Couchsurfing Guest Post: [The Perils of] African Overland Adventures

My list of guest posts grows longer. Well I admit, people are traveling more than I am. 🙂 Kathleen couchsurfed at my place for a couple of days. I hope you know what is Couchsurfing by now, else refer to the post by Anne. So, Kathleen is on this amazing Michael B. Keegan Travel Fellowship, thanks to which she gets to travel around the world. I don’t remember being more jealous. Ever! Meeting travelers and hearing their stories is always an eye opener. Sort of reminds you that life should not just boil down to the eight hours in office and meetings. Life will always compel you to do the mundane. These people teach you otherwise. 🙂 Oh, and she writes beautifully too! Do visit her fellowship blog when you find the time. This story is a tad scary one. The kind which you can only enjoy on hindsight with the knowledge that it has a happy ending.

I hug my knees to my chest, trying to relieve the pain in my back. A cockroach runs across my feet. I shudder, knocking into the legs of the man behind me. I have extended beyond my allotted space in the aisle of the bus. I know the beauty of Tanzania – the reason I decided to travel overland – is just out the window. From my spot on the floor, I see only legs. I look at my watch: 11 hours left to go.

This journey began over three days ago in Livingstone, Zambia, home of the wondrous Victoria Falls. Graham, a traveler from Ireland, and I met on a 22-hour bus ride to Livingstone from Windhoek, Namibia, and stayed at the same hostel – Jollyboy’s Backpackers. We both intended to go to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, but had loose plans for getting there. After talking to several travelers at the hostel who came from Dar, we decided to team up and take the Kilamajaro Express – an epic 48+ -hour train ride starting in Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia, and rambling into and across Tanzania.

The train departs on Tuesdays and Fridays. We opted for the Friday departure. Kapiri Mposhi is 2.5 hours north of the Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. Lusaka is 7 hours northeast of Livingstone. After spending Thursday morning exploring Victoria Falls, we board the Mazandu Family Bus to Lusaka. A comfortable, air conditioned journey brings us to our first taste of real Africa – at the Lusaka Central Bus Terminal, we are thrown into a mob of taxi drivers vying for our attention (and promising the world). A Canadian couple traveling on the same bus has a private driver, and he is able to find us a reliable driver. After acquiring two dorm beds at Lusaka Backpackers, we collapse in the poolside chairs, break into our reserves – peanut butter and banana sandwiches – and begin to plan the next day’s adventures.

In the morning, we rise early so as to be at the front desk when the hostel worker comes at 7 am. We have been told he can reserve our compartment for the train leaving Kapiri Mposhi at 2 pm. We greet him as he arrives – he does not looked pleased to have eager customers already. We are told to come back at 8:30 when the train office will be open.

We eat our complimentary cereal, drink our coffee, share stories with the other guests, and go back to the desk. We are told the train will leave at 4 pm – not 2 pm as we thought – and we have a second-class compartment on hold. We must get there as soon as we can to pay for the tickets. We pack up and head back to the bus terminal to catch a ride to Kapiri Mposhi.

The scent of foreigners seems to have announced our arrival. Heads all turn our way and bodies begin to ascend. They ask where we are going, and we tell them. Oh do you want to leave now? Yes? Okay, you must hurry; a bus is just about to leave! It will drop you right at the train station! Five men pull us forward and begin to run. We have no choice but to keep up as they drag us along. They jump in front of a bus in drive. Wait! Wait! We have two more! The driver honks. They keep waving. He honks again. An attendant comes to give us tickets.  One of the five men takes our bags and puts them under our bus; the others follow. He demands a baggage fee; we protest. The other men surround us. We give in, pay the money to the most-likely-frauds, and board the bus, anxious to watch this terminal disappear in the distance.

Two hours later, we are still sitting in the unmoving bus. We have watched the same ploy to get passengers again and again. Others tried to buy tickets to another bus, only to find their ticket was given for this one. No one is happy. The beating sun and constant flow of men walking up and down the aisle selling everything from wigs to perfume to chargers does not improve the mood. When every seat is finally taken, we pull out of the terminal. In the end, our 2½-hour bus ride becomes over 6 hours.

We also discover the train is meant to leave at 2 pm.

At 3 pm, we are pushed off the bus – without a train station in sight – into an even larger throng of drivers. Feeding time has arrived. We are pulled and coerced by everyone in every direction. Our frustration rises with the chaos and confusion around us. The train is gone! The train is gone! We are told from all directions that we have been defeated, that we will not catch the train today. But all have a solution ready that involves getting in their taxi.

One man, much calmer than the rest, approaches. He explains that the train will reach Mkushi, its next stop, in less than an hour. If we go with him, we can catch it in time. Graham and I look at each other; we must make a decision. Our trust falls to this man, Moses, and we get in his car. His quintessential African driving whizzes between and around semi-trucks, takes short cuts through dirt fields, and brings us to the next station – full of what we assume are fellow travelers – before the train arrives. In fact, as we will soon find out, the train has not yet even departed from Kapiri Mposhi, our previous destination. Whether or not Moses knew this will remain a mystery.

We spend the next two hours waiting at the Mkushi station chatting with the local history teacher and one of the guardsmen while also serving as the object of attention for most of the town. We get the feeling that not too many wazungu (white people) come through here. A couple of bold 13 year-old boys also approach us.  We learn from them that only a tiny fraction of the people at the station will board the train – the station is used as a community-gathering place. Isaac is here “to play with his friends and talk to girls.”  As the sun begins to set, our presence has become more or less accepted. The initial fear of one baby from merely looking at my pale face forged a friendship with some of the local women. We laugh as I determinedly try to win over the small boy and eventually succeed.

When the train finally arrives, Graham and I are sad to leave this small Zambian town. Our frustrations have melted away. We both know these two hours have become treasures of our African travels.

We board the train and try to find an available sleeper compartment. We are ushered into neighboring but separate compartments: one all-male and one all-female. I am paired with Purity, Jackie and Juliet – three Zambians traveling to Dar es Salaam for a short holiday. They are welcoming and immediately put me at ease. Unfortunately, Graham’s situation was not so. He entered the four-berth compartment as the fifth man and answered the menacing looks by renting out an empty compartment in second class. The attendant brings me to this new one, and I say good-bye to the three women.

In my brief time with these women, I learned something – something I will have to tell Graham and that will shatter his look of relaxation as we settle into our new space. I have learned that the train will not be going to Dar es Salaam. Due to a strike, it will dump us at the Zambian-Tanzanian border.

From there, we fend for ourselves. Our frustrations resurface; the train rambles on.

The cool, night air pulls us to the window of our compartment; we are mesmerized. The clear sky provides the perfect backdrop to the infinite stars, sliver moon, and silhouetted trees and shrubs of the African bush. The uncertainty of the future disappears behind the beauty of the present. Our thoughts turn from the looming border to the splendor of the land we are traversing. In this moment, we recognize its challenges and difficulties as part of its character, as part of its allure.  And we are seduced.

We fall asleep to the wrenching of the wheels against the tracks, trusting against all our senses that we will arrive safely.

The night is full of children running down the halls, outbursts from neighboring compartments, and sudden jolts and tumbles; yet, we sleep well. We bask in the luxury of sleeping on our backs instead of a cramped bus seat. With no place to go, I lazily spend the morning drifting in and out of consciousness, watching Zambia roll by, in and out of my dreams.

The early morning hum of activity on the train gets louder and louder as the day progresses. We are acquiring more and more passengers at each village we pass. As we slow to a stop, crowds await. Children run down to the tracks. Some are there to wave at the passengers (and especially at the unexpected wazungu), some to sell goods, and some to climb into the train. Babies are passed through windows, women are pulled up from the inside, and packages are thrown to open arms.  We can no longer open the door to our compartment – the aisles have become full of people. The train seems to wince at ever turn, weighed down by the ever increasing load.

At 5 pm, almost 24 hours since boarding the day before, we reach the border. We are pulled into a flow of people exiting the train, spit into a mob onto the platform, and immediately pounced upon by local “guides.” The Zambian departure protocol consists of a solitary man walking across the platform with a stamp in hand. We hold our passports open to an empty page; he stamps without even looking at our names.

We walk towards the Tanzania border, following the train tracks, and followed by our unwanted “guides.” We have to get our visas, find a bus to Dar es Salaam, and ditch these two men.

With new visas in our passports, we consult the border control as to the bus schedule. There will not a bus until tomorrow. Our hearts sink. We ask where we can stay in town. We are told it is not safe for us to be here. We must get a minibus to Mbeya, about three hours away, and stay the night. From Mbeya, we will take a bus to Dar the next morning. The man next to us is to do the same, and as he speaks Swahili, we attach ourselves to him, successfully avoiding the “guides.” He gladly accepts us under his wing, though we feel its safety for only a few minutes.

Outside of the border control office, he begins speaking to a man on an auto rickshaw in Swahili. Graham and I are pulled onto the rickshaw and carted off, while our new benefactor waits for the next one. He promises to be right behind us.

We are taken to a dalla-dalla (minibus taxi) headed for Mbeya and find ourselves in the back corner of what should be a 12-seater bus, with bags on our laps. By the time we leave, over 20 people have piled into the bus (all holding children, boxes, computer or bags), our new friend arriving too late to find a place. He waves at us as we pull away, and we try to smile back. Full attention is given to the two wazungu on the bus, and we receive unabashed stares and gestures. Darkness falls, and we are at the mercy of the dalla-dalla driver in the middle of nowhere, Tanzania. We drive on.

Four men board about halfway through the journey and show a keen interest in us. They spend the first chunk of time talking amongst themselves while pointing and staring. Soon, one of them begins to talk to Graham, asking where he is going and offering his services as a guide. The others do not take their eyes off of me. Our discomfort rises. We will have to get a hotel quickly. Just when we have determined we will not get off the bus until there is a hotel in sight by providing the driver whatever bribe is necessary, the attendant on the bus yells back at us. Where are you going? We tell him for a second time Mbeya. Yes, but where in Mbeya? –We need a hotel, somewhere to sleep! He nods his head; our prayers have been answered.

Fifteen minutes later, we are dropped off within 20 feet of the Mbeya Forest Hill Motel entrance. As we greet the receptionist, our bodies relax.

We explain our situation. She arranges a taxi to take us to the bus station so we can secure a ride for the morning to Dar es Salaam. She assures us of the driver’s safety and competency – he will help us find a good company.

The bus station is only 15 minutes away by car. The driver comes into one of the booking offices with us to make the arrangements. We ask him if this is a good company. Yes, this is the best. We pay for our tickets and pick our seats on the bus – number 13 and 14. It will depart at 10 am and arrive in Dar at 7 pm. We must come back in the morning by 9:30 am; our current taxi driver agrees to pick us up from the hotel at 9 am. He takes us back to Mbeya Forest Hill, and we head straight for the restaurant for our first meal of the day (aside from a couple mangos purchased through the train window). It’s just after 10.

Exhausted from the stress of the day, satisfied from our meal, and comforted by the chance to take a warm shower, we fall asleep quickly and deeply.

As we are enjoying our complimentary continental breakfast of fresh bread and fruits, the taxi driver arrives to take us to the bus terminal… 45 minutes early. We ask him to come back later; he says he will wait outside. Afraid he will charge us for the wait time, we reluctantly put our already-packed bags in the car and arrive at the terminal and hour and a half before our departure time (10 am). We sit in front of the booking office, the sun directly in front of us. The man who sold us our tickets greets us enthusiastically and stores our bags in the office. The time passes slowly at first, until we meet Francisco, a local man on his way to Sunday services. He stops to chat.

He conversation jumps from one topic to the next, with no clear path. He is friendly, generous, and extremely entertaining. He seems to particularly enjoy my company. Soon we are joined by another, younger man – Yabaya – who works for the bus company. He sits beside me. Francisco turns to me. Are you Christian? I nod. Which kind? Roman Catholic? I nod again. Do you like bananas? I hesitantly answer yes, I do in fact like bananas. And he disappears. Graham and I exchange confused looks, and then conversation resumes with Yabaya. Fifteen minutes later, Francisco returns, black shopping bag in hand. He hands it to me – For you – and walks away again. Inside are two grilled bananas – a delicious and very popular street food I will have to recreate at home – and one avocado. Graham and I enjoy them immensely.

Another man walks over and begins chatting to Yabaya in Swahili. It’s his brother. Yabaya introduces us, and his brother begins to laugh and look at me in a new way. I have introduced you as my future wife, Yabaya tells me. My eyes widen and cheeks flush. Oh, okay, I say and nervously smile. He laughs, so we will go to America then? I don’t know what to say. Luckily, Francisco returns to change the conversation. It is time for him to go the church. He scribbles on a piece of paper, hands it to me, and tells me he will be praying for my safe journey. On the paper is his full name – Francisco Atupele Christopher Benedikto Mwafongo – address, and telephone number. I say good-bye and make a mental note to send him a thank you postcard for the banana.

It is now past 10 am, the time our bus was supposed to arrive. We are continuously told it is just a few minutes away. It doesn’t come. At 10:30, we are pulled over to a dalla-dalla and passed over to a man in red shirt. The bus isn’t coming, but this man will take you to our other bus. Sister company. Hakuna matata, everything will be okay. We find ourselves again at the mercy of the schedule-less minibus system and vendor attacks at every stop. 45 minutes later, the man in the red shirt pulls us off the dalla-dalla.  Come, you will get your bus now. We are parked next to a medium sized bus. Though it has certainly passed its prime, this ragged bus delights us – finally a vehicle that will take us to Dar.

The man in the red shirt puts our bags under the bus, and we start up the stairs to board the bus. We freeze at the sight in front of us, then slowly turn to the driver, pleading for some explanation.

There are no empty seats.

There will not be any empty seats. We will have to stand. Or sit on the floor. Until we reach Dar. In 14 hours.

I am stupefied. I cannot fathom how the day will ever end. I cannot fathom where seats 13 and 14 went. I cannot fathom how that man decided to cheat us like this. Graham pulls me forward. Kathleen, we have no choice. I relent, go to my space halfway done the aisle, and sit down.

14 hours left to go.

The aisle is littered with trash, unwanted snacks, and soda bottles. The glass clinks and knocks into my back at every turn, emptying its remnants onto my clothes. In less than an hour, we have picked up more people. Now the entire aisle is full. Bodies occupy every available space. I have my first encounter with our much smaller passengers as they crawl around and over my feet, feasting on the trash around me.

11 hours left to go.

I bury myself in War and Peace, my African overland companion, escaping into Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. The sudden stops, quick turns, and mountain roads knock me back and forth between the seats and throw me forward into Graham. I keep reading. Soon, I have been given a plastic crate to sit on. It slips and slides on the bottles and flings me off at the turns, but I have something to sit on. I welcome its relative comfort. We keep driving.

My body screams to let it stretch, to let it rest. I feel a tap on my shoulder from the woman next to me (in a real seat) and abandon Tolstoy. We are stopped at road construction, and there are vendors reaching through the windows. The woman has bought grilled corn on the cob. She breaks it in half, handing one piece to me. I try to refuse but she insists. The sweet kernels soothe my stomach, aggravated by the constant serves and jerking stops of the bus. We begin to talk.

She is traveling in a group of six from Malawi on business. They make this trip often. She sympathizes with Graham and me – on her first trip, she was cheated in the same way. We ask where she is staying in Dar; she tells us a hotel in walking distance from one of the bus drop-offs. We ask if we can come with them to find a room, our eyes pleading. She smiles.Of course. We smile, and our eyes rejoice. We may have 6 hours left on the bus, but at least we have somewhere to go. We will not reach Dar until after 1 in the morning.

I turn back to Tolstoy, now using my small reading light. We keep driving, and the hours pass. Slowly.

I feel another tap on my shoulder. Is that your husband? The Malawian woman next to me asks, pointing at Graham. I shake my head no. Is he your boyfriend? Again, I tell her no. So just a friend? Yes, just a friend. Oh, okay. My brother – she points to the man behind us smiling – would like to marry you. I flush, not knowing what to say. This man has not even spoken a single word to me, nor have I to him. He introduces himself. I’m Rafael. My mouth opens, then closes, then opens again – I return the introduction sheepishly. You don’t like me? I don’t even know you! So in the future, we will get married? I shrug my shoulders and tell him the future is a mystery. I turn back to War and Peace. The pain in my back fires up and down my spine, my muscles cramp.

Two hours left to go.

Napoleon is exiled to the island of St. Helena. The notion of victory and defeat in war is changed. Natasha marries Pierre. I have finished War and Peace, and my motion sickness returns. I close my eyes and try to find some way to rest my head. Nothing seems to work.

One hour left to go.

I open my eyes. I see buildings! Not villages, but the outskirts of a city!  Never has the sight elated me so. I shove Graham with more force than necessary. Graham, we must be getting close! He looks out and smiles. Yes, yes, we are! The minutes inch by; the buildings get denser; my anticipation heightens.

The bus comes to a stop. We are at a bus terminal. Graham and I excitedly turn to our new Malawian friends. No, this is not our stop. We will wait to the next one. We sit back down. People climb over us and on top of us. We are being called from outside.

They tell us they have our bags. They tell us we must get off. They tell us this is the last stop. We shout back that we are staying; they say we must get off. Confused and fearful of losing our bags, we step and squeeze through the aisle to get off the bus. We are pulled by one driver and the next, saying we must go! we must go! Our eyes anxiously scan for our bags; Graham’s is on the ground. He grabs it, pushes the men away and climbs back on the bus. I cannot find my bag. I run around the bus, looking for it and trying to escape the reach of the men around me. They follow, telling me that my friends are lying, that we must get off here, that he will take me where I need to go.

I find my bag; it’s still under the bus. I try to extricate myself from the crowd surrounding me but cannot find a hole. Suddenly an arm grabs me. I turn towards it, slowly, fearful of seeing my captor. It’s the Malawian woman, cursing at the men in Swahili and pulling me to the safety of the bus. Don’t worry, we are almost there, she tells me. We drive on. I remain standing, clinging to the luggage racks above.

Again, the bus slows to a stop. Rafael answers my pleading look: this is our stop. I grab my bag and push my way off the bus. We walk to the hotel. We get our rooms. I take a shower.

The water runs down my body, erasing the dirt and residue of the journey.

I am clean, and I am safe.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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