Zamblings: From Zambia to Zanzibar

Written by Val, posted by Travis.  In case you haven’t heard, the internet capabilities in sub-Saharan Africa are generally considered “subpar”, hence the inability to access WordPress effectively and the lack of pictures.  And while it is long, I assure you it will probably be the best Zambia to Zanzibar Christmas travelogue you have read this year!

I should have known that my trip was doomed the second I walked into the Serenje train station and noticed that the clock on the wall was roughly two and a half hours slow. Ok, perhaps “doomed” is too strong a word, maybe “ill-fated” or “disaster prone” would fit better. Either way, when the rest of the world uses trains to regulate their clocks and this station couldn’t even manage to be in the right timezone, I really should have known better.

Five of my friends and I decided to take a fabulous Christmas and New Years getaway to the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar. Working on my tan while drinking frosty beverages sounded like wonderful way to avoid homesickness. And really, is there a more adventurous and romantic way to get there than by train? I had images of old James Bond scenes when Sean Connery orders an extravagant dinner for his latest love interest in the dining car (“…And madam will have the lamb…”) dancing in my head. What a fool! The train travels from central Zambia all the way to Dar Es Salaam. The trip takes about two and a half days, so naturally we reserved first class sleeper cars. We were excited, even more so because we negotiated a 50% discount with our expired student ID’s. As everybody knows, a Sherry LOVES a good deal, so I was beside myself with glee as I entered the train station. So excited was I, that I didn’t even mind the shattered windows, lack of electricity and plumbing, and hoards of village children demanding that I give them my shoes and sunglasses.

As I mentioned before, I couldn’t help but notice that the clock was two and a half hours wrong. There was also a disturbing lack of TaZaRa (the train line) employees. We finally found a man who claimed to be in charge of ticket sales, and we asked about our reservations. He stared at us blankly for a moment, contacted the main office, and informed us that our reservations did not exist. We stared blankly back. It has only taken five months for us to be used to disappointment, and we have all learned how to think fast and come up with a plan D (plans A, B, and C NEVER come to fruition). We did a little fast-talking, and a little more begging, and bought whatever tickets we could get. Luckily for us, we were told, there were a few tickets left. Not in first class, or second, but third. If we played our cards right, we would get on the train and then work our way up to first class. We jumped at the opportunity. We just wanted to be moving toward the beach… did it really matter in what condition we traveled? Readers… the answer is “Yes”. A strong and resounding “YES”.

The train (obviously) arrived very late. We climbed in and got seated in the dining car where we were told to wait until a car was found for us. I ordered a coke and chatted with some British tourists and a young missionary couple from America. About two hours passed without a single conductor speaking to us. Finally it dawned on us that we were forgotten and that the tickets we bought were for a seat that didn’t really exist. After tracking down a man who looked like he knew what was going on, we were led to the bar car and shown some threadbare and smelly (even by African standards) couches. Our accommodations for two nights were two tiny love seats between six people and a sticky floor. In a bar. It seemed that my life had hit an all time low. After we sat in silence for a moment, we all started to laugh. What else could we do? I found the bathroom, which didn’t have a light and was just a hole in the floor, and soon discovered that peeing standing up in a moving train in the dark cannot possibly end well. At this point, it was pretty late.

Sleeping is the best time-killer, so we all gave it our best shot. I stretched out on the floor and finally drifted off (holding my purse tightly to my chest, because the train is full of thieves), only to be awoken by Megan yelling ‘AHH! I just saw two fatty rats running by you!’ I shrugged and fell back asleep. I think we all only succeeded in getting about 2 hours of sleep before we gave up and watched the sunrise reflected off the linoleum table tops. Not quite the romantic moment I had imagined. The train ran out of water, so I couldn’t even wash the exhaustion out of my eyes before I went to help Megan negotiate for a soon-to-be-available first class car. The conductor was tired, we were tired, and the conversation did not go as smoothly as we may have wanted. At one point the conductor informed Megan that he would only deal with me. “Why?” I asked. “Because you don’t talk much. This one, she talks too much and isn’t very nice.” I could only manage to look shocked. I mean, it’s not everyday those words are said to me. Let’s be honest. But Megan responded with “Oh. You like women who don’t talk back? In America men like women with opinions.” I suppressed a giggle, jabbed her with an elbow, and we successfully weaseled our way into a sleeper car.

Needless to say, when we finally pulled into the station at Dar, we were thrilled. We were actually singing Christmas carols with our new missionary friends upon our arrival. It was a wonderful feeling! We practically jumped out the windows with our backpacks in our haste to get to our hotel so we could shower and sleep. We hired the first mode of transportation we could find, which ended up being a mini trailer pulled by a motorcycle. I’m pretty sure they are meant for luggage, but the driver accepted our offer, helped us climb in the back, and sped off into the mean streets of Dar weaving in and out of traffic and running red lights. We were on the homestretch, and we barely paid any mind to the police officers that pulled us over and then proceeded to escort us to our hotel. I felt like it was a modern version of the triumphal entry. I would have demanded palm fronds to be thrown on the street as I stepped down from the trailer, but it was the wrong holiday. Oh well.

The next week and a half were a blur of sunshine, seafood, cute dresses, and awkward tan lines. Ah, what a vacation. If you have a chance to go to Zanzibar, you should take it. It was gorgeous! All six of us felt refreshed, clean, and well-fed. We were ready to face the terrors of the train again. Or, so we thought. We heard a nasty rumor that the train was sold out. TaZaRa only leaves on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and since we had to be in Lusaka for conferences right after our vacation, we started to get a little anxious. Well, I was. Most Peace Corps volunteers are much better at rolling with the punches than I am, so I kept my worries to myself. Once again we pleaded for any tickets we could get. Third class was the only place available, so we bought the tickets hoping that we could work our way up to first class again. We raced, literally, onto the train to claim our seats.

I feel as if I need to describe a third class car on an African train. Readers, it is what nightmares are made of. People were sitting in the aisles, huge sacks of fish were being passed through the windows, babies were screaming, children were pouting, adults were arguing, and everybody was staring at us. Six Mazungus did NOT belong in third class. I don’t know much Swahili, but it doesn’t take a linguist to know when you are being talked about. A few hours of being crammed next to hundreds of mildly hostile and very sweaty bodies was all it took to begin the begging-for-seats ritual. This time around we used a combination of befriending people who already had sleeping compartments (in this case, a semi-attractive Italian and his British friend) and charming one of the older conductors. We all found a bed in somebody else’s car. I fell asleep with a group of 5 other Zambian strangers, and was cruelly woken up when half of the top bunk broke off the wall, threatening to crush the passengers in the two bunks beneath it. How did I handle that? Well, the same way I handled the rats. I put my earplugs in and went back to sleep. We spent the rest of the train ride trying to avoid the conductors so that we wouldn’t have to pay for our ‘upgrade’. I hit a new low, once again.

We were almost successful, too, but they found us late the second night as we were all dozing off. That same night Emily’s cash and passport were stolen out of the sleeper car. The passport was found 7K from one of the railroad stations. If any of us had the energy to have been angry, maybe we would have attempted it. We only had enough energy to pour ourselves into a cab and go to the central province peace corps house for a cold shower.

We all arrived safe and relatively sound in Serenje yesterday. Spending almost six full days in a loud, smelly, cramped, and dirty train is a nightmare I hope never to have to repeat. I will say this, however: It is hard to stay cranky when you can look out your window (which inevitably is held open by a crowbar or well-placed stone, or both) and see mountains obscured by low clouds, endless fields, giraffes, baboons, and enough stars to make you weep. Living in Africa, I am discovering, is like running a marathon. When you cross the finish line you are sweaty and sore, but you can’t help but smile.


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One Response to Zamblings: From Zambia to Zanzibar

  1. Doug. says:


    your train ride sounded like it would be really fun if i was getting paid alot of money and racing to win a huge prize. thanks for keeping us updated, Mear and I are praying for you. We miss you.

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