I caught the 2:24 pm train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Railway Station, construction of which was finished in 1916. It’s done in Italian style and is quite pretty. It is also in heavy use and passengers use all the available seating and then spill out onto the floor. Mine was train 35, and I was in car 2, seat 19 with the upper sleeper. Passengers sit facing each other and at bedtime the stewards break the seats down into upper and lower berths.
Seated across from me was Mohammad. He was returning home to Malaysia after visiting a friend of his who lives near Pattaya in Thailand. I immediately got interested when he mentioned that he worked as a third engineer on a Malaysian line operating a tanker fleet. He is 26 and working his way up by study and on-the-job training. He attended a Malaysian maritime academy after high school to break into the trade. He has been around the world though his trips to America have mostly been to the Gulf Coast through the Panama Canal. His English is fair to good and when I mentioned this he said he struggled with it in school but, once out in the working world of international shipping, where English is the lingua franca, decided he had to make a greater effort since advancement is dependent on effective communication.
He was interested in my experience on the Baltimore and we compared notes about the differences between German and Indian officers. He is unmarried and living with his parents since he is at sea up to 6 months at a time. He is saving for a house although he did confess to being a car nut. He doesn’t own one because he is away so much but we played “name your dream car” and he wants a Camaro, mainly because of the way the engine sounds in the Transformers movie. He also loves the Audi TT.
Like other engineers I’ve met, Mohammad believes that each ship has a spirit located in the engine. I remembered the great scene in The Sand Pebbles when Steve McQueen’s character, a chief engineer, first walks around the engine room of the gunship to which he has been billeted. “Hello, engine” he says, “I’m Jake Holman.” Mohammad felt that rang true: “That director must know about working on ships,” and I wrote down the movie name so he can look for a copy. We talked until late and then picked up again first thing in the morning. If I were a scout, I would recommend to INS that we recruit him for Team America.
I again had the enjoyable experience of being tucked up in a small berth, curtain closed, reading lamp on, being rocked to sleep on an old train in an utterly foreign place.
We had to disembark the next morning at the Malaysia border with our luggage and go through Thai and Malaysian immigrations and customs. I like the formality of passing through an actual land border.
Mohammad got off in his home town, about one stop before Butterworth. I landed in Butterworth with only Thai baht for money, and the currency exchange window at the train station was closed. I could have traded currency with the Chinese man who went down the railcar that morning for that purpose but didn’t. I needed just enough to get me across to George Town on Penang Island but I didn’t have the ferry fare in Malaysian ringgit. The ticket taker couldn’t take baht so I was walking away to locate an open currency exchange when a young woman and two of her friends who must have overheard me talking to the ticket window pressed the RM 1.20 fare into my hand. Two of them wore the headscarves favored by young Muslim women. They wouldn’t take anything in return, including the Thai baht I had plenty of. I was completely undone by their generosity and, after I take a minute to compose myself, would like to recommend that we recruit them hard for Team America as well.