I sat inside the taxi, beyond annoyed. My driver has assured me that he will get me to the Yangon Railway Station and yet we’ve been going in circles around the city. Google Maps showed me how I’m a couple of blocks away but the driver refuses to pay attention to my instructions.
Frustrated, I hand him my payment and I get out of the car. There’s no point sitting in traffic when I can just speed walk my way to the train station. I had to get there quick, to make it to the 2:45PM Yangon circle train.
One of the hardest things you learn when traveling solo is how to listen to your gut. There I was, trudging under a sudden downpour, crossing streets and dodging water puddles. I was torn between calling it a day or keeping on, and like the hardheaded martyr that I can be sometimes, I chose the latter. I made it to the station with 5 minutes to spare, running around the station, looking for the right ticket booth and the right platform.
And because it’s Myanmar, the train did not leave on time. It also did not pick up the passengers on the intended platform. I watched hordes of people cross the slippery railway to get to the other side while I hastily paid for a ticket. A staff offered to help me cross to the other platform and I declined, gunning it and praying I don’t slip and break my neck.
The train was packed. There were only a few foreigners on board – a group of blonde preppy tourists who spoke a language I didn’t understand, a couple armed with professional cameras blatantly ignoring the No Smoking Sign and a fatherly figure who sat in the corner. Left with no space and no choice, I sat between him and one of the preppy tourists.
There was something off from the get go. I don’t know if it was because I was shivering wet from the rain, or it was the gloomy scenes we were passing by, but I wasn’t enjoying myself. There were shanties along the railway, the smell of garbage and sewer and other unexplainable things. The stations were falling apart, more like wooden thick slabs topped with a rusty roof and signs with peeling paint. It was depressing, to say the least, and I was barely 30 minutes in.
Somewhere along the way, the fatherly figure to my left started talking to me. He had this Santa-like belly, complete with ruddy cheeks and white hair. He told me he’s from Sweden, working on a project in Bangkok, but he decided to have a little side trip to Yangon before heading home. I didn’t want to converse with anyone but I figured what do I have to lose?
My bravery, apparently.
This fatherly figure eventually revealed who he was: a perv. He kept touching my shoulders, reaching for my face and peering close to me, constantly breaching my personal space. He dropped innuendos and I felt extremely uncomfortable, my guts churning and my palms sweating. I started to ignore him, knowing I had to get away from the slimeball and eyeing exit strategies.
Unfortunately, I was stuck. The train was packed and there was no free space on the next train car. I started thinking of ways how I can defend myself (hit him with the umbrella, jam my fingers into his eyes) or how I can call for help in Burmese (kuu nyi par ohn according to Wikipedia or ke-ba according to Omniglot). I feared for my safety, sending a text message to my family. I prayed I won’t end up getting assaulted.
A huge crowd eventually got off at one of the main stations and I moved a couple of benches away. The weather marginally improved but instead of looking out the window and enjoying the scenery, I kept most of my attention on myself. I could still see the perv in my peripheral, milling about near me, and I knew that my whole circular train experience was a bust.
I got off the train, two hours later, safe and in one piece. I watched out for the man and waited for him to be far, far away from me before I had the courage to leave the platform.
Maybe this will seem dramatic to some people.
“But he didn’t harm you and you didn’t get hurt”
“There are others who suffered far worse than you did”
“Were you leading him on, wearing something skimpy? “
“Maybe he just didn’t have concept of personal space”
But here’s the thing: I felt violated. I wasn’t wearing revealing clothes and I didn’t even show any interest in him. He preyed on me and my situation, and I sat there, trapped, stuck and grossed out. That alone, felt like harassment to me.
It was certainly a bitter note in my trip. I found myself paranoid of anyone taking interest in me, most especially when it was the opposite sex looking my way. I wasn’t ruined for life by that experience but it did change the way I interacted with other travelers for the next three weeks. I didn’t open up to people and I was cranky for awhile, desperate for something genuine but refusing to even attempt to connect.
By the time I thawed out my cold exterior, I was on the last leg of my trip. I spent twenty plus days on my own, trying to figure out how to be nice and still put up a barrier. I learned to listen to my instincts and be quick about it, to make better decisions so I can take better care of myself. It’s still a process, really. While I can never take back the worst three hours of my trip, it did teach me something early on and maybe that’s what matters in the end.