Friday, May 6, 2011

The Night Train to Mombasa

I visited Nairobi, Kenya in December, 2010. I was nervous about visiting Nairobi, nicknamed “Night-robbery,” because of its terrible reputation for being a dangerous city. In the end, however, my curiosity overruled any concerns I had for my safety and I simply had to see East Africa's largest and most dynamic city.
I arrived in Nairobi on a Tuesday afternoon from Juba. I spent the night at the Flora Guest House near the main hospital and close to downtown. The Flora had been recommended to me by a friend of a friend who had lived in Kenya for several years. The Guest House was great! Clean, quiet and set within a Roman Catholic religious community, it was populated by guests who were seeking the same quiet evening's rest as was I. Also, coming from Sudan, I was beside myself with pleasure at being able to have running hot water in the shower! Such luxuries are rare in Sudan. I was like a kid playing with the hot water dial, turning it up and down and giggling – literally giggling – at being able to enjoy a hot shower.
Contrary to what I expected, I found Nairobi to be a welcoming, fascinating city and not at all the Hell on Earth I expected from the descriptions of other writers (especially Paul Theroux, my favorite author but something of a curmudgeon. I read Theroux to find out how bad a place might be and then expect my actual experience to be somewhat better.) During my day I visited Isak Dineson's home, a high priority and something which I enjoyed greatly. At the insistence of my driver, Jacob – a very good fellow and the ideal way to visit Nairobi. If anyone needs a great driver, contact me! - I also visited a couple of wildlife sanctuaries, one for baby elephants and one for giraffes. These places were fine, but my main interests during my one day in Nairobi were experiencing enough of the city to make a judgment about it and visiting the Kenyan Railway Museum. I finally got to the latter sometime in the afternoon.
The Kenyan Railway Museum is located near the main train station in the heart of downtown. Like most train stations located in large cities the area around the train station had seen better days and at first glance seemed a little on the rough side. But I experienced no trouble during my visit. The Museum is housed in a large former railway shed and contains a first rate collection of artifacts covering all aspects of the development of railways in East Africa. This is not the place to discuss in detail the Museum, but suffice it to say that it is definitely worth a visit if you are interested in trains and how they effected the development of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
I had made my reservation for a berth on the night train from Nairobi to Mombasa earlier via email with a Kenyan travel agent through a link from the Kenyan Railways' web site. I booked a first class ticket which entitled me to a berth in a two-berth room complete with a wash basin. Also, by booking first class I received dinner and breakfast the next morning. My ticket cost around $70-US dollars, a bargain considering that an air flight covering the same distance cost around $400. Instead, I got a nice bed, two great meals and the time and leisure of seeing eastern Kenyan at ground level.
At the the ticket office at the main Nairobi station I picket-up my ticket and was told to wait for about an hour until the train was ready to board. This was around 5-o'clock in the evening and the station was absolutely packed with locals cramming onto trains after a day's work in the city. I waited in a corner of the waiting room enjoying the ever pleasant pastime of people watching. It didn't take much imagination to figure out whom my traveling companions would be: safari-clothed Europeans or scroungy, jeans and t-shirt wearing Americans and euro-trash.
The train was due to leave around 7:05pm, but by 6:30 I had not yet heard any announcement, so I went out and walked up and down the platform by the long train which was positioned on the first track. I walked up and down a portion of the train looking for anyone I could ask but saw no one who looked like they knew anything. In fact, just the opposite occurred – I was approached by a young American who was traveling with his mother and who asked if I knew what was going on. I said no but as it was getting close to when we should be leaving we needed to figure things out quickly. Walking back towards the heart of the length of train cars (there must have been two-dozen cars at least making-up the train) we found a porter waiting by one of the car-doors who told us that this indeed was the overnight train to Mombasa and welcomed us aboard.
I had a minor panic – I'd been carrying my ticket in the same pocket inside my suit jacket where I always carry my papers but just before this moment when the young fellow asked me about the train I'd taken my ticket out to look at it and absentmindedly put it back in a different pocket. The porter asked me for my ticket and suddenly crap!, “where's my freeking ticket??” In a panic I rummaged through all my pockets and in the last pocket finally found my ticket and was able to board! Disaster averted!
My berth was cozy and I was lucky to be the only passenger to enjoy it, being spared the misery of getting an awful roommate (although, as this was a voyage of discovery I also missed-out on the opportunity to have someone with whom to compare notes which could have been great.) I was on car 2015, berth C. The equipment was British-built, circa 1960's and ran upon the British built meter-gauge rail line from Nairobi to Mombasa overnight. Returning westwards the train travels more during the day so you get to see more of Kenya, including through some of the animal preserves near Nairobi.
Our train left Nairobi five minutes late. Nairobi is at elevation 5453-feet above sea level (which made for quite a chilly morning when I awoke that day, the first cold I had felt in more than half a year.) The ride was smooth and comfortable upon the jointed rail. It was interesting to see that Kenyan Railways still used semaphore signals, something the US had mostly phased out a half-century ago. Still, no sense replacing what works and everything seemed to run perfectly well upon my journey.
I'd hoped to have the choice of which seating I would have for dinner, wanting to go to the second so I didn't feel rushed to vacate my seat, but unfortunately I was automatically assigned to the first seating. Dinner was served in a proper dining car with linen table cloths, heavy cutlery and courses served by waiters sporting jackets and ties. I sat with two young scruffy Danish guys. One was living in Dar es Salaam and seemed to be a professional student, the other was his buddy who was visiting Africa for a month.
Dinner was a really good Spanish-style dish, chicken cooked in lots of vegetables and herbs and served with rice. Before that we'd had soup and a salad (what a treat to eat salad since I normally have to avoid fresh veggies unless we prepare them), and after the main course we had cake. The food was well prepared and expertly served.
I was reading Nadine Gordimer's novel Burger's Daughter at the time and after dinner, after writing-up my trip notes I enjoyed the quiet and the gentle swaying of the train to read. I found the novel well written even if the story wasn't terribly engaging. Difficult as it is to find English language books where I live, next time I'm in a big city I'll have to try and find more Gordimer to see if I can continue to admire her skill as a writer but with a different story.
As happens when you are sitting in a lighted space and peering out into the darkness the night is a void, a shapeless, detail-less space. But when I turned out the light around 10pm to go to bed the outside world became alive thanks to the three-quarters full moon which shone brightly upon the Kenyan landscape. I dropped the screen covering the window and pressed my face to the edge of the darkness, standing a full hour watching Kenya pass by. I could see mountains and wilderness, and every now and then a light demarcating a small hamlet.
Occasionally we would stop, apparently just waiting for a clear signal because the waits were never long, more inconvenience, really. But evidently the locals know of these places where the train stops because in every seemingly desolate place where the train would stop I could see in the moonlit darkness people, children mainly, standing looking expectantly towards the train. As I would witness the next morning, it's quite customary for passengers to throw sweets to the local children along the line and the fact that it was nearing mid-night was no exception! Sorry for these children but I had no sweets with me, not even any biscuits to offer.
Sleep that night was good, a little difficult but that's mainly due to my own idiosyncrasies of having difficulty always of sleeping in a new place. I sometimes find travel tiring because I'm always uncomfortable sleeping in strange places, which is basically what traveling entails, doesn't it? But I managed to sleep until dawn the next morning when I awoke eager to again spend hours watching Kenya pass by my window.
Waking, I immediately went to look out the window and caught a glimpse of dawn breaking over eastern Kenya, the sky orangery-red near the horizon while as yet dark above. The landscape out my window when I awoke was fairly flat and had the feel, to me, of being near the ocean. I knew we were heading towards Mombasa which is on the Indian Ocean and so thought that we were near the coast and that our ride would too soon be over. But actually we were little more than half-way to Mombasa, it's just that eastern Kenya is a land of great variation in its topography: flat and sandy one moment, steep and hilly the next.
I prepared myself and enjoyed a proper English breakfast: a fried egg, sausages, bacon and thick sliced toast with butter and jam. My only deviation was in preferring fresh brewed coffee over tea. What joy to enjoy real milk in my coffee as opposed to powdered milk like in Sudan! I sat with a Kenyan lady named Valentine who actually lived in the US and was home visiting. With her were two of her young cousins while her elderly mother remained in their berth. Valentine had been living in the US for many years on a “student” visa. I think she occasionally took a course but mainly just worked. It hardly seemed the time or place to mention that people that live and work in our country while supposedly students infuriates many Americans. Still, Valentine was charming and we enjoyed a nice meal together.
Returning to my berth I dropped the window-screen and poked my head-out (in total violation of the rules.) I wasn't the only one, all along the length of the train I could see people doing likewise as we enjoyed seeing Kenya pass by. The landscape was gently rolling lightly green hills dotted with small scale farms and mud tukels, the look of east Africa. All along, everywhere, no matter how remote, would be waving children hoping for a sweet to be tossed to them. The train passes by about once a day, and it was sad to see children from a distance running for all they were worth knowing they would never reach the tracks in time to even hope to beg for a sweet. Oh well, better luck tomorrow. It actually made me uncomfortable watching the children begging and then scrambling like animals for whatever was tossed their way. The psychology of giving and begging becomes complicated and confusing in these situations. I had nothing to give and so just watched the spectacle in silence.
There were still a number of old stations along the line complete with adjacent signal towers. The controls for switches and signals were controlled manually by a station agent. Large levers were connected to signals via thin metal wires using pulleys where necessary. A station agent could sit in his signal tower and control the aspect of signals a tenth of a mile away or more.
The Railway still used paper train orders which were handed up to the crews of of passing trains using train order hoops. I'd only read about such operations in history books – what a treat to still see a railway being run using such methods! I was experiencing railroading from a generation or two before my time. How wonderful it is to step out of our one's own world-frame and see the world through different eyes and experience how others live.
Onwards we continued and although we were nearing Mombasa the topography belied the fact that the ocean was not far away. We passed through steep hills and I could see a deep river gorge a distance away. We even traversed one loop around a mountain-top wherein we passed over and then under ourselves as the train lost elevation on our rush to the sea.
Closer we came to Mombasa and when we got about 20-miles out suddenly signs of urbanization appeared as we began to pass industrial areas and many homes and people. Near Mombasa there is a small private rail line which serves a chemical plant and we saw an engine and some tank cars from this operation – wonderful for a train spotter like me.
The amount of urbanization became complete and soon there were people and houses and buildings everywhere. The city center loomed ahead at one point as we descended downwards and I could see the skyscrapers. By this point I was feeling rather sad that my trip would soon end, so pleasant had been the journey. Some friends that had taken the trip before said they'd been left sitting a long time owing to equipment failures, something to which I wouldn't have entirely objected. But my trip was almost perfect, we would arrive only a short time late, not enough to even bother about.
Mombasa station is at elevation 18-meters, around 58-feet. We'd dropped around 5400-feet elevation coming from Nairobi to Mombasa and you could feel it. Mombasa was hot and humid, and upon entering the city it seemed chaotic, noisier and dirtier than Nairobi. I decided rather quickly that I preferred Nairobi. Mombasa also has a strong Muslim population and this was evident in the architecture and character of the city. I saw many women dressed in bhurkas, only their eyes being revealed. Down by the waterfront was a warren of narrow alleyways and interesting buildings with elaborately carved doorways and shops selling African junk to tourists. Away from the water the city just seemed like a hustling, bustling center of commerce, an Atlanta or Omaha in a different setting.
I had a day to kill in Mombasa before traveling on to Zanzibar via cruise ship. When you are alone and visiting a place lacking in charm or attractions a day can seem like an eternity. But the night train from Nairobi to Mombasa is an excellent adventure, well worth the modest cost. Next time I'll have to bring bags of candies for the children.