Jul 15, 2020

Of Horror and Mystery Trains

From the station crowds lined up. As soon as the gate latches were released everyone was running hysterically even pushing others away just for a chance to get the limited seats on board.

In Manila, during the late 1980s, I first experienced taking a ride on the Philippine National Railways and it horribly stirred me.

My aunt and mother were quite nervous taking the train – but it was the cheapest form of transport from Tutuban to Alabang (even cheaper than jeepney fares) thus in desperation we joined the swarm of wild commuters.

As a child, the signage ‘Beware of Pickpockets’ stickered on Tutuban Terminal walls were both amusing and mind-boggling. I wondered- “What are Pickpockets?” – as I have never seen one then. It sounded frightening. But commuting on a train sounded more exciting as it can be experienced nowhere else in the country but only in the capital city.

From the station crowds lined up. As soon as the gate latches were released everyone was running hysterically even pushing others away just for a chance to get the limited seats on board. Inside the carriage temperature and stress levels began to rise. Most passengers had no choice but to stand most intimately with other travelers. The word tête-à-tête had a bare context. My panicky aunt clutched our belongings hugging them onto her chest and my mother (who was out of breath) grabbed me tightly by the hand that I could barely move my fingers. She repeated the words – Stay Close! Don’t let go of my hand!

The windows were barred with metal grills from the outside. Oxygen levels were dropping as too many respiratory organs were consuming it. Defective rotating electric fans fastened on ceilings dispersed bad underarm odor all over the over capacitated rectangular space. Perspiration can even be felt trickling down other way-farers. And friction eventually erupted. It was akin to livestock freight cargo. Train marshalls shouted ‘Mag ingat po sa Mandurukot!’ (‘Beware of Pickpockets!’) whilst forcibly squeezing themselves through the thicket of sweat-soaked bodies. I hated that ride as people were already beginning to stink beastly!

As the locomotive sped up from Blumentritt towards Pasig River station one would really be troubled at the sight of how close rows of improvised huts stand to the passing diesel engine. Even children were chasing after it. Most abstruse were the few super-talented individuals who would chase the speeding steel and hop on the narrow side step boards desperate for a free ride. An action clip similar to a James Bond movie.

Station stops seemed unsafe as they were either too low or too high for persons to disembark. Holes and cracks decorated platform floors. What is most unbearable were the black diesel fumes the engines emitted. It abhorred me.

We were so relieved after we alighted the carriage. We could breathe the ‘fresh’ Manila air once more. Claustrophobics will not survive the ordeal to arrive alive at the end station of Calamba, Laguna from the oxygen-constrained-sauna-like wagon.

In 2015 I took my son with me from Magallanes Station to Tutuban hoping the circumstance would have improved. And for the purpose that he would get in touch with how locals live with daily life resiliency. Perhaps my 1980s twitchy train experience would altercate. And it turned out to be a horror-comedy show – the whole train was swinging as it would eventually fly away to pieces. Wide holes between carriages would surely swallow any unwary leg it would chance upon.

Why my son was constantly cracking up at the whole floor shaking and trembling underneath us! Though the other commuters looked strangely on him. Oh well, horrific for someone else’s perspective comical to another’s. Anyhow, I just said to my son – ‘These trains are running and transporting. They still serve their purpose’. And the unique experience can be found in the Philippines. Not in Austria.

After the distressing exposure in Manila’s Railway, bedazzling trains were merely a dream only watched in films.

The trans-Europe luxury train line as the crime scene in one of Agatha Christie’s novels, however, mesmerized me during highschool. The famous character Hercule Poirot boarded the train from Istanbul by chance and solved the Murder in the Orient Express using ‘his little grey cells’ just about reaching the Czech Republic. The case enchanted me that someday I would meet the infamous carriages of the Wagons-Lits Compagnie.

I was living that dream a few months ago, as I received news of the Nostalgiac Trains shift on the fabled Venice Simplon Orient Express! A rare privilege to be chosen to staff the ritzy line passing through Austria journeying northwards to Prague.

Indeed the train ride experience is time-travel back to the roaring 1920s and elegant 1930s. Back then, the First Class Sleeper Coaches were offered exclusively to the rich and famous with full board service. Traveling with style and comfort was the chic way as popularized by George Pullman.

Lavishly restored, one can observe the Noveau Art Deco plastered around walls made from exotic wood. Glitz and glamour reflect the bar salon of the years the carriages were created. The bar piano welcomed guests as one enters the salon area playing its classical ambiance.

The bar glistened with glass and porcelain which looked most ostentatious.

The tulip-form lamps illuminate every corner taking the senses to a soft jazzy mood. The cushions and upholstery were reminiscent of a posh and exquisite period. The entire floor carpeted with distinguished motifs varying from coach to coach. Original Lalique glass etchings from the 1930s (Incrustations de Lalique) graced the wall panels in the dining area and sprinkle the affluence all over. Toilet sinks and floors made of Italian white and grey marble stone. A fascination for the eye. The train staff uniforms from the attendants to the waiters and porters are embroidered with dignity as accustomed. The service was incredibly grand and the food was cooked on board by highly qualified food connoisseurs.

What amused me though was when I caught a train porter ditching coal to a wood stove for heating up water for each compartment shower. I first thought he intended a grilling barbecue aboard.

But what got me undoubtedly curious was to see a berth, of how the character detective Poirot slept on it, the shower inside Princess Dragomiroff’s deluxe room, the intricate timepiece hook on which Poirot hanged his pocket watch as he checked the time of ‘incidents’.

Nostalgic trains are jewels from the past. They are ‘museums in wheels’ retrospecting engineering achievements in human history. The chance to time-travel albeit only afforded by the extremely opulent.

In Agatha Christie’s novel, the train ride gathered unique well-off personalities who orchestrated a murder. Highly unexpected from the well-to-do’s of society. Yet, and don’t desperate affairs require desperate measures in desperate times? Strange enough it is that sense of desperation- that common denominator I share with my first train ride with my aunt and mother from Tutuban to Alabang on the PNR line.

I have never expected my life would surprise me to re-connect the once unforgettable memories of my past to my present employment.

One thing is for certain, trains, be it from any corner of the world, have been transporting, all sorts of individuals, the well-heeled or have-nots and with them their distinct stories worth telling. And locomotives are enthralling inventions crisscrossing even connecting the humankind.

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