One of the benefits of living in Nairobi is its central positioning within Kenya, making it relatively easy to travel within country.
In fact, the coast is only an hour away by plane, whether you fly into the northern beaches or the southern ones.
How easy, right?
Well, we decided for this, the inaugural trip to the coast, that we didn’t want it easy. If there’s one thing I learned living and working in DRCongo, adversity and adventure usually go hand in hand.
With that in mind, four of us decided that we’d take the 14+ hour train ride from Nairobi to Mombasa. Hey, it can’t be called the Lunatic Express for nothing, right?
The railway was built around 1896, as part of Britain’s attempts to dominate the continent.
I’m not really sure that the railway has since been upgraded.
Visiting the station felt like a time machine. Hand-painted signs just echoed this very palpable faded glory within the “terminal” — an area that would harshly vacillate between painfully shabby and newly upgraded.
We managed to get cabins together, although the woman who’d been assigning them was apparently doing the whole allotment by hand, writing on top of carbon paper, and complained a lot before just moving one of our cabins next to the other. With whiteout.
It’s a tough job, apparently.
We’d booked 2 first class sleeper cabins for 2 each — the price doesn’t seem standardized if you go through a booking agency, because they apparently add on a fee for having collected your tickets; Julien paid ~$60. I paid $75.
The cabins were laughably small, but indeed connected! They came complete with two couch-like “mattresses” — a netting for the top bunk to keep you from tumbling in the night…hopefully.
I imagine that once, these cars were magnificent. They had in-room fans, drinking water apparati, a sink, a shelf…all leather interior…
Except that the fans that hadn’t been stolen didn’t work, nor did the drinking water nozzle, and the leather looked a little more than well-loved.
But we weren’t in the train for luxury…it was for adventure!
Apparently they think hanging out of the windows is super dangerous.
Julien doesn’t read signs.
I contend that maybe he was too busy to read the sign because he was looking for toilet paper. Or Purell. Or salvation.
Oh, no worries you can just wash your hands extra well after a visit to this bathroom.
…or not. It didn’t really matter, because the bathroom sink didn’t work anyway.
Funnily, when they came to make our beds, where one would usually find a mint, there was instead a tiny bar of soap. Hint. hint hint hint.
There is a certain calming element, feeling the rocking motion of the train and the rhythmic clack clacking.
It makes you not really care about the long night or the tight space.
And boy was the space tight:
To obtain a special dialing wand, mash keyboard now.
I will confess that the food was dreadful. We were thankfully 4 people so we didn’t have to share a tiny booth in the dining car with other patrons. As it was, we didn’t get to eat until the “second wave” so our dinner bell didn’t ring until nearly 9.
Dishwater puts this soup to shame
Had we been sitting with other passengers, we probably would have had to contain the bad faces we made upon seeing/eating the “mushroom soup” that was served to us. At least it was vegetarian for poor Lisa, whose other vegetarian options included boiled rice and fried potatoes.
We made ourselves gin & tonics shakily and collapsed into our awkward beds, lulled by the train sounds.
And when I woke up for the horror march to the shared toilet, what greeted me but the most extraordinary view of the sunrise across the Tsavo.
Was I filthy, smelling vaguely of the stale mildew odor of my bedding? Sure. Was I in desperate need of toilet paper and/or Purell? Absolutely.
But standing in the aisle and getting to see the sun crest over the horizon will be emblazoned in my brain forever.
The novelty of the train starts to wear after 12 hours, but because we’d encountered delays, by our anticipated arrival time of 10am we were still 100km away.
Coupled with sticky heat and a rapidly diminishing supply of electricity (of which there is none on the train for patrons), we played Cranky Uno. Much like regular Uno, but with more Spiteful Draw 4s.
We were halfway into Blade Runner on the iPad when the train came to a halt, and a man came by to let us know that the cargo train ahead of us on the tracks had derailed and that we would be stuck for “some hours.”
15km away from our destination, we pressed him for options. The train company refused to pay for a taxi for the rest of our journey, and instead offered us the price of the trip between our stopping point, Mazeras, and our original destination, Mombasa.
Which was a whopping 105 shillings. Approximately TWO WHOLE DOLLARS. There was a bit of maniacal joy in his face as he told us that in order to collect this vast sum, we would have to head to the Mombasa Railway Station customer service counter. There are some battles you wage over money here, but clearly, this was not going to be one of them.
A town without cable — 6 kids crowd around to watch a guy scrape shit from his shoe.
So we piled off in this middle of nowhere town, the TOWN excitement of the year as we proceeded to be surrounded by 20-25 children and one random man who insisted on serenading us on his guitar happily, despite only knowing 3 songs, one of which was “Jambo Bwana,” which is akin to a Swahili incarnation of <s>the devil</s> “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
Our pals who’d
smartly flown into Mombasa already had a taxi, so weren’t we glad that within 1 hour, they’d come to get us.
The train sat idle as we drove away. I wonder if it ever moved.
Even despite our foibles and mushroom soup, I’m so so glad that I rode the train, especially for the fact that I don’t need to do it again.