Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Original Lunatic Express, Delayed

Sitting in the relative splendor of the Royal Castle Hotel, originally built as The Palace in 1909, in Mombassa, Kenya. Ceiling fans on the high ceilinged verandah, the hedge of palms and mother-in-law tongue a buffer from the heat and sun and frenetic street.

Arrived last night on the slow bus from Tanga, after pulling into Tanga on the slow bus from Dar es Salaam, all the while ruminating on just how much money insulates, especially in the third world. Indeed, it’s no wonder that the rich live longer, healthier lives.

Life out there is harsh: the air is polluted; the water is full of who knows what; the sun is intense, unrelenting, unless a sudden rainstorm is driving down. In buses and mini-vans, known as daladalas, passengers are squished together like chickens on their way to the slaughterhouse. There is no respite: the clanging of horns and shouting; dirt, dust and mud; heat and dampness – my senses get overwhelmed by the raw elements from which there is no relief. The exhaust alone can be overpowering. For a while it poured rain yesterday and the bus’s roof leaked: big steady drops fell on my legs.

Well, there’s relief for me – after suffering last night in the New Palm Tree hotel – broken toilet, no hot water – I hit the Royal Castle.

We got stuck on the Kenya/Tanzanian border last night for two hours. No food, a couple of wooden benches on which to sit, all because two passengers were without passports and got kicked off the bus at the Tanzanian exit yard. Six miles further in, at the official Kenyan frontier, their luggage was discovered still on the bus. The authorities were flummoxed, hence the long wait, which left us hurtling through the darkness past villages glowing in flickering fires and oil lamps, and not arriving in Mombassa until 9 pm, almost three hours late. People without passports would never be on the fast, air-conditioned bus.

Contemplating my next move. Arrived at the train station this morning to find out about the train to Nairobi – the original Lunatic Express, in fact. The station was deserted. “Oh, many troubles,” said the guard, sweating under a white shirt and tie over a second collared shirt, that one with pink and blue stripes. “The train is canceled for now because we care a great deal about our customers.”

That was a bit too enigmatic for me, so I pressed on, and found a kind woman behind steel bars at the ticket office. “They have suspended service because of the kills,” she said. “For the time being there is too much risk to human beings.” Turns out the train was attacked two days ago, a victim of the Mungiki sect, which particularly likes, apparently, to circumsize victims and sometimes just cut off their penises. No passengers killed, in fact, but the tracks were ripped up and the morning train met its end. “The cargo is still going; we can pick that up,” she said. “But the carriages capsize and tumble over one another and it is very messy. We will review the situation on Monday and maybe a train will go on Tuesday. Yes,” she said, “you can take a bus. Have you thought about flying?”

I really wanted to take that train. And offers are coming in, that might make me veer off the Express for a bit. In Dar I ended up drinking warm Scotch and soda with Bhachu, a 60-year-old Tanzanian Indian now living in Lubambashi, Congo. He’d just taken delivery of six dump trucks and two coaches from the UK, which he was about to drive to the copper mines of southeastern Congo. Six days. “You are most welcome to come along,” he said. “At the Congo border much will be stolen from the trucks, but we are prepared for that.” I was intrigued.

And then this morning I found my way to the port, through the twisting alleys of Mombassa’s old town, full of women in full chador – only their brown eyes peeking from narrow slits. I paid 100 shillings – about 75 cents – and slipped through a gate, the Indian Ocean shimmering blue and green down a few flights of steps. Moored just offshore lay a 100-foot long wooden dhow waiting to take on thousands of pounds of cooking oil, electrical transformers and bags of cement, and on which I was offered passage to Zanzibar. “Leaving Saturday,” said Crispin, a deckhand, “and should only take 18 to 20 hours.”

Might be too hard to pass up.


RD Padouk said...

Your posts are making me feel bipolar. The misery you describe makes me realize that I live a life of obscene luxury. And yet, I can think of few things more wondrously exotic than passage to Zanzibar on an Indian Ocean dhow.

That sure sounds like a better, and safer, way to travel than a bus through a conflict zone. Less crossfire on the open sea.

Anonymous said...


Stories getting better and better. This one so tempting and beautifully written....Zanzibar. Do you remember some of those tantilizing little minerals from the Smithsonian, exotic colors, unimagined dangers and smells in their procurement?

Cooper got within 5 feet of a 10 foot hammerhead--an intense animal, he said, unafraid of the students.