Tue, 22 Jul 2008 17:21:02 +0000

Dar es Salaam Day 3 Index TAZARA Day 2

With my passport in my bag next to my ticket, and my visa stamp present and correct, today I was all set for the big train journey I've been looking forward to for so long. My ticket has "Report 14:30" written on the back, so there was no rush for the morning.

But I rushed anyway. I still don't have a place to sleep in Lusaka, and last night I failed to get through. So I went to the internet cafe to phone the "Chachacha Hostel". This time I got through, only to find that they are fully booked for Sunday. That's really a big problem. There are only two hostels in Lusaka, as far as the web is concerned, so the fact that one is fully booked is a really bad sign. I tried to phone the other one, but their number doesn't seem to exist. I then frantically used the extremely slow Tanzanian connection to the Internet to find another number for the same hostel, but this also didn't work. So there's nothing for it, I'm going to have to arrive in Lusaka and scramble to find accomodation, like I did in Dar es Salaam. But this time I know that it will be hard to come by.

On the plus side, I did happen to spot two shops selling things I'm missing: I got a pocketknife from a shop that sells a bizarre variety of bits and bobs, and finally got some small packets of tissues from a pharmacy. I bought a loaf of bread and some bananas, completing my victuals for the journey. And I camped in the shopping centre charging my Nokia to full capacity. So I feel that my kit is complete.

I had to pay 7000 shillings for taxi to the station, more expensive than last time. At one point he announced that we were taking a shortcut, which would have had me sweating in terror if it hadn't been the middle of the day or I didn't know where I was going. But this gave me an interesting tour of what seems to be a blacksmith district. I got to the station about an hour before my scheduled reporting time, and wandered around vaguely trying to find where I was supposed to wait before eventually being directed upstairs.

Upstairs there are two wings of the building filled with simple plastic seats. I settled myself in front of a group of British tourists, reasoning that it would be best to stick to people obviously on the same itinerary as me. They nattered away, as did the people in front, and the time passed. The British group eventually got up and went off to see if they could catch a flight from the nearby airport instead, leaving me surprised at the dearth of backpackers in the place. Eventually I saw one ducking into a doorway, and realised that there's a whole separate first class lounge.

The lounge isn't exactly luxurious, and could badly do with some air-conditioning. But the seats are upholstered and there's enough for everyone. Sad to say, the place neatly segregated itself into a black half and a white half. Speaking for myself, I'm deliberately trying to make the aquaintance of other backpackers on this trip, because I'll probably need their help at the other end. So that's my excuse for sticking to the white people.

My friend from the day before was there, with her bankcard sorted out and fresh from a trip to Zanzibar. Her Zambian visa application was on the same track as mine, but she had simply travelled to Zanzibar without her passport. Apparently she filled out a bit of extra paperwork and it was fine, and she managed to get two days on the island instead of my day-trip. But I'm glad I didn't try to push the envelope in the same way.

I'd been told to report at 14:30, and scheduled departure time was 15:50. The British group returned after a while, defeated by the airport, and reported that they'd been told we'd be leaving at 18:00. All of this exactly what I'd been led to expect, of course. We all settled in with our various books and let the afternoon pass.

A bit after six we eventually did start to board. Compartments here are gender-segregated, so couples and parties were split up. I found my way to my compartment without trouble, and negotiated with my roommate, a middle-aged Zambian bloke, to take a bottom bunk. After a bit we were joined by a third member, a white Zambian with a very impressive beard. I was surprised to learn that he was Zambian, in fact, but he phoned his sister in a language that I didn't recognise, so I assume it's something local.

"Boarding" of course is a very different matter from "departing". We sat in the compartment for a fair while as they readied the train, me trying to read, contorting myself lower and lower to use the remaining light. This is one reason I like my Nokia: I can read in comfort no matter how bright or dark it is. But the battery only lasts seven hours, so I have to conserve it for when it's really needed. When reading became impossible I snacked on bananas and biscuits.

The train is not luxurious. If I didn't know anything else about it, the interior would at least make me suspect "China" and "the 70s" as points of origin. A bit dingy, and the overhead light is very feeble. As I'd been promised, the power point doesn't work. Neither does the reading lamp at each bed. But then, given that this train is nearly forty years old, and has seen a lot of dramatic history in that time, it's remarkably well-maintained. I suspect that it's precisely as dingy and ill-lit as the day it first rolled out of Dar es Salaam.

The ride is really quite good, better at least than the "train of death" in Bolivia. But rather than rocking from side to side or up and down, the train does frequently jolt suddenly forwards or backwards, sometimes quite violently.

Eventually a bit before seven we set off, and shortly after that I went off to find the restaurant car. There's a distinct first-class section, with a restaurant car, three carriages of cabins, and then a lounge car.

The restaurant is surprisingly nice. The tablecloths and placemats are PVC, but I'm surprised to see them at all. There's even some muted decorative ironwork around the place.

The menu is full of lies: only rice and various forms of protein were available. I chose rice and fish, which arrived after just a few minutes, presumably from a microwave. But it was an impressive portion for only 3500 shillings. The fish was probably a poor choice: extracting the bones is a delicate operation, not a good idea with the train jolting along. Not bad though.

I was early for dinner, but the place filled up pretty quickly. I was joined by my English friend from before, and then by a German couple. They are members of the Lutheran church on an exchange visit, reciprocating a visit from some Tanzanians to their church in Hamburg. The're going to spend some time in Dodoma, and it sounds like they're in for a far more culturally involving experience than I am. Against them, and my English friend's medical internship out in the sticks, my own holiday seems very tame and limited. I just tell myself that I'm bound to be back in Africa at some point, and that then I'll "do it properly".

Before it got too late we wound up our conversation and headed back to our compartments. It's far too dark outside to watch the scenery go past, so I guess it's an early night for me.

Dar es Salaam Day 3 Index TAZARA Day 2