no choice but to go where they are going
August 1, 2011, 5:53 pm
Filed under: departure lounge, the sweet life | Tags: , ,

Everyone and no one is talking about trains.  How subversive they are  to our car driving ways.  How they’re a good idea but they probably won’t get built.  How China will win the race to prosperity and world dominance because they are building fast ones and we aren’t.  How expensive they are, even though they’re actually much cheaper in the long run than cars and roads and freeways.

Very few people are talking about the psychology of trains, however.

When I was eight, my parents drove me to our local train station where we met on the platform a small group of other kid travelers in shorts and sandals with tin trunks with their names stenciled on talking wildly about their summers — and parents needlessly rushing around to finalize seat assignments and to tie up emotional loose ends.

What unfolded after we stepped up off the dirty platform and the train eased out from under the terminal shed, was two magical days rattling down the hot east coast of India, across the Godavari and the Krishna river deltas, and to the base of the verdant southern ghats.  We rocked through myriad steel trussed chaotic stations, with scheduled meals of lime rice packets and dahl and curd, and excited meetings with other kids from towns down the track.  We threw water balloons from our windows into the Godavari river bed, sat in open doorways taking in the soot and hot pungent village smells and adventured up and back the length of the train.  We were on our way to boarding school.  Still today I find it hard to find events that compare to those joyful adventurous days on the coromandal express.

Here is an interesting paragraph which describes the magic of train journeys.  Perhaps the author’s most insightful observation is that trains are trustworthy because we always know where they are going.  The driver and operation are remote and anonymous and our snug compartments are effortlessly whisked through the countryside.  All evidence of navigation and operation are removed:  no maps, getting lost, asking directions, backseat drivers, flicking dials, blinkers, pedals and temperature controls.  A progressive mise en scene presents itself in the window frame.  Inside the scene is set for blissful acts of the imagination.

From Alastair Reid’s essay:

Trains are for meditation, for playing out long thought-processes, over and over; we trust them, perhaps because they have no choice but to go where they are going. Nowadays, however, they smack of a dying gentility. To travel by car makes journeys less mysterious, too much a matter of the will. One might as easily sit on a sofa and imagine a passing landscape. I doubt whether any truly absorbing conversation ever took place in a car; they are good only for word games and long, tedious narratives. We have come to regard cars too much as appendages of our bodies and will probably pay for it in the end by losing the use of our legs. We owe to them the cluttering of the landscape, the breakup of villages and towns.

Alastair Reid (b. 1926), Scottish poet, essayist. “Notes on Being a Foreigner,” Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner, North Point (1987).


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