At the moment, I’m riding on a train in Sri Lanka towards Colombo.It’s not crowded, everyone has a seat, and it is ridiculously cheap. Since this is my first train here, I expected something much worse.Last night before I made my decision to take this mode of transport, I was discussing my options with a German couple. One of them asked me to tell them about my worst train experience. As I told my story, I realized I should put it in writing before I forget any more of it.
It was 25 years ago and I had just cut my teeth doing the “vagabonding” thing. I had discovered my lust for travel in Australia, spent a few months hopping trains in Europe and had decided I wanted to do something legendary. I was getting married, we needed a honeymoon, and I had six months to kill. Yes, I used to travel for six months at a time. That was before mortgage payments, car payments, insurance and all the other stuff grownups have to do. My new wife, Helen, had never really been anywhere more exotic than Cancun , so I had a surprise in store for her. We were going to Africa! We didn’t have much money (money should never stop your from traveling), so the plan was to camp out, prepare our own food and take cheap public transport. We couldn’t find a cheap ticket to Africa, so we flew to England and hitchhiked to Morocco with our gear and accommodation on our back.
Fast forward 4 months. We had racked up quite a few countries, were seasoned, had been on some wonderful adventures and were on the road, coming from Zaire, where we had visited the silver back gorillas and had seen all kinds of amazing places. Train transportation had disappeared for the most part and most of the buses were best left unridden. We managed to hitch rides all the way to the Ruwenzoris in Uganda, where it was possible to catch a train to the capital of the country, Kampala. Tickets were cheap and we could give our thumbs a rest. We were excited about anything that didn’t involve being thrown around on the back of a truck or walking for miles. Anticipation was high about our romantic rail trek until we saw the train. It wasn’t just bad. It was the worst train I have seen in my lifetime. Uganda had still not recovered from the rule of Idi Amin. The self proclaimed King of Scotland had created havoc for the country.Even though he was gone,there were many reminders of his dictatorship in plain sight. First, the train was riddled with bullet holes. There were no windows, they had all been shot out by bored soldiers. There was no assigned seating because there really weren’t any seats. There were pieces of seats. Wiry metal structures with no padding or cloth. What was left of the seating served more as lanes to maintain a little space between the sweating masses.
When we got on the train, we knew it was going to be hell. It was almost dark and there was no electricity. It was summer, it was hot and we were immersed in a sea of hot, sweaty Africans. I should point out that in Africa, there is a big difference between whites and blacks. I’m not talking about color. I’m talking about everything. There are exceptions, but as a general rule if you’re outside a larger town, it’s hard to find common ground with the villagers. Anyone who’s spent time in the “real” Africa, has probably been called a mzungu. It’s the equivalent of the N word there, except everyone uses it because they think that white people don’t know what it means. When you’ve heard it a thousand times and you’re being pointed at and people giggling at you, you figure out fairly quickly that you’re the mzungu. The point is, you’re not gonna make any friends on a train of people who live in mud huts and wear loin cloths.Most of them won’t really be into your discourses about your classes at Stanford or the amount of RAM you just added to your new computer. So, there we were: Two white dots in a sea of black. It was so crowded, I could feel people touching my pockets, stepping on my backpack and I knew that I would have no belongings by morning if I were to accidentally fall asleep.
As luck would have it, a couple more “Europeans” showed up. That’s the nice word for white people in Africa. It doesn’t matter what country you come from, you’re automatically a European. We immediately joined forces with them. There had been many times throughout the last few months when we had connected with some other mzungus and rented a train cabin together. There were no cabins to be had here, but one of the guys had a plan. We were going to bribe the dining car staff to let us stay on that car. It wasn’t fancy, but it was empty, it had locks on the door and our stuff would be safe. Bribing people in Africa was usually pretty straightforward. A few less shillings later, we were living it up in the VIP. We couldn’t figure out why they had a dining car, because there was no food being served, but who were we to argue. As the train rattled along the tracks, we talked about where we’d been, what we had seen and the other usual travel stories. We eventually whipped out our sleeping bags and passed out.
In the middle of the night, I woke up and had to go to the bathroom. It was the worst time for nature to call since there was no toilet in the dining car. I had to wake up one of the “cooks” and get him to unlock the gates of Hell. It was a little like a zombie movie; hordes of people laying on top of each other and we’re not even talking about the actual railway car. That was in that in-between spot where the bathrooms were located. There were people in front of the door. I woke them up. Inside the bathroom, there were people sleeping, crammed under the sink and sprawled out by the urinal. I was shocked that people could sleep in such a place, which made me have to go that much more. I waded through the bodies to get to the window. I thought maybe that might be an option since there was no glass. When I finally got there and prepared to do my business, I looked down at the people below me looking up at me trying to shield themselves against the inevitable splatter that happens on a moving train. I couldn’t do it. I was nervous. I didn’t want to pee on anyone. I climbed out the window like something from a bad Steven Seagal movie and after making sure I was facing downwind, hung on with one hand to the rail while balancing myself on the step while the train rumbled down the tracks. Believe it or not, it worked and I triumphantly returned to the dining car trying not to step on the zombie people.
Pretty soon the morning came. Things were going well. We had found a train loophole and Kampala was just a day away. As we smiled and bragged about our cleverness, the train screeched to a halt. We were told to get out. Not just us. Everyone. Was it an African fire drill? No one seemed to know exactly why. We could see that our time in the dining car had definitely expired when they motioned us to remove our backpacks from the car. So we sat outside and waited. We waited some more. We finally got a little bit of the story. The earlier train had derailed and there was no getting past the tons of twisted steel. We had to wait until it could be cleared. As it got later in the day and we had exhausted our “train food”, we decided we were going to have to get proactive or go hungry. There was no food being served, we were in the middle of nowhere and the only reason we didn’t have to worry about a lion eating us was that Idi Amin had shot most of them. My wife, Helen, was on her first epic trip but she had evolved quickly and had a solution to our food crisis. She walked to a small village hidden behind the trees and bought a live chicken for a few shillings. Then she took the chicken to someone who agreed to kill it and cook it for us. KFC never made chicken that fresh. I was surprised by her ingenuity, but I also realized that she had done a pretty good job of creating makeshift guacamole earlier in our trip. Anything was possible.
The day turned into night. The Africans had built a campfire and we put our sleeping bags on the ground and fell asleep. We had no idea how long we were going to be stranded. When the morning came, no solution was in sight. Communication in this part of the world and this decade were non-existent. Maybe someone had a radio. maybe they didn’t. Who really knew? We eventually ran out of travel stories and I started feeling sick…malaria sick. It was not a good place to have any kind of sickness. I was hoping that the train would get on the move so I could get to a doctor. Later that afternoon, Helen excused herself to go to the bathroom. It was a much better choice to go outside than to use the one in the train. I could go into details, but suffice it to say, the toilets are nightmarish. Many Africans have never used a Western toilet and have come up with different methods that it’s difficult to imagine. So, Helen opted for the bushes. It was a little bit of a walk to get some privacy and as she disappeared 100 yards into the savanna something happened. The train started going. Uganda trains aren’t that fast at taking off, but it had a football field head start. Helen reappeared from the bushes and started running as fast as she could screaming for the train to stop. It didn’t. Suddenly we were in another bad movie. The train is going, we’re on it, she’s not and she’s almost to the car, but slips behind. Should I jump off so that we can be deserted together? Or do I leave her behind to fend off the wild animals and make a new start for herself in the dark continent? So many choices…. At the last moment, she reached out further. I grabbed her wrist and pulled her onto the car. I’m not making this up. It really happened just like in the movies. The Europeans burst into applause and we laughed the laugh that comes after a stressful situation resolves itself. Then the train stopped.
All that drama for nothing. The train stopped. It started again. It stopped again. We weren’t really sure what was going on until we were all told to get off the train again. We soon discovered we were at the site where the other train had derailed. There was no one in the area but we could tell it wasn’t going to be moved anytime soon.
African ingenuity had come up with another plan. Rather than move the derailed train, they would just send another train to meet us on the other side of the accident. That was all fine and dandy except they didn’t have any passenger trains available. Just a cattle car train. To make things worse, it had half as many cars as the original train. I was throwing up and knew I couldn’t handle being squeezed to death for hours in a cattle car with hot stinky people. One thing I learned in Africa. Being white had it’s downfalls; higher prices and people staring at you and talking about you. However, being white had a big advantage as well. You could do just about anything you wanted and it was rarely questioned. You can be in rags and walk into the fanciest hotel in town and you’d still be treated like you were a senator or something. The Europeans made a vote. Today the white people were going to ride on top of the train. Yep. That was what we were gonna do. We climbed on top. No one stopped us, no one had us sign a release form or gave us a list of “riding on top of the train” rules. We just did it and that was that.
We positioned ourselves in the middle of the top since we knew we couldn’t really do those things that people do in Bruce Willis movies and didn’t want to die. We had air, we had room, life was good. Until we got to the tunnel. As we slowly approached the tunnel (African trains are not fast), we were all thinking the same thing. There was not enough clearance height to allow the train and us to pass through. Even if we stretched out completely flat, we were gonna lose a nose or toe in the process. It was another movie moment. Do we jump off? Do we crawl halfway down the ladder and hope the width is bigger than the height? As panic was about to set in, another miracle happened. The train stopped. From that tunnel and the next 5 or 6 that followed, the train paused for us to get on the train and then again for us to get back on top.Wow! We really were VIP.
We finally rolled into Kampala, got a place to stay and recuperate and a few days later, we were back on track on our way to Kenya. A happy ending to a crazy railroad story. As the train I’m riding right now gets more and more crowded, I can’t complain. I have a padded seat,a man is selling Sri Lankan snacks and I’m only 30 minutes from Colombo. Life is good. Even in 2nd class.