A Place of Dread and Wonder
I wrote this personal story for an internal IDEO event which celebrates the art of storytelling. You can read it below, or watch the video recording of it.
There’s only one thing that can take you far away, make you feel like home, and give you good a kick in the balls: a train.
When I was a teenager, I would go with my dad and his friends to Venice to attend the Biennale, a famous art exhibition. We had our own style of doing that: take the sleeper train there, spend a long lovely day, and then take the sleeper train back. The sleeper trains were the ones with convertible benches, six in each compartment. I always chose the top one, where the ceiling was curved and you could reach it without extending your arm much. The leather had that rich smell of having touched legions of travelers, heard many stories, and supported countless light dreams.
When I was even younger, maybe six or seven, a train was this magical colossus that would take me to new places. Transportation that made me value the journey as much as the destination. Back then, most trains I took were built in the 50ies and 60ies, so they smelled like metal and old leather. The smoking wagons — they still had those — left you reeking like an ashtray. The windows required a fair bit of strength to move up and down. The transition between wagons seemed dangerous, half-outside with its tenuous, moving link. And the toilets were usually a place of dread.
Speaking of dread, it wasn’t all positive. Unlike cars, trains seemed to be controlled by this hidden demi-god that decided when a train should leave the station, and clocks — to me — were unreliable prophets, not to be trusted. I was always terribly afraid of our train leaving without my family, or — worse — separating us. The closer we were to the doors of the train, the worse this fear became. To no surprise, I was better than any shepherd’s dog at making sure my family was safely boarded.
So, to me, trains are places of wonder, and places of dread. If you’re up for a journey, I will tell you three stories that convey the danger, absurdity, and magic of train travel.
One great thing about the sleeper trains is that they rock you to sleep so nicely. But sleeping on a train isn’t always easy or comfortable. One time as a teenager, a friend and I found our benches double booked on our way to Hamburg, and we had to spend the night sitting in a compartment of three and three seats facing each other. It was tough falling asleep sitting upright, but I finally did. In the middle of the night, I was woken up abruptly, and rudely. The guy sitting across from me had — in his sleep — put his foot in my lap!
Pushing aside the most immediate question that came to my mind “Is the world ending?”, I calmly assessed the situation. There were, other than this guy and my poor self, four other people in the compartment. All of us had had trouble falling asleep. You have to understand, I was a polite, empathetic, and considerate person as a teenager — I know this comes as a surprise to you. Anyway, I really didn’t want to wake up my fellow travelers.
So, I tried, quietly, to lift the leg out of my lap. To no avail. It was manufactured from the lead of sleep and a lifetime of unhealthy eating. Next on my solution list was — quietly — getting the guy’s attention through the magic of the spoken word. Which, of course, proved fruitless. So I desperately turned to the last method I could fathom at this moment: hammering my fists on the guy’s leg to wake him up.
I kid you not, that didn’t bother the guy a bit. He might have snorted a little in his sleep, but he didn’t move his frickin’ leg! So there I sat, some unknown dude’s foot in my jewels. In despair using all my sharp, but unfortunately imaginary, weapons on his leg. All quietly in my head.
Just about when my dream fight had turned this guy to shreds, the real man lifted his leg off my crotch without even waking up. This all too sudden and anti-climactic end to my struggle left me befuddled. And, again, unable to sleep until the first coffee at our destination rectified the wrongs of that night.
As weird as this event was, there was deeper meaning: On trains, like in life, you can’t always choose your travel companions. But if you can, make sure they have short legs.
Sometimes with travel, it’s not so much a getting to a place, but a getting away from a place.
One night in Vietnam I was traveling from the south to the north in a sleeper train. I hadn’t enjoyed my time in the country as much as I would have liked: very crowded cities and feeling like a walking dollar sign. I was annoyed and a little bored, and the train seemed to reflect that. Unlike the sleeper experiences from my childhood, this was a plain and ugly metallic container overflowing with neon light. Everything felt bland and overexposed, and smelled of a vinegar cleaning solution. People kept their distance to each other, and it felt the overnight aspect was not a matter of enjoyment, but necessity.
Bored from reading my book I decided that a trip to the bistro wagon was the only alternative pastime on this kind of train. So I made my way through the brightly lit corridors, wagon to wagon until I finally found the right door marked with fork and knife, an unmistakable but wrongly Western sign for food. I opened it, quickly stepped through the door frame…
…and suddenly found myself in the strangest scene straight out of a David Lynch movie. The room was very dim, illuminated by decades-old bulbs tucked away between 70ies furniture with never-replaced upholstery. And disco lights which seemed to move through the room almost in rhythm with the loud music which, for the life of me, I cannot recall.
There were three young female attendants in high heels, carrying something, or dancing through the bistro, wearing tight dresses and strong makeup. Three men were seated at separate, small tables well apart from each other. The newcomer’s look they shot me spoke of grinning pleasure mixed with slight shame. Where did that look come from? What was going on that I couldn’t pick up on? What role should I take in this strange play?
Like in a dream, I let my eyes slide over the available food — some non-descript chips that seemed to have been loaded on the train at the time of its manufacture. I couldn’t find anything appealing, and stepped out again into the neon lights. When the door closed behind me, I couldn’t tell if that place had ceased to exist.
To this day, I’m not sure if this scene really happened or if there was something in the water that made me hallucinate. But I have come to trust that, even when all you expect is more neon lights, life’s next strange party might be just ahead.
As you might have gathered from that story, I was traveling alone at that time. I was on an 8-week trip through Southeast Asia. I had just quit a job I hated, and broken up with my girlfriend after a long relationship. I was traveling December and January — with Christmas and New Year’s being the time when I usually feel closest to family and friends. The time when everything calms down, people from all over return to their places of origin, to reconnect with their past. When you want to feel the warmth and intimacy that only family and old friends can give. I, however, was traveling alone in countries far away from home, sometimes with a lonely and heavy heart.
As Christmas was drawing close, I had almost crossed the former Kingdom of Siam and made my way into Bangkok. Having caught a stomach bug, I was living off of packaged American muffins (the only safe and non-spicy food), and my spirits were as low as my body was exhausted. Nevertheless, I couldn’t rest. I felt like I had to move forward, never mind my body.
So in the early morning of Christmas Day, I entered Hua Lamphong train station for my 5am train to the border of Cambodia. I’ve come to loathe that station, because every time I’m there to take a train, none of the food outlets are open. Same this time, but I found something else in the middle of the station hall: a group of eleven New Zealanders equipped with tourist backpacks just as I was. I approached and started a conversation, and finally we boarded the train together.
This was the lowest class you can get in Thailand: a low, narrow train with simple wooden benches, used almost exclusively by locals. You would find grandmothers going back to their village, or merchants transporting some sort of crop in large baskets, or the occasional chicken. Definitely a place where foreigners were rarely seen and our ways seemed peculiar from the get-go.
Not wanting to intrude, nor having the place to do so on the narrow benches, I chose a seat a few meters away from the New Zealanders. Despite the date I wasn’t feeling very much like Christmas: a foreign environment, still sick and tired, and determined to let the train take me away towards better days. But all that changed.
About an hour after we had left the station and were in the middle of rural Thailand, the New Zealanders, in the best of spirits, started singing Christmas songs. Loudly, proudly, and with lots of giggling and laughter, because for most songs they only knew the first verse and then had to break it off. As you can imagine, eleven people singing a song makes a veritable concert, and Thais all around were forced to notice. Before long you could see smiles on many faces in the wagon.
To me, it was the most wonderful thing. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I had been gifted a piece of home. My mind was singing along even if my body could not, and the lighthearted happiness that reverberated through the train made the most special Christmas experience I’ve had in years. The situation didn’t only connect me to home, or to the Kiwi singers, it seemed to connect everyone in the train in the most human way: through song, merriment, and wholehearted laughter.
Trains remain mystical places to me. They throw you into unexpected, sometimes extraordinary situations. It’s where life feels stranger than fiction and stronger than poetry. There are trains that you cannot leave without being changed. They don’t only move your body; they move your soul.
I’ve come to learn a few unexpected things on trains: When you’re lonely, sharing song and laughter with strangers can make you feel at home in any corner of the Earth. When you least expect it, trust that your life can turn neon lights into disco lights. And, of course, when someone drops their foot in your crotch, it’s okay to make a fuss!