Monsoons and Showers*
“All aboard, all aboard!” yelled the guard.
Everybody grabbed their backpacks and rushed to board the Bangkok to Singapore Express. We had disembarked at Pedang Besar, the railway station on the Thai-Malaysia border to go through customs. Backpacks had been emptied and their contents carefully searched by the customs officers who were obviously looking for drugs. We clambered back aboard, our backpacks held close.
As we made our way back to our carriage, we passed the conductor’s caboose, a small, compact space with a bed, table, some lockers and a lamp. Each carriage seated about forty travelers with pairs of facing well-worn black leather seats on each side of the aisle.
“Give me your backpack, I’ll be able to keep an eye on them here,” Martin said, placing the backpacks on the string overhead rack facing him.
“Thanks,” I replied, well aware of the danger of unattended bags having drugs slipped into them to be smuggled across the border.
The train was full with a motley crowd of “Lonely Planet” travelers from around the world, a virtual mini “United Nations.” We were heading down the Malay Peninsular to Singapore via stops in Penang and Kuala Lumpur.
The train hooted, jerked and began to pick up speed as it left the station.
“Look. It’s started to rain,” I said, as cooling drops splashed against the half open windows.
“Well, it’s the monsoon season,” Martin replied.
“Would anyone like some fruit?” asked an American girl sitting a few seats away.
“Not if it’s that smelly durian,” someone yelled.
“No. I’ve got mangoes and pineapple,” she answered and suddenly everyone in the carriage was reaching into their bags to pull out fruit and snacks to share.
“So, what did you Brits like best about Bangkok?” asked Bill, an Australian leaning across the aisle sucking on a mango stone.
“The Temple of the Emerald Buddha and The Royal Palace,” I replied. “I was dazzled by those amazing shapes, colors and golden spires.”
“Zipping along the klongs in those narrow wooden boats with souped-up diesel truck engines was pretty cool,” said Martin. “What about you?”
“Oh the kick boxers with their speed and acrobatics were my favorites,” answered Bill.
“I am going to take a shower,” announced Jim, another Australian. “There’s already a crowd of people outside the shower cubicle. It’s really hot and sticky in here, even with the windows open.”
He stood up, stripped off his T‑shirt and reached into his bag. Then he slung a towel over his bare shoulder and walked off down the aisle in flip-flops and shorts, holding a bar of soap.
We had been traveling for about an hour and the carriage was full of the chatter of travelers exchanging stories and food when the conductor suddenly appeared rushing down the aisle.
“Get up! Get up!” he said stopping in front of the Canadian girl sitting on the opposite side of the aisle in the next row of seats. She looked at him blankly, not understanding.
“What did you say?”
“Quick. Stand Up! Stand Up!” he repeated loudly.
Looking puzzled, she stood up. He pushed her to one side and bent down to slide open the top of her seat.
The carriage was suddenly silent. All eyes were focused on what was happening.
What was he doing?
The conductor reached down into the space now revealed under the seat and pulled out a large striped shopping bag sealed with a thick transparent plastic cover. Holding it in one hand, he slid back the top of the seat and muttered a brief, “Thank you. Excuse me,” and rushed off down the aisle and into the next carriage.
The silence continued for a few seconds and then everyone began to talk at once.
“Did you see that?” said a man with a loud voice and a Swiss accent.
We were all aware that the conductor had his own private cabin on the train where he could store his personal belongings. The bag was something he obviously did not want there; it almost certainly contained drugs. By hiding it under a seat in the open carriage, he had clearly endangered the Canadian girl sitting there. If the customs officers, who had earlier walked through the train, had found the bag, she would have been arrested for this was a time when the Thai and Malay authorities were tightening their drug controls. The very next year in 1983, Malaysia was to introduce the death penalty for drug trafficking as a reaction to the growing drug trade in the region and then proceeded, in subsequent years, to execute both its own citizens and foreign travelers.
Our outrage and alarm at the incident were obvious, and everyone in the carriage now slid open the tops of their seats to check that nothing was hidden in them.
Suddenly, the train slowed for a few minutes as it approached some houses and a junction and then picked up speed again.
“I bet he has thrown that bag off the train,” said Bill.
“What can we do?” asked the Canadian girl looking very upset.
“Nothing really,” answered Bill. “We don’t know who else is involved. It’s a good reminder for us always to be vigilant.”
The mood in the carriage had definitely changed. It was somber and quiet. The monsoon rain was falling more heavily as the train traveled on its single track past jungle vegetation, small villages and rubber plantations. In some places, it was almost possible to reach out of the train and pick the passing bananas and coconuts.
Suddenly, there was a yell, followed by a string of very colorful English swear words.
What was going on now?
Heads turned to look down the aisle and there, framed in the doorway, was a strange looking Jim. He had bare feet, a skimpy towel tied around his waist and he was covered from head to toe in soap lather.
“The effing water tank has run out of water in the shower. What am I going to do to get this stuff off?”
There was a burst of laughter and the gloomy mood that had been pervading the carriage disappeared as if by magic.
“Well, there’s plenty of water outside,” joked somebody. “Look at all that rain.”
It was true; the rain was now slanting down in large droplets.
“Very funny,” retorted Jim. “How does that help me? What am I going to do? I can’t get dressed with all this soapy foam.”
“Hold on a minute, Jim,” grinned Bill, “perhaps we can use nature to help us.”
“Well, when we come to the next short junction stop, two of us should be able to hold open the train door for you, so you can stand on the wooden ledge that juts out above the steps. You can grab hold of the safety step hold bar and let the monsoon rain wash off the soap. But you had better put on your shorts or you’ll be arrested for flapping in the wind.”
And that, in reality, was how Jim completed his shower. Helped by friends and precariously balanced on a ledge as the train slowed in its approach to a junction, his soapsuds soon disappeared in the pouring rain, accompanied by peals of laughter and encouraging remarks.
Thus, Jim provided us with a memorable illustration of the fact that when traveling around the world, four vital components are necessary for success: good friends, caution, a sense of humor and a large dose of ingenuity.
*Excerpt from the book, Eyeballing Big Croc: Chasing Dreams Around the World. (Breezeway Books 2018). It is available for purchase at Amazon.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vivien Zielin was born in England and graduated in history and social studies at the University of Sussex. She was a history teacher in London, worked for an interior design company in Jerusalem, and was the owner of “The China Ware House Company” in Carnaby Street, specializing in fine English made giftware, dinnerware, and quirky teapots. She has worked for media companies on various projects. She has traveled the world. In 2005 she moved to California and became a citizen in 2012. She discovered OLLI at SF State in 2009 and is the Event Organizer for the annual Creativity Celebration. Eyeballing Big Croc: Chasing Dreams Around the World is her first book and was published in 2018.