There’s something about travelling by train that I find fascinating and exciting. But before you could flick through Freud and link my fascination to you know what, I’d be halfway to my destination – Exeter, the Cathedral City, where among the ruins and remnants left by the Romans, I’ll surrender myself to the enchantment and beauty of Malay syairs and hikayats as presented by scholars of Malay studies from around the world. But that is just by the by and the subject of another blog, surely.
Right now, I am so looking forward to another train journey that will take me to a part of England I have never been before – Devon. A whole three hours from London Paddington! Enough time for some revision in preparation for my exam soon. But I will so enjoy the view of the English countryside whizzing past the window.
Eversince I was small, train journeys, usually during the start of school holidays, were something that I looked forward to. We’d visit my eldest sister who was then based in Johore, a far distant land near that oh so modern city of Singapore! From the small town of Yen, with its beautiful backdrop of Gunung Jerai, a train journey took a good whole day and a bit.
There’d be a buzz of excitement in the neighbourhood over our impending journey and Mak would prepare days ahead, packing and repacking clothes and foodstuff for daughter number one in that far distant land. There’d be food, lots of food, of course for that long journey. Out came the treasured and colourful Tupperware containers for the nasi lemak and sambal tumis ikan bilis, lots and lots of fried chicken, and of course boiled eggs. With flasks of coffee and tea, and iced water in tumblers, there’d be enough to feed the whole coach.
We’d be too excited to sleep and by the time we dozed off, it’d be time to wake up and make that early morning journey by hired taxi to Alor Setar where we’d catch the morning train. Relatives from far and near would gather at the station to say goodbye.
I will always remember the rush. Always rush, rush, rush to get the best seats, or any seat at all near the window. Sometimes, by the time the train from Padang Besar, I think, reached Alor Star, we’d have to make our way past baby swings suspended from the ceiling, bags of foodstuff and crates of fruits and sometimes passengers squatting on the floor. We'd dodge riffles of soldiers just out from the jungle, sleeping off their exhaustion and perhaps dreaming about the long awaited reunion with their families.
Mak would always warn us not to wear white or any light coloured garments – and we soon understood why. Usually by the end of the journey, even our faces would be blackened from the soot.
Our first stop was Bukit Mertajam where we had to change train. Passengers from the southbound train usually had to rush across the overhead bridge lugging their suitcases, crates and food bags to catch the connecting train, which usually only stopped for what must be only 10 minutes.
Another highlight of the journey must surely be that stop in Ipoh, a big station with its army of food vendors shouting out their goods – each in their own unique sing song way. Inspite of the nasi lemak and fried chicken that Mak made, we’d always give in to the famous kueh pows with its chicken curry fillings.
The combination of the heat in the stuffy coach, the food, plus the chug, chug, chugging monotonous rhythm of the engine soon lulled us to sleep, only to be awakened by more sing song food vendors plying their trade along the platforms, some even jumping expertly on and off the train with their baskets placed precariously on their heads.
During one of my numerous trips home, I have had the pleasure to try the Senandong Malam and gosh, the gush of memories that came flooding back. One that surely remained until now is the look on Mak’s face when she realised that underneath her baju kurung, she still had a towel tied around her waist! I can’t remember whether she had her sarong on as well or not.
Here, I almost always have a ritual before embarking on a train ride. Among the musts in the list of things to buy atthe station are mushroom croissants and coffee, a big packet of minstrels, a notebook and a book to read.
Train journeys through Europe must certainly be the most beautiful, exhilarating experience. Given the chance, my husband would say no to the plane and would opt for the train anytime. Thus once we found ourselves on the Eurorail train from London to Budhapest, going through some of the most beautiful cities in Europe, such as Cologne, Vienna and Munich. We swore we’d make this journey again.
And once, courtesy of the German government, we were treated to a train journey from one city to another and the view from the window, as the train snaked its way along the Rhine, was just breathtaking. Old castles and historic abodes of what must be German Barons, dotted the highlands giving an air of mystery and charm while yatchs and ships sailed lazily along the deep blue mesmerising Rhine.
Holland holds yet another sort of charm for me. Travelling from The Hague to Rotterdam, for example, one can’t help but be fascinated by the creativity and talents of what I would call pop art – the miles and miles of colourful and beautiful graffities on embankments and walls along the Dutch railway lines. I just wonder about the message behind these writings. I wonder too about the artists themselves who took the risks to freely exhibit their talent at such dangerous places.
Now I wonder what awaits me along the way to the ancient Roman city?