Riding the Orient Distress
By Carol Celeste
As a four-year old, the clanking, gapping union of cars that exposed the rails between Los Angeles and Tucson terrified me. In college, a Mexican saboteur unlatched the locomotive, stranding the rest of our train in rain foresty mountains for hours─with no food on the over-nighter. In my 30s, a rock slide blocked the switchback rail from Machu Pichu to Cuzco, Peru, marooning us in a rugged Andes jungle on a starless night. In middle age, I was leery of the looming ride on a Chinese train.
The Orient Distress was a genuine rice run. It took 24 hours to travel 600 kilometers─over 600 bridges and through 400 tunnels─averaging only 15 miles per hour due, in part, to frequent stops. Lush countryside blinked between tunnels, limiting photo ops. That was probably a blessing since soldiers paraded the aisles every 30 minutes searching for defiers of the no photo command. China and Vietnam were sparring and national secrets might be captured during fleeting glimpses of rice paddies. This fracas had escaped notice by global reporters.
The first twinge of distress came upon boarding. En route to our assigned phone booth-sized compartment we saw the train staff changing linens on the two bunk beds squeezed into each first class abode. Rotating is a better description since they moved sheets like tires: lower left to the upper right bunk, upper right to lower right, which moved to the upper left which dropped to the lower left where the rotation started. All the linens in our space bore unidentifiable stains making me itch even before touching down. At least the miniscule table cloth had been washed. I could tell because it was still wet.
The second prickle of distress appeared soon after departure. To compensate for immobile fans in the torrid climate, the train windows were opened, letting diesel soot permeate the air─and our nostrils, throats and pores. Black mucus filled our tissues when we blew our noses or coughed.
At each stop locals crowded around the windows to stare at the alien beings who could afford the luxury of sleeping quarters with dirty sheets. Most cars lacked the wooden benches available in second class. At one nighttime stop, a tarp concealed something large resting on a flatbed car hauled by another stopped train. The flapping cover revealed the mud-crusted tracks of a tank. Soldiers patrolled the aisles more frequently during that stop, affirming the war stories.
As we departed the train, I gained some reassurance about the cleanliness issue. In a doll house-sized space at the end of our car, a lady squatted by a bowl of cold water─no faucet in sight─swishing the tea pots we emptied during the trip. I’m still waiting for lung disease to disable me from inhaling diesel crud but I take comfort in knowing I washed it down from a clean tea pot. On my kitchen counter, my purloined tea pot reminds me I survived my ride on the Orient Distress.