Friday, March 19, 2010

Sleeper Cars


I spent a lot of time in one as a small child.
Packed into a small six-by-nine compartment with three giant suitcases, many tattered grocery bags of food, a hassled mother (and occasionally father), a little sister, and, later, a baby brother, we would spent a day and a night cruising through the countryside of China.

It's been a while since I've been back to China to visit my extended family; in fact, I had nearly forgotten about those train rides that I had been so fond of as a child.

I had almost forgotten how much I loved the sound of a train whistle as we approached a station, or how my sister and I loved to pull down the worn, metal frames of the fold up beds that were attached to the walls of the compartment and flop down giddily on the stiff sheets of the cheap mattresses,
or how we always made instant noodles with the water from the hot thermos sitting on the small table by the window.


It's a wonder that they even call them sleeper cars when nearly everything about it would suggest otherwise.

The train would rattle and click over the rickety, uneven tracks laid over the fickle terrain. The worst part was the lavatories, if one could even give them the honor of being called that. "Going to the bathroom" consisted of squatting over a crack between two cars of the train. My worst fear as a ten year-old child was that the train cars would disconnect as I tumbled through the crack onto the fast-moving ground beneath me.

Outside the compartments was a very narrow hallway, essentially, the other side of the train. In front of each window was a small seat just large enough to fit the bottom of a ten year-old as she sat reading her Harry Potter book in the stillness of the night.

It's funny that the night was preferable to me, even at that age. Foreshadowing, I suppose. I liked listening to the train rattle while everyone else slept. It gave me a feeling of superiority as I stayed conscious while everyone else slipped into slumber.


I saw a lot from the window of the sleeper car.

I saw houses made of thatch and mud. I saw sweaty, dirty-aproned women sweeping the bare ground outside their scanty homes with homemade brooms. I saw small, naked children running on the dusty streets.

I didn't see picket fences or painted homes.
I didn't see paved roads or streetlights.

I saw ditches filled with trash. I saw villages blackened with depravity and factory-pollution. I saw poverty. I saw clotheslines hanging up ripped pieces of clothing that may just as well have been unwashed.

I saw reality from the window of a sleeper car.

But I also saw miles and miles of wide, open farmland. I saw fields of parallel rows of crops, and men with large hats rounding up the herds at the end of the day. I saw sunrises and sunsets and the way the obscure countryside looked at dusk.

I saw beauty from the window of a sleeper car.


I rode the train every day this past summer in Germany. Every morning and evening, I took a one-hour trip to travel between the city the house.

Sometimes when I got off of work early, I just jumped on the next train. I usually didn't know where I was going, but I knew I wouldn't get lost and could always find my way back.

The train was my place to think. It was my place to unwind and melt away a hard day in the lab and my time to ruminate on the thoughts that I didn't have time for during the day. It was my time to soak in the beautiful architecture and new sights. Sometimes I would get off and explore by myself.


On late nights like these when I’m trapped in my room and unable to get to sleep, I can’t help but wish terribly that I could just take a train to nowhere. I can't help but wish that I was once again in a rickety sleeper car, drifting into unconsciousness on a straw mattress while the wheels roll over foreign lands and obscure places.

I would do anything to get back on a train just for a little while so I can shake off these constant and gut-wrenching worries and fears that have been consuming my mind as of late.
Just so I can gather myself up again just enough so I know that this won’t last too much longer.

Just to remind myself once again that there really is still a bigger world out there.


  1. There's something about surrendering our control... and trusting in the power of a faceless person that's quite liberating.

  2. I agree, Ellie. I only wish that I could bring myself to do so...


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