Saturday, May 14, 2011

Riding the Bamboo Train, and meeting kids at the other end

After a morning of ancient ruins and somber memorials, I decided we needed a dose of pure pointless thrills. In Battambang, this is the bamboo train. From Highway 5 you can see here and there a parallel track out in the fields. It runs from Phnom Penh to the Thai border, and at some point it actually functioned. Now it’s a mostly defunct and overgrown track with only a few short, viable stretches. Even the poor villagers who used to set up makeshift bamboo platforms and small motors to clack-clack from town to town have given up on this railroad. Now it is a playground for tourists. From a few kilometers outside of Battambang down an unmarked dirt road you can board one of the old bamboo trains—a rickety platform mounted on 4 wheels and hooked to what looks like a lawnmower engine—and you can ride a stretch down the track and back for five bucks. We thought it was a steal. Cheerfully paying our fee, we scrambled on board, and with a jerk of the engine, our deafening adventure began. The kids hooted at the rice farmers we passed, who looked back with blank expressions. Yoshi enjoyed the wind through his sweaty, dust-caked hair. Even Ernest cracked a wide smile.
The funniest part about riding the bamboo train is running into travelers bound in the opposite direction. There’s only one track, but you’re going straight, and slow enough to see the opposing traffic coming from far off. Both drivers stop and seem to weigh which train has right of way. Then the yielding travelers step off, the two drivers lift the platform in one movement, and toss the wheels to the side with the other arm. In a minute you have switched spots and reassembled the other train, and then you’re on your way again.
The other funny part about riding the bamboo train is your arrival at the turnaround point on the other end. The whole village seems to come out and check you over, and a few kids try their English phrases. There is a small lean-to with women and coolers, eager to sell beer, soda, and lollipops, and to ask you which city you’re from. As I sipped my beer and the kids cooled off on Fanta, two girls presented Tika and Puck with rings made out of palm fronds. A soft-skinned, delicate boy sat down by me and explained that he loves America and teaches himself English by talking to bamboo train riders. He hoped it would be OK if he could be my guide and show me his village. He also wanted to know when I started having children and to confirm that these four are really mine, because he said most white ladies don’t like to have kids until they’re much older. I’m getting used to this kind of scrutiny, and just agreed. Then he told me that I should speak fast, because that’s the only way he’ll improve his English, and he said it was time to take a tour of the village. It looked like the kind of place where I could carry my beer around, so I accepted.
Behind the lean-to with the coolers we came to a fenced-in area with a few large brick domes, some covered areas housing machinery, and a dirt yard with a mound of rice husks. The four kids, joined by a group of curious village kids, ran ahead to play king-of-the-mountain in the rice husks. Ernest and I hung back, sizing the place up. It was a brick factory—the rudimentary kind (there are plenty of videos online about this work). The machinery, our guide explained, formed and cut the clay with moving strings into bricks. Puck and the other kids clamored to play brick-making on an idle machine. Nobody around seemed to mind. The rice husks, he explained, were used to dry the bricks. The domes in the rear of the compound were the kilns, and right now they were cool. As Ernest and I approached we saw two young boys emerging from the kiln carrying each a load of bricks that would have crippled any of my boys. They quietly deposited the loads in a stack outside the kiln and returned for more. They lifted, carried, placed, and returned over and over again. Ernest walked right into a kiln-dome and watched the process up close. I asked our guide about the boys. Yes, they’re local kids too, but their parents don’t want to send them to school, because they earn money here. Also, they can climb the brick piles more easily than the women can. I took another look at their slight, wiry frames, and tried to guess their ages. Eight? Nine? It was hard to tell.
On the walk back to the bamboo train, Tika was surrounded by a group of same-size chattering village girls. They wanted to know her age. Six, I said. So big? Wow! They were eight and eleven. I thought again about maturity, and Tika's questioning what makes it happen. I guess to Khmer folks we are loping giants, over-sized and juvenile. I also thought about my efforts in these past few months to prod the kids ahead toward maturity, or some kind of consciousness. The kids in the kilns seemed to have been stunted by too much prodding. Over their armloads of bricks they watched quietly our departure.

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