The first time that the train became part of my consciousness it was a few years after college. The room where I first slept in at the convent, and which I shared with six others, was in the wing closest to the Manila-Bicol track. My bed was beside the window overlooking the track. The first night in the convent had been emotionally difficult for most. Though we were all physically exhausted from the day’s activities which included long-distance travel from our individual addresses, sleep did not immediately come to us. At dinner and onward, the rule, right on the first day, was absolute silence (“in silence you hear God’s voice”.). At bed time, distracted, I contemplated the ceiling. My roommates tried, but failed, to stifle their crying. I wanted to join them but my eyes refused to tear. And then suddenly the sound of a train, faint at first which grew as the train approached. The sound entered at my feet, accelerated up my limbs, made it’s way thunderously toward my head, crammed itself into that space, and exited just before I thought the sound would shatter it. Incredible. After a while, the muffled sounds inside the room returned to me. In the darkness, I turned to peer at my roommates. It appeared that I was the only one who’d taken notice of the train. Maybe I was the only one in there who had not heard a live train before.
Not long afterward, I intuitively knew the exact time (we had no timepieces on ourselves and the only clock in the place hung at the lobby) the train was on it’s way, and it’s coming and going was clock-work. At first, the piercing sound irritated me – if there was a noise that was truly a nuisance I thought it was this – and feared that it’d damaged my head (not from the sound, but the unfailing constancy of it). But in time I grew accustomed.
Years afterward, I couldn’t think of my time there without the sound of the train and my nightly experience of it inserting itself. I also realized the humor in the experience. It was oblivious to me then, but the train and it’s sound if only at very brief interludes at night brought the outside world to me, supposedly removed from that world, when the rule was absolute silence and God and I were supposedly connected or at least trying to connect.
The author’s, Arturo Corpuz’, writing style is easy and friendly to readers who have no specialized knowledge of railways. I’ve seen the old train tracks in some places around the country, and wondered about their history, but it was only years after, coming across this book, that I finally learned it. I was astounded that railroads had figured so much in the country’s history. Not only this. The book also implies that that the train had been a critical aspect of early Philippine culture and economy.