Building and Unbuilding the Empire

‘We’ll be holding our noses and voting for her’, he said.

He was referring to Hilary Clinton and the watershed United States elections of 2016.

We had met by chance in the dining car of the Empire Builder, a train that crosses North America from Chicago to Portland, Oregon. He was a retired African American lawyer, having worked his life in Chicago, but now settled in Los Angeles. I was trying to find myself on the last North American transcontinental rail crossing.

The feel was decidedly weird, apprehensive even, although we had different reasons for feeling so. For me it may have been a growing sense of futility and uselessness of liberal (or bourgeois) democracy. For him it was a sense that the system in which he had believed for so long, even committed himself, was showing its real and rather ugly nature.

Do not get me wrong. The setting was brilliant, if somewhat surreal. I had made my way, by ‘The Cardinal’, from Philadelphia to Chicago. From there, I would board the fabled Empire Builder to Portland, Oregon, and then travel southward, for a fourth day, on the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles.

On the heavy, if somewhat battered, Amtrak rail carriages we trundled westward. In contrast to the few moments spent in Illinois, we ambled across Wisconsin and the vast plains of North Dakota. Well into Montana we began – as the name suggests – to rise into the mountains in all their glory. Here we touched in Idaho, passed through the Cascade Mountains and Glacier National Park, before running through Washington to Portland, just over the state border with Oregon.

Yet this breathtaking countryside is also soaked in blood, where systematic extermination of the indigenous people was attempted, by killing off the food sources (bison), poisoning water, starving them, driving them off the land, or simply slaughtering them en masse. This was land that assisted in defusing social unrest and potential revolution, for the under-employed and poor working classes were unleashed on the ‘west’, to vent their class fury in hard toil, disease, and early death. This is part of North America that makes the chic urban types of the north-east or west coast shiver with apprehension. And this is where Donald Trump found so much support in the election a few days later.

I sat long in my cabin, pondering the land, life and the universe. Or I was down the stairs in the vestibule, camera in hand, or relishing – as always – a shower on the move. Being the loner and nomad that I am, I savoured the long hours and deep slumber on my own. In this context, the dining car is a strange pleasure, with its communal seating. In the past, I have been able to distinguish between the world seen through the panoramic windows and the world inside the train. On this journey, the world outside, especially the social and political world, was everywhere inside.

In the dining car, I met a black earth farmer, who spoke not a word for most of the evening. Two older women had been making very polite conversation, in the curious way they do in this part of the world.

But when asked his name, he said, ‘I am a black earth farmer’.

‘Black earth?’ I asked.

‘Up north’, he said. ‘The best soil in North America’.

Then I remembered: ‘Like the black earth in the Ukraine and south-western Russia’.

Eyes wide, he said: ‘My grandfather immigrated from Ukraine, after his family had moved there from Germany’.

‘Why have you kept so quiet?’ Asked one of the women.

‘I prefer to listen to people who are more intelligent than I am’, he said with the slightest of smiles.

But now he was unleashed, speaking of GPS steering of farm equipment, of agribusiness, of being 74 (he certainly did not look it), of children and grandchildren who did not want to work the farm. All the while a sharp sense of humour shone through.

At another meal I sat at an all-male table, with a hipster from western parts and a know-it-all California wine merchant who obviously enjoyed the benefits of constantly sampling the products he sold. When I asked about the looming election, the hipster quietly indicated that it was a taboo subject.

Not so for my lawyer friend on his way to Los Angeles. He had been visiting daughters in different parts of the country, returning home by the means he loved best. In years past, he had experienced what it was like to be a black lawyer in a country riven with racial discrimination. And this experience had driven him to become a member of the Democratic Party.

‘I’m a Bernie [Sanders] man’, he said. ‘I’m really disappointed in the way the party machine froze him out and put up Hilary’.

‘So it’s now Trump versus Clinton’, I said.

‘The way I see it’, he said, ‘Democrats will vote for Clinton holding their noses and Republicans will vote for Trump doing the same’.

‘But all the opinion polls suggest Clinton will win’, I said.

‘Yes, yes, but the feeling is not right’, he said. ‘It’s weird’.

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘They’re missing something’, he said. ‘I hope Clinton will win, but I am really not sure’.

Brexit came up often, in the way that the opinion polls had missed the mood in the UK a little earlier in the same year. Their methods seemed to be outdated, so they were unable to do what they are supposed to do – gauge public opinion.

‘I fear a large number of people are not saying what they will do on election day’, he said. ‘Or that they will make up their minds on election day and vote the other way’.

Despite his concerns, which turned out to be well-founded, he remained a firm believer in the system as such.

At one point, I suggested, ‘People in China look at the system in the United States and say “no thanks”’.

To which he responded, ‘And we look at China and say “no thanks.” We don’t want someone else telling us what to do’.

This exchange soured our open conversations, so that we began to avoid one another on the run south from Portland, on the Coast Starlight, to Los Angeles.

I needed more time to myself by that stage, so I did not mind so much. But even my solitude could not block out the mood about the train. A mixture of disbelief, suspense and barely contained anger abounded – depending on which side one was on. For some, the disbelief was based on the apprehension, if not desperate expectation, that the unexpected could happen. For others, the anger at a system that had made their lives worse could not wait for election day. For me, I found it hard to believe that anyone would find such a system desirable.

Meanwhile, I could not help noticing many other signs of a crumbling empire – apart from its political system and social fabric. The train, while solidly built, was increasingly battered and groaning. The cracks on the station platforms seemed wider than ever. The forms of payment seemed archaic. The list could go on and on. It seemed that only thing keeping the system going was the insatiable demand for military expenditure, funded by the extraordinary process of relying on the funds from others, via US Treasury bonds. An empire built on massive debt, enabled by brute force and grudging trust.

But a question kept coming back to me. I would ask: ‘Why do you call it the ‘“Empire Builder”’?

No-one seemed to have answer. Was it a signal of the age-old plans to invade Canada when it was still a British colony? Or was it a signal: this is line; anyone who dares cross it risks life and limb? Or was it part of the extraordinary process of defusing unrest from workers and farmers, pushing them west in a perverted form of the ‘welfare state’? In this case, the state compensated those who took on the task of dispossessing and decimating the indigenous population. Now it seemed as though their descendants were intent on unbuilding the empire through an unlikely champion.

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Ten tips on using a squat toilet on a Chinese train

The moment of truth has arrived; with bowels ready to burst you realise that to hold on any would lead to serious internal injuries. You realise that the decision to catch an ordinary train in order to meet ordinary people in China has certain consequences. One of them is the fact that you need to use the same toilet as about 300 others – all in the one carriage, given the Chinese habit of selling no-seat tickets.

Door open, squeeze in, turn around: stop. It’s a squat toilet, on a rocking train that you are sure is travelling much, much faster than it should. What to do?

1. Ignore the sheen of liquid on the floor. Or imagine that it is water or floor-wash and not piss from the hundreds who have gone before you.

2. Step forward and place your feet in the footrests on either side of the rounded, stained-steel trough. It may have stainless steel once upon a time, but not now.

3. Drop your pants to a strategic level on your legs to avoid soaking them in the pungent floor wash.

4. Grab firmly the handrail directly before you. It is there for a purpose. Even though it may look as though previous users have balanced on one foot blind-folded while the train was racing around a curve, you should by no means try to emulate them. Handrail gripped; eyes wide open.

5. Squat and let go. You will be surprised at how comfortable it really is, despite the initial feeling of having all your vulnerable parts dangling low. Let me just say that the position encourages you to do what you have to do. In fact, it usually produces a greater feeling of lightness and relief.

6. Reach for your own roll of toilet paper! Unfortunately, most such toilets may have had some toilet paper at the start of the trip, but it will be long gone by now.

7. Remember to place the used toilet paper in the basket provided – otherwise you will block the toilet and 300 accusing eyes will fix on you for stuffing up the one avenue for collective relief. That basket is of course the reason why Chinese public toilets smell the way they do. If you have forgotten your roll, just remember that old biblical saying: do not let you right hand know what your left hand is doing.

8. As you pull up your pants, dig out your vital bottle of dry hand-wash. There will be no soap and perhaps no water for your own ablutions.

9. Do as the Chinese do: sniff up a good hunk of snot and hack in the toilet to chase down whatever you have left behind.

Slavery, Service and Tips

‘Service’ derives from the Latin servitium, slavery, which is of course itself a derivative of servus, slave.

As for the word ‘slave’ itself, the most persuasive theory is that it derives from the medieval Latin term sclava, meaning captive. But it is also closely connected with the Byzantine Greek term for Slavs, sklabos (from about 580 CE). The connection is both one of merging two terms and the political reality of Holy Roman Empire’s policy of enslaving many Slavs from the ninth century CE as a way of securing the German-Slav demarcation line.

Why the etymology?

I was confronted once again with a curious phenomenon in the strangest of countries, the United States of America. Here they obsess about ‘service’.

I had been travelling across North America by train, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. I went via Chicago and took the Empire Builder to Portland, before running down California on the Coast Starlight. All the way I encountered one exceedingly helpful person after another. But it really came home to me in the midst of a lunch discussion as we rolled across Montana.

One of the women said, ‘That would do it for me; if the service is excellent, I’ll go back’.

Why the obsession? I wondered. So much so that it is a defining feature of travel itself.

Indeed, everywhere I turned on my journey, I was smothered in people trying to offer service. In a shop I was asked in a cheery but brittle tone how I am ‘doing today’. If the shop assistant managed to catch my name, I was forthwith addressed as though we had known each other for ages. If I paused for a moment on a street or in a railway station, someone inevitably asked if I need some help in finding my way.

Do not get me wrong. I really appreciate the effort. But I remain puzzled.

So I came to my etymological sleuthing.

Service is directly connected to slavery. I mean this not purely in terms of the history of the word, but in the actual practice. When slavery was finally abolished, those who had been slaves became ‘servants’. Lower working class men and women, often from the countryside, would also become ‘servants’ in large households. Perhaps we should say ‘wage slaves’.

Yet, this practice can be found in many parts of the world. So what is different about the United States? I suggest that tipping functions in a way to maintain old patterns of subservience.

In theory at least, the possibility of a tip is meant to encourage greater levels of service. Let us leave aside for a moment the framework of tipping that includes ridiculously low wages, or the assumption that private philanthropy makes the world go around. I am interested in the theory: depending on the ‘quality’ of the service, the tipper may choose to give nothing or give generously, or anywhere in between. The power held by the one tipping lies in the option to withhold or give.

Of course, all manner of cultural expectations and percentages now apply to what is deemed appropriate. But so is the unquestioned assumption that if the service is bad, no tip should be given. Hence the obsessing over service, the entrenchment of slave-like behavior, the etymology itself of ‘service’ and ‘slavery’. It could really only happen in a country with the complex history and continued cultural presence of slavery in its very fabric.

A Journey of Rediscovery

It began as a delayed mutual promise: to travel around much of Australia by rail. Often we had put the journey off, due to commitments, time pressures and responsibilities. In the end, some years ago, we simply decided to go, frazzled and pressured as we were.

The journey would take us northwards from Adelaide, two days on the Ghan train to Darwin. A car was needed for the next leg, almost 2000 kilometres through the Gulf Country, heading eastward to Mt Isa in far north Queensland. Another train would take us a further 1000 kilometres to the coast, and then we would wind our way some 3000 km southwards on a couple more trains, down the coast to home. It was to be a 9000 kilometre journey in all.

We began wearily, with long months of disrupted sleep behind us and expectations from work weighing upon us, all of it symbolised by the creaking burden of books in our packs. Initially, on the Ghan we plunged into our books and opened our computers to get some headway on the many tasks we hoped to complete on our way. Gradually, we turned less to the books and the computers began to be lie dormant for longer periods. I pulled out my camera and spent long hours walking the train and standing at windows, testing the capabilities of the camera. She slept much and gazed out the window, an open book lying on her lap unread.

In Alice Springs, Katherine Gorge and Darwin we simply walked all day. Still our talk was around projects, plans, grant funds, writing tasks and ways around problems at work. We went over difficult conflicts and frustrated projects, looking for new ways to achieve them.

The talk continued in the car we rented for the next few days. We intended to belt along the main road and get to Mt Isa as soon as possible. Soon enough a turn beckoned, into Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park. Our talk turned to other matters, of life and death and love and the endless, endless land. We stayed a night in a remote community or two, struggling to find accommodation. Until we happened upon an extraordinary road.

Named innocuously the Tableland Highway, it was barely a ribbon of undulating and wavy asphalt across vast spaces and beneath infinite skies. Water was scarce on the way, marked by the regular wind pumps of yesteryear. Now we fell silent as we were absorbed by the land. Occasionally, a native animal would pass our way, especially as dusk drew near. We stopped regularly to soak it all in, simply standing and looking out, aware that we were possibly the only human beings as far as our eyes could see.

On every roll in the road, I felt as though I left behind one more expectation, one more pressure, one more plan, one more struggle. Into the sky and the open plains went my sense of self-importance. I had begun against my best intentions to believe in the hype and to throw my weight around, feeling that I had the gravitas to do so and thereby change the world around me. As the road unwound through the vastness, that whole sense was simply taken away, little by little. By the end of that road, as we drove into Mt Isa, I had rediscovered myself.

I did not realise it at the time. In Mt Isa, I slept deep and long for the first time in months. The sleep would continue all the way home. Her process was more gradual, for she was processing much about identity apart from her work. She spent the 28 hours on the amazing Innlander train, from Mt Isa to Townsville, looking out the window and snoozing. I found this rail journey one of the most fascinating I have done for a long time. I absorbed everything around, thrilled by the experience. The train played only part of the role, for it was the rediscovery of myself now expressing itself.

By the time we left Cairns a few days later (after a short bus ride north from Townsville), we realised what we needed to do. The train helped, with its rail-bed sleepers on the run south to Brisbane. She would disconnect from what frustrated her at work, pursuing her passions in new areas, wherever that took her and wherever that might be in the world. I would resign from the many editorial boards, networks and leadership roles, disconnecting from the identity that had been forced upon me. I too would recover my passions and pursue them, anticipating the opportunity to join her wherever she went.

The return home, after the day-time XPT train from Brisbane, saw an immediate manifestation of all that we had experienced. We had a massive purge of books, thousands of them. Books we would never use again, crap books we had kept, and anything deemed fit to go. Our home opened up and we felt we could breathe again. The resignations and disconnections took another day. We were full of enthusiasm, freed, passionate and rested. The summer that followed was long, quiet and simply glorious. It was perhaps the most important journey we have undertaken for quite some time.

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New Tracks, Old Tracks

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Journeying on a restored railway line for the first time – what is it like? A new line may have its own thrill, an old familiar line another. But a restored line that is both familiar and new?

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Many years ago I had lived and worked in the country town of Armidale. Often, I walked past the grand railway station, which forlornly awaited trains that never came along disused and dilapidated tracks. Often, I would cross the line itself, on foot or on bicycle, pausing and looking up and down the tracks as though a train might be coming. Often, I travelled by bus to Tamworth, more than 100 kilometres to south, in order to catch the train there. On our way, we would follow the unused railway line, with its occasional station and signalman’s cottage. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought at the time, if this line was restored? All of the hard work had been done almost a century ago: easements, rail-beds, cuttings, tunnels and the route itself. Restoring the line would merely require some tracks, signals and repaired bridges – and political will.

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And then it happened: someone with political will decided to restore the line. Work began while I was living in Armidale, but it proceeded with its usual caution. Days, weeks, months passed as the line slowly found a new life. Eventually, the day came when a train once again arrived at Armidale station … but I was about to leave town, seeking my fortune elsewhere. So I never had the opportunity to catch that train.

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For more than two decades it has been on my mind – a desire to take the train to my former home. Towards the end of a hot summer, my chance came: a few days cleared and I jumped at the opportunity. My simple bag packed, I stood on the platform at my local railway station, awaiting the grand train to the northwest – all six carriages of the ‘Northern Explorer’.

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The initial part of the journal was familiar enough, winding up the Hunter Valley through vineyards, horse studs, mines and farms. We chugged over the Liverpool Range and into the Goonoo Goonoo Plains, before pausing at Werris Creek – a true railway town – to split the train. Two carriages went west to Moree and four turned northwards. Now the real pleasure of the journey began, for I was travelling on the restored tracks.

A curious experience it was. I have travelled old lines aplenty, following familiar paths, well-known habits – so much so that some are able to evoke the memories and even the feel of moments in my life decades ago. From time to time I have also journeyed on freshly laid tracks, enjoying the novelty of the experience, testing myself, before they too became habitual and were drawn into the network of the familiar.

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But the run from Tamworth to Armidale was different in unexpected ways. I knew this territory from decades past. Much of the line, the lie of the land, the occasional stops were all part of a former fabric of life. Yet to travel this way, along the railway line itself, was a new experience. I had never before seen the cuttings and twists and tunnels of the Moonbi Hills. I had not stopped at Bendemeer or Walcha Road or Uralla by train before. And I had never in my life disembarked onto the railway platform at Armidale.

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At the same time, it was an old, old line. Many decades ago trains full of people had travelled this line. When roads were rougher and cars slower and fewer, the railway line was the vital link – for people and food and produce. After being closed, it had lain idle for many a long year before being restored in a different era. I felt as though it was simultaneously a very new experience, a new venture, and yet an old one, which I knew intimately. Perhaps I can put it this way: I was discovering a way of journeying, touching other lives that felt both strange and familiar.

At some points, especially on the climb up to the New England Plateau, we travelled at the speeds of older trains – 15 or perhaps 20 kilometres an hour. The engine strained, the curves were tight, the gradient steep. Once on the plateau, we sped along in a way that older trains might have only imagined. The rolling plateau was still full of trees, perhaps more now that farmers had understood the benefits of bush on their land (instead of seeing it as a curse). The villages and towns seemed largely the same, for in country towns you do not have the sped-up process of destruction and building so characteristic of cities.

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I have to confess that I remained glued to the window, relishing each point passed, each turn of the train, each announcement of a station and the leap onto the platform to stretch my legs. But too soon did it arrive in Armidale, for the run from Tamworth is barely over 100 kilometres. At Armidale, the line stops and the train itself is parked into a secure bay to rest before the return journey the next day.

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Long did I look further up the line, where the tracks remain in a state of disrepair. The railway line once continued through the rest of the plateau, making its way eventually to Brisbane via the overland route. I began to anticipate that the remainder of the line would one day be restored, as no doubt it will when people realise the need to do so. I hope it happens in my lifetime, for I will take that train as soon as it begins that new journey over old tracks.

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Refugee Train across Europe

‘Where are you from?’ I asked.

‘Syria’, said the young man.

‘Do you speak English?’ I asked.

He smiled and shook his head. Some minutes later, his friend arrived and they asked me about their train ticket. Or rather, they showed it to me, with quizzical faces. Their final destination was Kiel, in the north of Germany, which required a change in Hamburg. I promised to help them when we arrived in Hamburg.

I noticed that they had a small backpack each and that they looked weary, very weary. Holidaymakers hereabouts usually carry much more. And they usually stay in hotels with comfortable beds, or perhaps – like me – they stay with friends and acquaintances. These two young men were not holidaymakers and they had clearly not slept in a comfortable bed for quite a while.

My thoughts went back to the crossing of the border between the Netherlands and Germany, an hour or so earlier. I was on my way from the small town of Alphen aan den Rijn to Copenhagen, a journey that should have taken twelve hours. At the German border crossing, an unusual number of police patrolled the station and the train itself. The open borders of the European Union were not so open any more. In my carriage, they stopped to speak with another young man.

‘Where are you from?’ The police officers asked.

‘Tunisia’, he said.

‘May we see your passport?’ They asked. Upon perusing it, they said: ‘You do not have a visa. Please come with us’.

He followed them off the train, where a number of people had also gathered. Soon enough they were led off by the police for processing.

At that time, I had not yet made the connection. But with the two Syrians on the later train, it hit me: I was experiencing first-hand the European refugee ‘crisis’ of late 2015. Or rather, it was only the first, very small taste.

By the time I arrived at Hamburg, I realised I was in the midst of the greatest movement of people in recorded history – from countries destroyed by foreign intervention, such Syria, Afghanistan, Libya … It is one thing to see stories on the television or read about it in a distant newspaper, with the usual distortions and sensationalism. It is another thing entirely to experience it directly.

The train on which I was travelling arrived late, having left Osnabrück late. Hoping that in Hamburg my connection to Copenhagen was also late, I raced to find the platform. The train had already left. After rescheduling my travel at the Deutsche Bahn ticket office, I had an hour or more to explore the station. As an ancient centre, Hamburg always bustles. But this was no ordinary bustle. It was packed full of people.

In the toilets, many Syrian men were having a wash. The cost of entry may have been one euro, but the attendant was letting them in for nothing. On the stairs, in the passageways, on the platforms were group upon group of tired refugees. A family sat in a corner, with the mother quietly breastfeeding the baby. A man from Afghanistan spoke with a women next to me, saying he and his group had been on the road for four weeks. They would stay in one country for a night, perhaps two, and then move on. All of them – families, groups of young men and women, occasional older people with someone to help them – had nothing more than a small backpack and perhaps a smartphone in order to keep up with what was happening.

Finally my train arrived, although now I had to go via Jutland and around to Copenhagen. The German railway system was straining, with all trains running late. My train was soon full to overflowing with refugees. I sat next to a German woman from Flensburg.

‘I never expected this’, I said, ‘although I should have’.

‘There are so many’, she said, ‘even more this month’.

‘Where are they going?’ I asked.

‘To every city, town and village in Germany’, she said.

‘How do they get there?’ I asked.

‘The German government provides them with tickets’, she said.

‘In the Netherlands’, I said, ‘people were saying, “it is what you do”’.

‘Yes’, she said, ‘this is what we think too. However, we cannot do it alone’.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Other countries need to help’, she said. ‘This is a global problem. But Denmark, Norway, Hungary … they refuse to take any refugees’.

‘Really’, I said. ‘But they are rich countries, with many resources to share’.

She smiled ruefully.

At Flensburg, in the midst of one of my ancestral homes by name of Schleswig-Holstein, we had to change trains. For many, Flensburg was the end of their journey for now. Arabic-speaking Germans were ready on the platform. They wore ‘Welcome Refugees’ jackets and guided people to the station centre. There they provided some food, drink and arranged accommodation for those who were staying in Flensburg.

Yet again, I had missed my connection, so I had to wait for the next train, now in the middle of the night. I did not expect anyone to board the train to Denmark, given that country’s less than welcoming reputation. The barriers on the platform for Denmark reinforced this impression. However, when the train arrived, a large group of refugees were led onto the platform. The station personnel at the barriers did not request passports – only valid tickets. Soon the train was full.

Now I became fully involved.

One young man spoke English, so he became the interpreter and de facto leader of a train full of anxious refugees. They were constantly keen for information in a foreign country with strange customs. At the Danish border, I expected them all to be hauled off the train.

Instead, a Danish police officer came through and asked, ‘Anyone seeking asylum in Denmark?’

One by one, everyone responded, ‘Sweden’.

He walked on.

An Arabic speaking woman followed him, checking to see if people had understood. One or two had further questions. By her shrug and sour look, one could tell immediately that she didn’t care and had no desire to help.

At Fredericia, in Denmark, the train stopped for some time. An announcement stated that we would not have to change, for the train would now go through to Copenhagen. Obviously, the authorities feared some might disappear on their way to another platform. A large group gathered around me as the interpreter asked what was happening. I explained the change in plans in detail, answering further questions.

Soon enough the last toilet on the train stopped working. I advised those whose bladders were about to burst that a corner on the platform was a good place for such purposes – having done so myself. A couple of women were not so keen, so I asked some station attendants of they could fix the toilets. They did so – with much relief.

After yet another delay, we departed. A weary train soon fell asleep. Children slept on seats and on the floor between seats. Old people were given the best spots. Young people did the best they could with the remaining space.

By 3.00 am we finally arrived in Copenhagen – five hours later than my original schedule. Everyone disembarked and asked me – through their translator – whether they had to take a ship to Malmø. The train will take you there, I told them.

‘I wish you all the best’, I said. ‘I hope you find a welcoming country and a place to make a new home’.

They thanked me profusely for the little help I had given, shaking my hand one by one. We waved farewell.

Walking out of the station and into a rainy Scandinavian night in mid-November, I found I could barely imagine what such a journey must be like for them, fleeing a home engulfed in war. Their towns and villages were being destroyed, people around them were being killed, mostly by foreign forces. They did not know what lay ahead.

Yet I was struck by the way everyone was very helpful. No-one pushed or shoved to get on or off a train. Instead they assisted each other. People constantly made room for anyone else, offering seats and places where needed. The feel on the train was far from any sense of danger, but rather a sense of weary and hopeful collective will.

The situation went beyond politics and propaganda. It boils down to a simple question: if someone is in dire need, you either turn your back or you help. For you never know when you will be in such a situation.

Red Centre, Red Eyes: The Ghan on a Budget

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‘I wonder far back the seat goes?’ I said, pulling on the lever.

‘Oh!’ said a young Spanish woman into whose lap I had plunged. She was seated directly behind me.

‘Obviously, it goes quite far!’ I said.

She laughed as I levered myself back into a sitting position.

We were on The Ghan, the rail service that runs between Adelaide and Darwin. A little over two days it takes, running through the Red Centre of Australia, stopping at Marla, Alice Springs and Katherine on the way. And we were in seats all the way.

The Ghan?

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The route of The Ghan has been more than a century in the making. The dream may have been to run the line all the way to what would become Darwin, but the beginnings were somewhat more modest. Construction began in 1878 and, over the next thirteen years, it crawled some 800 kilometres between Port Augusta and Oodnadatta. The narrow gauge (1,067 mm) line followed the same route as the overland telegraph, believed to be the route taken by John McDouall Stuart in his final, frenetic effort to reach the north in 1862. But Oodnadatta is still a long way from Alice Springs – more than 600 kilometres – so the last leg required camels. Finally, in 1929 was the line extended to Alice Springs.

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The route chosen had one advantage: it ran near water, crucial for the steam locomotives. But water in the outback also meant regular washouts after downpours. So the train had a flatcar behind the locomotive, stacked with spare sleepers and tools. Upon encountering a washout, crew and passengers would set to work repairing the line. So notorious were the train’s delays that a woman once approached a conductor.

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‘Excuse me, sir’, she said. ‘I am about to give birth’.

‘Madam’, said the conductor. ‘You should not have boarded the train in that condition’.

‘I didn’t’, she said.

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By the late 1950s, a standard gauge line (1,435 mm) began to be constructed, reaching Marree. North of here, people still took the old Ghan, which finally ceased service when the new line reached Alice Spring in 1980. By now diesel had replaced steam, so the route followed a more reliable and drier line to the west of the original route.

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But the original dream remained – to run all the way to Darwin. Against the tendency to favour roads at the beginning of the new millennium, construction on the 1500 kilometre stretch from Alice Springs to Darwin began in 2001 and on 4 February 2004 the first passenger train reached the far northern capital. It had taken 126 years of dreams, plans and waiting. The cost of the final leg was a modest AUD$1.3 billion.

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But how did it come to be called The Ghan? Theories abound, but the most reliable is that it came from a joke in 1923. At this time, the train still ran to Oodnadatta, but the time was drawn out by overnight stops. South Australian Railways decided to try a brand new idea: attach a sleeping car and run the train through the night. On 30 August, 1923, a crowd of local people gathered at Quorn station – en route – to see the new contraption. As the train pulled into the station at dusk, an Afghan passenger leapt from the train, found a quiet corner, kneeled facing Mecca and recited his prayers. A railway worker joked that if he was the only passenger on the sleeper, the train should be called the Afghan Express. The name caught on, not least because of the ‘Afghan’ cameleers who had taken camel trains with crucial supplies for decades before the trains came through. Soon enough, it was shortened to the Ghan Express and then to the Ghan.

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The Journey

A long journey it is, covering some 3,000 kilometres through the heart of Australia. The outback starts early hereabouts, appearing after only a few hours of trundling through the wheat fields of South Australia.

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Even here, the landscape is flat, with occasional mountains worn down by millennia of weathering. On the far-distant horizons they run a line for a while, only to retire from sight. After Port Augusta and the last sight of the sea, we reached semi-arid parts, with low trees, salt-bush, saltpans and the ubiquitous oxidised red soil. No wonder Australia is one of the main global sources of iron ore.

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For some, the red heart is monotonous. Endless reaches of desert stretch out on either side, with no relief in the way of rivers, mountains, or indeed forests. Yet this is to miss the sheer variety of this part of the world. Each kilometre seemed to bring new sights. I would stand at the vestibule windows, eagerly moving from one side to the other so as not to miss what would come next. A freight train might lumber past, since the line is primarily a freight run to and from the northern port of Darwin – which is closer to Jakarta than it is to Sydney. A line of river gums would announce a river-bed, dry most of the time, flooded when a rare downpour happened. But the trees know that water lies further down, pushing their roots deep down to tap the moist soil. So also do the local Indigenous people, who know where rare water might be found, accessing it without destroying it for another who may pass this way.

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A low hill, an escarpment or a gorge may appear, drawing my gaze as I wonder about its place in the local mythology. And the vegetation is full of surprises. Occasional low trees, well accustomed to the rigours of desert life, provide welcome shade for animals and succour for smaller plants.

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Tight clumps of saltbush, like khaki balls low to the ground, flourish with minimal nutrients and moisture. Yellow desert grasses rise between cracks in the rock or around tree roots.

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A couple of red kangaroos watched us pass at dusk on the first evening, while in the last hours before Darwin water buffalo chased each other around the edge of a water hole. In short, the desert is full of the variety of life, most of it not even glimpsed as the train ambles past.

No Locals

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Inside was full of life as well, for in our two full carriages a temporary community formed. A backpacker asked the conductor at the beginning of the journey whether the train had wifi. The negative answer drew a gasp of disbelief, until those affected absorbed the dreadful news and hit upon the innovative idea of reading books. The skinny and hairy young man across the aisle performed elaborate travel yoga, ate nuts and kale, and laid us low with killer farts.

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He struck up a friendship with a wok-bearing woman who joined him in the yoga postures. The bear-like trio ate only the meat on their plates, leaving aside anything that was remotely fresh. They supplemented the protein with vast bags of chocolates. The giggling Belgian girls were followed for much of the time by a young male sniffer. Two Korean women spent most of the time photographing a teddy bear in all manner of positions and in all types of scenery.

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Together we ate, juggled for space in the dining car, looked out of the windows and tried to pass the time as best we could. And we talked. Hardly was there a moment when some conversation or other did not sound through the carriage. But to understand them all one would have had to possess the gift of interpreting tongues, for it was truly a Pentecost of languages. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Belgian French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Swedish … all corners of the earth seemed to be represented in our carriage.

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Four stops we had on the way: Port Augusta, Marla, Alice Springs and Katherine. Why so few? The first was to drop off four passengers, the second for a sunrise experience in the desert (someone had lit a fire or two for us) and the third and fourth to sell tours while the train paused for a few hours. They ranged from a basic bus ride into town for $20 to helicopter flights for well over $300 per person. In Alice Springs we avoided the tours and sauntered around town, finding our way to the Araluen Cultural Centre. In town, Indigenous people speak their own languages, coming as they do from some of the big tribes and their clans in these parts. I had been in the Alice once before, some 27 years ago. It had changed much.

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In Katherine we gave in and took the cheap option: a bus to Katherine Gorge, where we did some bushwalking and sweated in the heat. Others opted for canoe trips or the aforesaid outrageously priced helicopter rides.

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So why the few stops? The range of languages spoken and the tours indicate an answer: trains like The Ghan are geared for tourists. Even in our relatively cheap ‘Red’ carriages, the vast majority were international tourists. But I must admit I had expected a rather different approach, that is, a train that would regularly drop off and pick up locals in the way north. Very occasionally it happened, as with the people who alighted at Port Augusta or the young woman and her son for the few hours between Katherine and Darwin. But that was it.

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For a train geared to tourists, one need not stop regularly, except where more money is to be made. Of course, the fact that it does not stop so much also means locals cannot catch it so easily. It may be a business model that works for now, with some slick marketing focusing on rail nostalgia and the ‘Red Centre’, but much had changed over the century or more of The Ghan.

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How to Sleep in a Seat for Two Nights

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Let me go back to the seats – the very red ones. What were we doing in seats? Would we not have to sleep in them two nights running? Why not one of the two types of sleeper compartment, as is our wont? The simple reason is that the cost of such a compartment begins at $2,250 each in a shared compartment. This is the so-called ‘Gold’ class. Much higher still is the ‘Platinum’ class. To be sure, meals and drinks and shuttles to and from the train are included in the cost, but that is hardly reason to fork out so much. Once upon a time they had budget ‘Red’ sleepers, which we have used on the ‘sister’ train, the Indian-Pacific. But with the advent of a ‘Platinum’ level, the old ‘Red’ sleepers were retired, except for a sole carriage used by staff to catch up on some rest.

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So seats we had, the only section left on the train that counted as ‘Red’. Our two carriages were tacked onto the end of the train. At stops we would be at the furthest distance from the station building (‘Platinum’ would of course be directly on the station). We had one attendant dealing with all matters – from cleaning the toilets to cooking meals in the dining car. Indeed, this car – the ‘Matilda’ – had seen better days. As had the meals. Breakfast involved a ‘Big Aussie’, with sausages and eggs and grilled tomatoes. Lunch involved pies and pasties and wraps. And dinner meant a small terrine of unidentified meat, surrounded by lettuce leaves to make it seem larger. We opted to buy our food before departure: beans, bread, sardines, gherkins, peanut butter, fruit, celery, carrots, oats and long-life milk. We ate far better than those who dared sample the dining car fare.

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How does one sleep in a seat for two nights and then sit in it for almost three days? The layout helps a little. They are not as tight as a long-distance bus or a budget airline, which are designed to give one varicose veins in short order. In fact, they recline into the laps of those behind, as I had already found. And if your legs are not too long, you can put a bag on the floor and rest your feet upon them. Ample leg room it was, even for someone like me with longer legs.

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That said, it was still a seat. During the days, I made sure that I was up and about on a very regular basis. It may have been for a walk, for photos in the vestibule, for a time in the dining car, or merely for a stroll driven by curiosity. At night, I drew upon my stock of travel pillows, eye-masks and ear-plugs to close off the sound of sleeping companions around me – or, for that matter, the ones who could not sleep so well. Yet, I could not quite lie on my side, for to do so would have left me with a permanent back injury. Needless to say, the sleep is not so deep and sound as one might like. Waking up in your clothes also gives the distinct impression of having been out for a night on the town and having fallen asleep on a park bench.

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How was I to overcome such a feeling, apart from putting it down to the experience of rail travel? The showers at either end of the carriage were a blessing. Towels and soap were provided, so I made the most of one of the almighty pleasures of travel: the train wash. Afterwards, I felt like a new man, even to the point of shaving. And as is my wont, I hung my washed undies and socks out in the main carriage to dry. But the shower was not the only option. For some strange, the second night made a difference. It was not that I was getting used to sleeping in the seat, but that I was weary enough to sleep anywhere.

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