Yangon Watermelon Express

I couldn’t possibly get lost on a train that runs in a circle, right?

There was a woman wielding a machete sitting right next to me on the train out of Yangon, using it to break the skin and hack the flesh to pieces. It made my mouth water – nothing beats watermelon on a hot day.

She was kneeling down at the open space next to me on the train’s bench, which ran lengthwise along the car under the windows. All her equipment, which she had been carrying on her head until she knelt down, was spread out on the bench: a large tray, the knife, a bunch of plastic bags, and a cloth she had wrapped on her head to help carry the tray.

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I’d seen other people selling watermelon in the train, but it would not get any fresher or more convenient than what she was preparing inches away. I asked to have some.

With deliberate strokes, she hacked out a wedge of watermelon, chopped it into slices, scooped it away from the rind into a plastic bag, and handed it over.

A sweet snack in between whistle-stops on the circle train out of Yangon.

Technically speaking, it could be the circle train into Yangon – the route was a 29-mile loop that ended right where it began after a slow journey through the countryside. Along the route, it was a constant exchange of commuters, produce sellers, watermelon hawkers, families, and people hitching a ride like me.

I selected the Mingaladon Bazaar stop as my destination, but truth be told I was only along for the ride and not going anywhere in particular. The din and traffic of the city gradually faded from view as the train lumbered along the tracks at a speed I could have matched on a bike.

The windows in the train were wide open; I pictured Rick Steves casually leaning an elbow out over the window sill and looking ahead to the next bend. I found it to be a risky pose given the trees that brushed up against the side of the train as we rumbled by. Did Rick ever take a branch to the face as he marveled out the window at the Alps?

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Striking the Rick Steves

I periodically checked the map on my phone to see how close I was coming to Mingaladon Bazaar, and noticed a junction on the map: one track curved to the right and began looping back toward Yangon, passing by Mingaladon Bazaar on the way. The other route continued straight, rolling on indefinitely until Nepal for all I knew. I got on the train assuming it was the circle train, but knew I had guessed wrong when I saw the circle track out the window curving away from the train as we continued straight.

Nepal might be nice, but I’d need more than watermelon if I was going to survive that 1,500 mile odyssey. A fellow passenger must have known I was trying to mentally calculate how long that would take and assured me the end of the line was not in Kathmandu, but in just a few stops. Then, he said, the train switched directions and headed back the way it came – right past the circle line junction.

I cheated a bit and took a taxi toward the bazaar once I got back to the junction. I meandered through the streets and stopped at a corner store for another snack – this time a banana and a bag of spicy chips.

I munched slowly and kept walking. Eventually, I took a path through a field, still chomping on my chips.

Several farmers were at work in the field, and by the time I reached them, I was down to the greasy crumbs in the bottom of the bag. I had nothing to offer one younger man who half-jokingly came up and asked to snack on my chips.

My stomach, he groaned, with an exaggerated look on his face. Can I have some?

“Sorry,” I motioned to the empty bag. “I’m out!”

He went back to work, and I finished crossing the field. When the path met back with the road, there was another corner store – stocked with the same snacks.

I grabbed a few bags of chips and sunflower seeds – much more snacking to be dragged out of a few dozen of those wedged in your cheek. For dessert, I grabbed a chocolate bar.

I turned around with a plastic bag full of snacks and walked back into the field. My guy had moved and was now with the women far away from the path. One of the women must have said, “you’re friend is back,” because he was up in a flash and running my way, getting a laugh out of the rest of the field. Snack time.

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A fed crew is a happy crew – my guy is in the back.

Some of his brothers were under a shelter on the side of the path, and we divvied up the supplies there. I opened one of the bags of seeds to stock my own cheek, and made sure the little sister they kept shooing away got some of the chocolate.

They were a friendly, funny bunch – I think they were giving my guy a hard time about bumming snacks of a stranger. I’ve never farmed, but if it is anything like being on a crew painting buildings and houses (a job I have held), ribbing your coworkers is all in a day’s work.

I never did make it to anything that resembled a bazaar. I eventually found the tracks again and waited for my ride back at another station. The airport was nearby, and planes – including a fighter jet – sunk lower and lower off to my right as they came in to land.

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Other passengers meandered into the shady area of the outdoor station; a man with his toddler granddaughter, hoisting her up and down on the platform. Vegetable vendors preparing their massive loads for the frantic scramble up the tall stairs of the train for the brief moments it remained stopped. A rooster crowed, and the sound of two men around the corner at a bar playing a dice game drifted up to the platform.

The schedule indicated a 30-minute wait, which I spent in the shade on a sunny day on the outskirts of Yangon. A slice of watermelon would sure hit the spot.

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