The Train Party

In May of last year the International Business Times wrote an article marking the 150th anniversary of the railway system in what is now Pakistan.

The opening paragraph reads as follows:

On May 13th, 1861 the first engine left the station in Karachi to an astonished crowd.  One of a kind in the region, locals were shocked as John Brunton, the Chief Engineer of the Karachi-Kotri Railway, drove the steam locomotive for its first trial.

The Karachi natives were astounded.  I drove the engine myself of course at slow speed – the natives thronging all around, I was fearful of some accident.  At last I thought I should frighten them away, so I blew the engine steam whistle loudly.  Instantly, they all rushed back from the ‘Demon’ falling over one another.

I smiled as I read the article, for train travel and my childhood go hand in hand.  Some of my earliest memories include trains and the rhythmic sound of train engines chugging their way through the country side of Pakistan. To this day, when I close my eyes on the subway in the morning en route to my job in an ugly, institutional grey building in the heart of Boston, the rhythm of the train transports me back to another time and another place.

By the time my parents arrived in Pakistan in 1954 train travel was well established and the most common way to get from place to place in the country. It was safe, it was cheap and it was relatively comfortable.

Those of us who lived far away from the school, in the southern areas of Pakistan, used trains as the means of transportation to the school. Earlier than I can remember it was decided that it would be wiser to band together and send a couple of chaperones with all the school-age children on a train to the train station at Rawalpindi. This organized system would make sure that every parent did not have to make the long trip. On arrival, the school would send the solid army-green school bus, bearing the name and emblem Murree Christian School, to the station to transport us the remaining journey to the school. This trip was affectionately called “The Train Party” and it was only later in life that I found out how difficult this could be for the parent chaperons.

My time to join my older siblings on this “Train Party” came at the tender age of seven, during the latter half of first grade.  I had heard it mentioned so many times that the images in my mind had taken over.  A party, games, food, and most of all friends!  “What could be better?” I thought!  I dreamt of the day that I would get to go and join the ranks of missionaries children heading off to Murree Christian School.  It was a rite of passage – it was the “Train Party”.  We would arrive at the station with trunks, small carry cases, and bisters, large green canvas carriers that held all our bedding. Along with this would be the food our moms had lovingly hand prepared and packed for us, no doubt aching as they packed sandwiches, cookies and carrot sticks, knowing they were sending us far away, where they would not be a part of our daily life.

I remember standing nervously with my older brothers, aware that this was a big moment and already feeling a shyness come over me in relation to these brothers who I lived with, played with, ate with and fought with. I somehow knew that the train party would usher us into a world where it wasn’t always easy to acknowledge siblings, where home and sibling connection grew farther with each station and each rhythmic sound of the wheels on the track.

The “party” would begin in Hyderabad, making stops along the way picking up children of various ages and sizes from their winter homes, all with the ultimate destination of boarding school. The trains snaked their way from the desert to the lush Punjab, ultimately arriving at the busy Rawalpindi station. “The Ranks” were a group of motley and assorted children of missionaries from all over the world – Meg, Lizzie and David from the UK; Nancy, David, Jonathan from Atlanta, Georgia; Bill, Paul, Phil and Tim – 4 boys from the Midwest with a mother who I loved and of whom legends are made; Alberteen Vanderveen and others from Holland, and the list went on.

The train party was not without its significant moments.

“Help, someone’s lost a thumb” was the cry that rang out through the compartments one time when I was in elementary school. We all looked in horror at our own, now precious, thumbs. Evidently the Someone had been on the top bunk of the compartment, where small fans whirred dangerously close to heads to keep air circulating. She had accidentally reached up during a shaky point in the normally smooth ride and the result was the tip of a thumb off and a lot of blood flowing, making the accident far worse than it was.

A thumb was not the only thing lost as the train sped its way up-country through brown desert and green fields. Some things were lost intentionally, like hardboiled eggs thrown out the window; other things were lost unintentionally, like sleeping bags, and one time we almost lost Lizzie Hover as she leaned out the window so far that we had to pull her back inside to the safety of the compartment.

The 18-22 hour train ride provided much time for catching up with our friends, all who had spent their winters in equally isolated locations throughout the country.

Stops at stations were opportunities to buy hot tea, purris and halwa. Station food tasted to us like gourmet cuisine. Shouts of “Chai, chai, garam chai” (Tea, Tea, Hot tea!) and “Undae, Undae, Garam Undae” (Eggs, Eggs, Hot Eggs!) were heard at every station, promising food that was tastier than the food at the richest of homes.

The trip ended just as it became almost unbearable for the adult chaperones. At that point we were unloaded with baggage only to be loaded on the school bus and make our way the last two hours of the journey to Murree, 7500 feet above sea level, and begin the spring boarding term.

The first evening was always a combination of chaos and excitement as trunks and bisters found their way to our bedrooms and unpacking began. We were allowed bedtimes a bit later than the normal, strictly enforced, hours and we began to claim drawers, dressers and beds. I don’t remember a lot of fighting over this process. Perhaps it was because it was the beginning and always exciting to be together again. The night ended with a meeting in the apartment of a houseparent, closing with prayer as we traipsed to our rooms, ready at this point for a nights sleep in a real bed on solid ground instead of the small bunk of a moving train.

It never failed that I would wake up early the next morning, disoriented as soon as I opened my eyes to my surroundings, not knowing where or who I was. As I slowly woke to my reality, tears would begin to fall. It wasn’t that I was unhappy being there as much as I realized that I had left the safety of the unconditional love of parents and home and was in a place where my daily world was those as immature as I. It was a realization that as much as I loved her, my substitute mother for the next three months would be a houseparent who had many others to care for, all away from the moms who had birthed us, all needy of her love, care and patience.

As I wept silently, tears flowing, it’s as though an invisible strength would enter me. As though God himself was reaching to me through my tears whispering the words “I am here, I am here for you”. Those words whispered in the early morning hours were stronger than any Biblical text and rooted themselves deep in my sub-conscious giving me strength to get up and begin the new semester.