Getting to the train station wasn’t much of a big deal, but getting ON the train was unforgettable.
At first all was normal. Well, normal for Africa. Back home if people are taking a train ride, they carry a suitcase or two, maybe a backpack.
Here, there were entire families, all carrying enormous baskets of stuff and those huge woven square plastic bags and chicken cages and anything you can think of.
A family of four probably had enough packs to fill a house, and I figured every passenger waiting for the train with us was moving houses or something. I just couldn’t comprehend how much they were carrying.
While waiting for the train to arrive, it was kinda the calm before the storm. Everyone was just laying or sitting on the concrete platform, patiently waiting.
That calm stopped, and storm began, when an official looking guy in a conductor’s hat called out something unintelligible, and the herd stood up and stampeded.
I can’t remember who, but minutes before this, someone in our group pointed out that there were no assigned seating on our tickets, and that maybe we should make our way to the front near the tracks, to make sure we got seats together. Genius.
When the stampeded happened we were luckily already cluttered at the front, but we were instantly and completely engulfed by a angry wave of previously docile old ladies and kids and all kinds of people carrying those huge pack, all trying to shove their way past us and between us and through us.
The conductor felt pity on us idiot tourists, and when the train came to a stop he basically grabbed a couple of us at the front and shoved us to the door and tried to block the hoard. He could only hold them back long enough for a few of us to get in at first, me not included.
The little group of us that got pushed 15 or 20 people back of the hoard, shouted up to the rest of the group up front to get us all seats together, because by the look of things, the car we were trying to get into would be full within minutes.
When I was finally able to get into the train car, after being elbowed and shoved around by multiple grannies (they were worse than the rest), I saw a pretty funny site.
Sarah, one of the other students, was laid over the top of three rows of seats holding off other passengers from sitting there. it was pretty hilarious to see her laying on top of those seat-tops, waving people away as they tried to sit, or even physically pushing them away.
Kenny, another student in the group, was doing the same one the other side of the isle, saving a few more seats. So, by some miracle, we all sat together.
The train station had sold the right number of seats, but they don’t account for how much stuff one person brings with them. And since there was no empty seats anywhere, the luggage compartment above was filled immediately, and then the aisle went next.
families of 5 would be sharing two seats, but have enough household items with them that could fill five more, all packed in around their seats in the foot spaces, isle and overhead.
Every row was like this, and it seemed like there was no room anywhere. I saw bundles of veggies, cages of chickens, a microwave, bags of blankets, and tons of boxes with unknown content, each with a string wrapped around it to use as a carry handle.
Once everything was semi-settled and the train started moving, it was pretty exciting. We were soon out of the city, and started to see the South African countryside.
The countryside I was seeing reminded me a lot of what Australia looked like on TV shows I’d seen, with a lot of red-colored desert with little shrubs or short trees dotted here and there, and the occasional little farm with fenced in cows or whatever else.
It really started to feel more like Africa than Jo’Berg did. I even saw my first wild ostriches, as a small herd got up and raced the slow train down the tracks for a minute before peeling off towards the desert hills. Or are they called a flock?
I actually asked around later, and found out that it was a better chance that those ostrich were domesticated and on someone’s farm, then actually being wild. But it was still wild seeing them.
The landscape wasn’t always red desert. A lot of it was light green or brown pastures, with green bushes growing on the fence lines, with a lone tree popping up here and there, a lot of times with some cows shading underneath.
The landscape was new to me and interesting, but inside the train was more so.
There was an economy in the cars, that I would could only describe as stealth vending. Selling beer and cigarette was apparently against the rules, but that didn’t stop a few ambitious sales men from trying.
These guys would walk through the whole train, car by car, with a little orange basket, covered by a cloth. When they got into the next car they would make sure there was no conductor in site, then pull out a beer and a pack of cigarettes, and slowly walk down the isle asking if a anyone wanted some.
There were also people going car to car selling candy and fruit and other snacks, but they weren’t hiding, so thats why I assume the alcohol and tobacco were against the rules. Probably because the train had a restaurant car that sold the same.
One time as the beer guy was walking through our car, the conductor walked in. The beer guy must have had a sixth sense for this, and quickly sat next to me and covered his loot.
I was seriously confused and hoping that he wasn’t going to sit there the whole trip, as that seat had just been freed up by a disembarking passenger, and i finally had some stretching room.
But it became clear what he was up to, when the conductor came around to check new passengers’ tickets, and the beer guy acted like he was just another rider. As soon as he moved to the next car, beer guy stood up and continued selling his stuff in the opposite direction again.
Of course on that long ride, our group bought plenty of that cheap beer, and we all wanted to try a new local beer, so stayed away from the Heineken and tried others like Mitchell’s and Castle and Amstel and Sterling Lager. Even one called Black Label.
It was a seriously long and hot and stuffy ride, so all of them were great.
I did see a guy die though.
Every once in a while we would go stretch our legs, walk through all the cars, or go stand in-between cars to get air. The connecting space between cars was open, and the only good place to get some fresh air.
People went there to smoke, have a whiskey, whatever. On one of the times when me and a couple other fellow students went to this place at the back of our car, there was a man that we had seen, who had kept on buying these small bottles of whiskey called White Horse, and was getting visibly more and more belligerent.
He was standing there with a few other South Africans, all talking loudly and drunkenly. All of the sudden the man yells “watch this!” and with whiskey bottle in hand, does a running front flip off the side of the train.
We all ran to the edge to look in amazement and amusement, but then quickly realized that there was small chance he could survive that. We watched as he cartwheeled and rag dolled over the black, baseball-sized rocks surrounding the tracks.
The train was going pretty fast by then, maybe 50 miles per hour, and there was just no way to survive that violence we had just seen.
One of the train people had seen it too, and immediately called for the train to stop. We came to a rest a little while later, and could only imagine the officials walking back to the guy down the tracks, and calling an ambulance.
We sat there for a few hours, baking in the not-airconditioned cars, which had previously been tolerable only because of the wind coming in the windows.
By now it was already getting dark. The ticket person told us the train ride was 12 hours, and right now it had already been 12, and the conductor said we were maybe half way. This was definitely the adventure we hoped.
We spent our time playing cards, exploring the cars and people watching, and eating tons of snacks that passing vendors sold us, which were usually chips. Chips like Frittos, Nik Naks, Simbas, Chipniks and home-made banana chips.
We were having a hard time sleeping in those uncomfortable seats, and since we had paid for the cheapest option possible, we had no other choice. But we decided to ask a conductor if he could give us one sleeper room, that was empty still, for a discount.
The Lonely Planet had suggested it was possible to bribe the train staff to let us into unbooked rooms in the sleeper car, and they were right.
We split the bribe money for the room, and took shifts sleeping, since there were only four beds. It felt awesome to get to stretch out finally, and our room had a little fan and ceiling window.
At morning time, after my turn in a bed, I came back to my seat, where the other’s were keeping an eye on the backpacks of the sleepers. Like the others, my backpack was chained to the luggage rack, with a bike lock cable i had brought for the occasion.
When I happened to glance up at the luggage rack on the other side of the isle, I was shocked to see Kenny had moved some bags, crawled up onto that tiny space, and went to sleep.
It was hilarious seeing him sleeping in the luggage racks overhead, and I’m sure the others were as jealous as me.
Sometimes I would go watch some locals play a board game called Bao, which I saw being played all around the train in every car, especially seats with tables, or even just when guys could set up a piece of luggage to use as a table.
Eventually, them being as curious about me as I was about them, people started asking me to join so they could teach me the game.
Bao is basically a strategic game, played on a wooden mancala board comprising of four rows of eight pits each, two rows for each person. Each player gets about 30 little counters or pieces, usually made from big seeds, but I also saw people placing with shells and anything they could find.
Its a little hard to catch on to a new strategic board game, when the teachers are speaking Swahili or Africaans, but I slowly started to get better at it.
I can’t explain all the rules here, but basically you want to move the pieces (seeds) until your opponent either has no seeds left, or has no moves left.
I really didn’t explain that very well, and its actually a ton more fun than it seems. Its more popular in Eastern Africa they say, and there, being a Bao Master or bingwa is a big honor. Maybe like a chess master in the west?
I ended up playing many games throughout the train cars, with a lot of different locals. It was kind of a glimpse into their culture, so to speak.
Considering there isn’t a whole lot of things to do on a long train, this trip was pretty eventful. Obviously eventful for a whole chapter at least.
I was still on my natural high that I had gotten talking to David back at the hostel, and nothing could get me down. Not the constant oven-like heat, or the lack of sleep or being hours and hours behind schedule. Everything was new, and so it was exciting.
Speaking of my epiphany with David, and discovering what was possible in life, on the train ride i had another thing happen that seemed like a strong sign that I was on the right path.
Professor Chad gave me a book to read called The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau. As I started getting into this book, I realized that this guy was talking to me. His message was for me, and it was perfect timing. How did Chad know to bring this?
The author tells about his unconventional life, as he visits every country in the world, and uses it to educate himself at a far higher level than a college degree could ever do, and for cheaper.
Like David, Chris talks about what is actually possible, as opposed to what normal American society deems possible or acceptable, but he also lists a ton of benefits, and reasonable reasons why you should do it. He was talking to me, like i said.
Eventually, after 26 hours on that train, we rolled into Cape Town, a much different city and vibe than Jo’Berg, and trudged tiredly through the city towards Long Street, where Lonely Planet said were the most hostels.