“I settled down with a lukewarm beer, bought from the dim restaurant cabin, to go alongside one dense muffin and a couple of biscuits. In a strange way, I was immensely happy at that point of the journey. I was suffering from a distinct lack of sleep and was for the most part uncomfortable, but I stretched my legs out onto the seats opposite and finally figured out how to close the window to protect myself from the blisteringly cold air, sipping on my beer and nibbling at my muffin. The train rumbled, noisily, shakily, creaking along rusty railway lines: we were moving, not very fast, but moving through the dark African night. There’s nothing quite like being on the move in Africa.”
This excerpt is from my account of my trip on the TAZARA train from Mbeya to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Looking back, I feel that you could justifiably question the motives behind my supposed happiness: I had arrived in Mbeya the night before after a full day on packed minibus taxi’s that took me from gorgeous, relaxing Malawi to moody, brisk Tanzania. I then spent the night tossing and turning on a threadbare couch, before being told that first- and second-class cabin tickets were sold out for the TAZARA. This was followed by a 9-hour wait in Mbeya train station because the train was, predictably, delayed.
So there I was. The stub of a ‘super-saver’ ticket stuffed safely into my pocket, sitting on a hard train seat under stuffy, sickly-yellow lights, dirty windows showing nothing but the black night; I was tightly gripping my warm beer and tasteless muffin, stomach rumbling, back aching, eyes drooping, longing for the cool waters and picturesque sunsets of Lake Malawi.
And yet, still, inexplicably, I was happy.
I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my Cape-Cairo public transport trip of November/December 2014. I travelled through 8 countries, largely by bus or train, only having to break my public transport rule on the plane from Nairobi in Kenya to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia because of the incredibly inconvenient Visa regulations of Ethiopia (I could only get a Visa on arrival at the airport as opposed to getting one at the border). It was, in all, a fast, uncompromising journey, for which at least half of the time I was physically travelling: stuffed in the back of a minibus taxi, cramped against the window of a bus, or, as in this case, trying to get comfortable on train carriages (the ferry ride up Lake Nasser from Sudan to Egypt was a glorious respite from the stop start motion of the road/railway).
There are lots of arguments against making a trip of this sort at the pace at which I did. The most persuasive of these argued that I would not be able to properly gauge the culture, personality or emotions of the countries through which I raced. For instance, I spent just three days in Zambia, staying only in Livingstone and leaving Lusaka on a bus basically as soon as I arrived. How could I possibly say that I’d ‘experienced’ Zambia? How could I have learnt anything from such a short stay in one of the most fascinating countries on the continent?
Once my trip was over, I remember flicking through the notebooks in which I wrote my musings on an almost hourly basis. In particular, I remember flicking through the Tanzania notebook and stopping on a page where I had written, with a stodgy pencil, ‘I’m happy.’ And then I thought back to the TAZARA on which I had written those words, and realised that I was indeed inexhaustibly happy at that very moment, warm beer and all, ahead of the 25-hour train journey through the heart of Tanzania.
And that got me thinking. To me, this trip wasn’t about the time I spent in each individual country. It wasn’t about the destinations, the tourist attractions, the relaxing afternoons on Lake Malawi with cold beers (as nice as that was!). This trip was about the spaces in between the destinations, the bus trips, the train journeys, and, perhaps most importantly, the people who filled those oblong metal death traps alongside me.
Anton Crone writes that “the spaces between allowed me to catch a breath, reflect on where I had been, and imagine the place to come” (for Africa Geographic Magazine). I would go further: these journeys that I made, across hundreds of kilometres around many potholes and much livestock, created countless opportunities to engage with the people of the nation through which I was travelling. What better way to gauge the culture, personality and emotions of a country than by engaging with her people?
To reflect on an earlier example, my three days in Zambia happened to fall just after the untimely death Michael Sata, their former President. As such, it was a time of mourning, yet, as I learnt, also a time of celebration for those wishing to concentrate on the legacy Sata had left behind. My short time in Lusaka, waiting for my bus to the Malawian border, was filled with an enthralling conversation with a (slightly drunk) man about what Sata meant to Zambia. My journey on the bus itself, continuously interrupted by ill-timed punctures, was characterised by conversations with Zambians about themselves and their country.
That, I found, was the magic of public transport. When you’re stuffed in the back of a minibus taxi, cramped against the window of a bus or trying to get comfortable on train carriages, all for hours on end, you don’t really have a choice but to engage with those around you. I truly believe that that is how to ‘experience’ a place, no matter the timeframe for which you are there.
And so, I was indeed happy on that train. I was happy on the first bus from Cape Town, on the minibus taxi in Malawi, on the tuk-tuk in Kenya, on the camel in Sudan and on the ferry to Egypt (though, admittedly, I was not so happy on the plane from Kenya). In fact, my lowest points were at the ‘destinations,’ so to say: in Lalibela in Ethiopia for example, alone and dark and out of money in a budget room with no working electricity at 7pm, having been told I would have to fork out $50 to see the world-renowned rock-hewn churches, the images of which would surely slip out of my mind some time later. In contrast, the conversations I had with the police officer in the bus on the way to Lalibela, and my subsequent conversations with his family when he invited me to his house for coffee, will stay with me for a lot longer.
The quick pace with which I completed my trip was designed for engagements of this kind. All my energy was concentrated on those moments and those conversations while I sped on dirt roads and creaking railways through an endlessly fascinating and beautiful continent. Because, past all the bullshit bureaucracy and corrupt leadership, there’s nothing quite like being on the move in Africa.