it's 8:30 in the morning. after driving the little proton into several dead ends, getting spun out of a few hungry roundabouts into the wrong centrifugal direction, and once again getting ourselves lost again for the mandatory half hour, the young indonesian girl and i have arrived twenty minutes early at the not-so-dusty north borneo railway station in kota kinabalu. we've been assured that leaving our car overnight within 100 meters of the security guard's tin-roofed shack is no problem, and we've bought our tickets to tenom after the hour changeover at beaufort. it's the indonesian girl's first trip on a train, and i'm looking forward to leaving the twenty first century behind and entering the condescending, but terribly efficient world of 1930 colonial britain, where the brown-skinned natives are oh so dirty and lazy, smile a lot but can't be trusted, but the clever brits have nevertheless industriously managed to engineer a way through the untamed jungle and over the wild rivers and gorges.
we follow the other white skinned and gray haired tourists to the resting iron horse, but when we show our tickets to the conductor, we're asked to leave the apparently high-priced package group and move to another car with the brown faced locals, some greeting us with gaping "hello boss"es, others with a been-there-done-that benign indifference. the two cars look exactly the same with hard wooden, torn green leather-back seats, broken overhead fans, and the occasional missing window or two, but the grayheads are going to papar for the round trip, catered lunch, hundred and sixty dollar per head morning trip, and we're going one way to tenom with the locals for four bucks each because they don't sell roundtrips for more than a single day at a time. after choosing the seats that seem to have the best chance of moving the stifling air, we hear the train whistle call us to battle at precisely 8:50, the modern-day sabahans apparently still paying homage to their punctual heritage.
"uhhhh!" we lurch forward, the force of disturbing inertia literally knocking the breath out of me. "uhhhh!" we lurch again, this time to a violent and sudden stop, the effort obviously having been too much for the disgruntled iron horse. after several of these aggressive false starts and stops, we eventually get moving -- but barely. we spend the first fifteen minutes of hard-earned forward motion crawling to the first stop, a smaller local station half way to putatan, a destination which had taken me five minutes to reach along the same road by car the day before. we look at each other, wati's expressive batak face twisted into a doubtful "this is what you want to be doing for the next five hours" mask, and me well, i'm wondering just how long i can last in this excruciating equatorial heat. then after sitting at the station for another five sweltering minutes that seem more like an hour in prison lockup, we, in an inspired butch cassidy/sundance kid-like moment, catch each other's eye, grab our bags, and jump from the train, just as it makes its violent exit from the station.
we're free again. but wheel-less. we dart across the same road running parallel to the tracks, and catch the next "bas-mini" heading back into town. one ringit later, we're back at the kk central station, but i have to pick wati up in the car a quarter of a mile down the main road, because she is too "malu" to be seen doing such a stupid thing as getting off the train and coming back to the station after buying her ticket. this done, we drive in air-conditioned, scenic bliss to beaufort along the old papar river road which parallels the blue-green majesty of south china sea, past groves of verdantly green coconut, banana, and rubber trees, and untamed stretches of high water grass chaparral. about an hour later and still forty minutes before the scheduled arrival of the said train in beaufort, we're walking around the hastily strewn-together town, managing to both hear the muezzin's twelve o'clock call to worship at the central mosque, and to buy wati a pair of clear plastic, trendy high heeled shoes at the local market.
by one o'clock sharp we're back on the same, earlier-abandoned train, this time in two different seats, hoping the higher altitude and the strenuous practice run from kk to beaufort, has warmed up the old horse and will make this next leg to tenom more bearable and enjoyable. really -- it's not that i'm a masochist, it's just that "everyone" has told us that the ride to tenom on the old north borneo railroad is an absolute must for anyone passing through this part of the world. so off we chug, generously emitting steam, lurching and grinding metal every inch of the way. the thing is, it doesn't take more than few minutes to truly understand where the name "iron horse" comes from. this train seems quite alive as it bucks and lurches forward like a wild beast, crunching it's cars back into one another, grinding its way along the in-much-need-of-repair-but-no-time-or-money-to-do-so track, making hairpin turns along the steep river gorge not in the sleek, silent way of the modern euro super-bullet trains those of the big, air-proof sealed scenic windows and camembert and prosciuto dining cars but more in this wild eastern, head-hunting, animist, colonial borneon sort of way before the oh-so-civilized anglicans taught the sky and river-worshipping heathens it was better to replace their backward, blood-letting form of worship with the colonists much more reasonable one in which a more paternal and punishing god had immaculately born a son who was brutally nailed to a cross, thereby dying for their sins, but who had also been miraculously resurrected for theirs and the rest of mankind's good and salvation. this of course, made a lot of sense to the heathens, who were forced, fooled, or convinced to convert to christianity, put down their blow pipes, wear proper clothing, and to forget as much as possible about their pre-colonial ways.
about two and a half hours into the breath-taking ride, in which the train desperately squeals its way along the rushing white water padas river below, making us wonder if the tracks are indeed not too tired or worn out enough not to give way, the old iron horse starts coughing and sputtering to a series of dead stops. the entire north borneo railway crew (about five) makes its way to the forward engine car, and after a brief and probably well-rehearsed conference, if you stick your head out one of the missing or open windows, you can see one of the bare-chested, tawny dudes climb off the train with a blue plastic bucket in hand, and dipping into one of the just-off-the-track raging mountain streams, fill up his bucket, climb back onto the train and pour the cool refreshing elixir into the huffing and exhausted iron horse's steam engine lungs. thus revived, the horse chugs itself another fifteen or twenty minutes forward, at which point the ritual is repeated again and again. unfortunately, the intervals seem to be getting shorter and shorter as the incline gets steeper and steeper, and after about the fifth such ordeal, the train stops once more this time defiantly out of range of any of the aforementioned life-reviving streams. and this time the engine car conference goes on for about half an hour with absolutely no visible progress, as we all passively sit there, sipping on our diminishing supply of bottled water, with some of the heat-impaired, sweet and grizzled-faced women even taking off their omnipresent islamic tudungs.
it seems like we'll never be getting to tenom. what are we supposed to do? just sit here and roast to death?. several of us get off the train, in a helpless action somewhat reminiscent of what happens on a tangled california freeway in a really bad traffic jam. it looks like we're in for the long hall. the bucket dude is just standing around looking down at the river below. there's a steep, unbroachable incline all along the track, but at one point - at about car number three, there's some concrete terracing that's been built down to the river. i see the bucket dude look down hopelessly. it seems to me and who am i but a white-skinned visiting "boulay", that if we form a line of us down the terraced incline to the river and pass the bucket up from the river to the engine we should be able to get the old horse running again. i ask wati to translate my brilliant idea to the crew. she tells me to shut up and mind my own business. i don't naturally - and with a little well-practiced clown sign language and the help of another enthusiastic passenger who speaks sufficient english (indicated by his "good idea" communiquι), we form an indigenous and spontaneous bucket brigade. the blue bucket dude climbs all the way down to the padas, i follow, commandeering position number two, and after some reluctant volunteerism by these very passive and "malu", but ultimately obedient borneons, we have a virtual lifeline of about twenty of us all the way from the river to the steam engine. i even get them to produce a second blue bucket! and with its help - and a little jovial teamwork (including the formerly reluctant but now enthusiastic wati) - we have the old tired iron horse back on her iron legs again, huffing and puffing her way along the track. fortunately, after this great escape and miraculous gringo-led revival, the last stretch to tenom is mercifully flat, and we arrive only about three hours after our scheduled arrival time. i can't speak for the others, and i don't imagine they'd concur, but this along with the frozen tundra oslo to bergen ride in norway, has been the best train ride of my life.
my heroism is rewarded simply enough. two days later, i am finally lucky enough to get to trek and see an elusive rafflesia in full splendiferous bloom -- and -- to visit the murut cultural village just outside of tenom. once again wati and i get a private, command performance of traditional sabah dance and music as we seem to be the only tourists in all of borneo! another day later, this time going downhill and without incident, we bump and lumber our way back from tenom to beaufort on the now infamous north borneo railway. the trip is uneventful true - but we both have a gleam in our eye for the whole two and a half hours. we're seeing all --------- blue.
gong xi fa chai---
(chinese happy new year)