he had come to this point of being stranded as the only foreigner in a train full of Kachin, Shan, Burman and the rest of the hill tribes that make up the Union of Burma. The boxcar was a veritable cacophony of throat calisthenics uttered a guttural chorus the likes of which few would ever witness. The deathly background of absolute countryside silence magnified the symphony of sounds created en masse by each grunt, groan and audio product emitted from the depths of a collective esophagus. A woman even sang a few lines in her sleep. And there were odors, some of which he didn't know existed. There was one smell from the foot family of odors that made it an indescribable hell with no escape. No place to run, no person to speak to, and no circulating air through the closed windows. Leaving the train was too dangerous because of theft, and sleep was out of the question because one man kept erupting into frantic gasps for air every few minutes between snores. He had some Valium but it was in his bag overhead and he would have to create a ruckus and wake up the fat man to get it. One, two, three, and then four hours passed by as slow as a tree growing. An aching despair came over him, heavy as lead. He felt like a thirsty asthmatic who was caught in a sauna, the air thick as soup. Time stood still, especially when the fat man began letting go a rapid-fire number of pungent flatulent emissions that should have been enough to warrant an assault charge. The crudeness of a people could not have been more revealed. It was in this state of play when Thomas realized it was his 40th birthday. But instead of feeling resentful for this passing of time, he saw that time was not only measured in minutes, hours and years, it was measured in experience and knowledge. In this sense he had been given something of value for his birthday.

  
 

 
 
 
 
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Part One - Canada
1.      The Twin From the East Returns  
2.      The Sundancer  
3.      Waxing Gibbous 
4.      The Second Coming of the Messiah 
5.      The Sacred Twin Story 
6.      The Sign of the Pahana 
7.      Palongawhoya and Poqanghoya 
8.      Rainbow Thunderbird and Red Phoenix 
9.      The True White Brother 
10.    The Lost Louis Riel Notebooks 
 
Part Two - Hong Kong
11.    A Mixture of Revulsion and Pity 
12.    A Classroom of Scallywags 
13.    Illegitimati non Carborundum 
14.    The Distant Fire of Empyrean
 
Part Three - Burma
15.    The Monastery of Sacred Tablets 
16.    The Outpost of Tyranny 
17.    When the 12th Moon Comes 
18.    The Pigeon Left & the Crow Took His Place 
19.    Go North and Find Your People 
20.    Finding Orwell 
21.    Though the Monkey is in a Hurry, the Tree Branch is Not 
22.    The Castle at God's Toes 
23.    The General and Sergeant Betel Nut 
24.    The Tattooed Station Master 
25.    Reverend Crow's Life's Work 
26.    Yield Not to Adversity, But Press on More Bravely 
27.    A Bitter Cuppa Tea 
28.    The Thirteenth Tribe 
29.    When a Lamp is Lit You Must Expect Insects 
30.    John the Christian 
31.    A Guardian Angel Named Hanna 
32.    The Bar Car & Betel Nut 
33.    The Son of Light 
34.    Slipping the Karmic Knot
 
Part Four - Hong Kong
35.    The Tonsure Warning 
36.    The Phoenix Reborn 
37.    Touching the Empyrean 
38.    Joshua the Gatekeeper 
 
Part Five - Canada
39.    Lapsit Exillis 
40.    Thunderstones 
41.    The Time of Great Purification  
         
 
 

  

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