How to Get on a Train in Africa Without Tickets

The TAZARA train never leaves on time, except when it does.

On a Friday morning in April we set out for Tanzania. Our one-week visas were due to expire the coming Monday, and this was the last train leaving during that time period. Neither of us wanted to find out what happens if you overstay your visa in Zambia, so we stopped by the TAZARA office in Lusaka. An employee there told us she had reserved a compartment for us and that when we got to town and arrived at the office, we just needed to speak with “Alfred” and we’d be all set with our own compartment for the three-day train ride (mixed genders are not an option in compartments unless you reserve all four beds as a family). We had four hours to take a two hour bus ride to Kapiri Mposhi and depart at 2pm, which seemed like it should be enough.

It wasn’t, really. After an hour of waiting for the bus to fill, finally leaving with a little more than enough time to make it, and nearly three hours of Bus Stop Reverend preaching and conversion, loud music, white-knuckle passing and infuriating dirt loop detours, we arrived in Kapiri Mposhi at 1:52 pm. We had been shuffled to the very back of the bus with all of our stuff (a backpack and messenger bag each) and as soon as the bus started to slow down, Daniel took his first opportunity and shot to the front of the bus. It took me a minute and I got waylaid behind slow adults and even slower kids, and a few minutes later when I finally got to the door, I found myself in the middle of a fist-fighting mini mob. Daniel ran in and pulled me out by the arm, and as we got into our taxi he explained to me that he agreed to take the first driver that offered, and the next three or four guys had gotten into a fight over our prospective fare.

As our driver lurched over an apparently recently plowed road, red dirt lumping along under the tires and pedestrians casually scooting over to let us drive by, we counted down the minutes. Now, Kapiri Mposhi is not much of a town. The reason the train begins here is supposedly because, when laying the line southwest from Dar es Salaam, they ran out of tracks in Kapiri Mposhi, and so the train station was born. The place is maddeningly spread out for a town of such small origins, and it took what felt like forever to get to the station. We prayed that the train would leave late, which is apparently common.

We barely remembered to pay the cab driver when he stopped, dodged the pushy “bag porters” and ran through the gate, literally at 2pm, the hour of departure. Sprinting to the now-empty sales desk, we asked anyone who would listen where we could find Alfred, our magical ticket holder, but the people just yelled at us to go, get on the train. “But we need to pay,” we protested. “Just get on!” The train blew its whistle and shuddered to a start, and we ran down a few cars before finding one with open doors, hopping on as best we could without knocking each other down.

We were on the last train to leave before our visas expired, but we didn’t have tickets. And Alfred, the only person who could vouch for us, was nowhere to be found. None of the staff had us on our list, and the train was full.  The staff on the train, however, were wonderful. They rearranged a few other families, put us in with a random white South African tourist (mixed gender compartment!), took our money and wrote us tickets.

Never have I been so happy to squish skittering blonde cockroaches while eating chewy organ meat with the valves still on, or sleep on pillows that felt like a bag of popcorn and smelled like a wet towel. The train started and stopped so suddenly and forcefully that we kept getting knocked over if standing. Each time, we assumed the train was starting to derail itself.  But we had made it.

Outside the train, men, women and children sold corn on the cob, hard boiled eggs, finger-sized bananas, rice from open sacks balanced on the head, mealy meal, cassava and potatoes, leather jackets, SIM cards, limes and groundnuts. Women in printed cloth kangas and kids in clothes so oversized and tattered their shoulders lay bare to the sun asked us for empty water bottles (maji ya chupa!) or money. Passengers exited carrying luggage on their heads, rollerboard suitcases or mystery packages in giant woven plastic totes. Zambia rolled past: flat, felled areas, fields eaten clean by herds. Cool air and few mosquitoes blew through the windows.

Maji ya chupa!

Crossing the border, officials charged us 100 USD each, twice what we expected; we put up a fight and protested corruption until the border officials lectured us on reciprocal visa fees and threatened to throw us off the train if we didn’t pay up. We later found out that the visa fee is actually $100 for a US citizen now, and although the border officials had started off seeming rude and unprofessional, that we were the ones overstepping our bounds.

The scenery in Tanzania was so much more lush–in no man’s land we went through a tunnel and came out in another world. Huge, tropical, prehistoric-looking palm plants, tall trees and a wall of hot and humid air that smelled like an herb I couldn’t identify marked our entry into the Great Rift Valley. Instead of drought-ridden Minnesota-prairie-like flatlands, there were hills and trees and moist flora clutching to sheer inclinations of land.

Near the last ten hours of the trip, we got a new bunkmate, a Tanzanian lady who spoke very little English. As the train ran through the Selous Game Reserve, we saw zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, antelope and one extremely terrified elephant, running away from the train as fast as it could manage. This was the closest we came to a safari the whole time we were in Africa–the budget traveler safari. Our new bunkmate, along with all the other passengers, hung out the train as far as she dared to take pictures with her cellphone, telling us the words for the animals in Swahili and pointing out the ones we missed. At one point I asked her, with Swahili read from a little phrasebook, where she was from, and she said something I didn’t recognize. I asked, “Tanzania?” and she indicated that it was outside of Dar, where we were headed. She slapped my palm and held on, laughed and said, “Dar es Salaam IN DA HOUSE!”

(For more information on the TAZARA train, or any train travel worldwide, check out www.seat61.com. We have used this site so many times when preparing for train trips in Thailand, China, India and Zambia/Tanzania. I highly recommend its content, especially when researching  for a leg of your trip right before you go: they have a lot of practical information on things like how you get visas on an international train or money exchange, safety tips, food and photos of what different classes of seating look like.)

Bovu Island and Lusaka, Zambia

A few bits and pieces, playing blog catch-up; summer is absolutely flying by. We’re starting the PQ process again (physical qualification–medical and dental checks), getting ready to return to South Pole. We are planning on leaving for Denver/New Zealand around October 15th, but won’t get our tickets until we PQ and complete all the HR and travel paperwork.

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In early April, Daniel and I arranged a few nights on Bovu Island in the Zambezi river. They picked us up in a shoddy pickup truck, and after an hour of driving rutted, mudslid roads, hot dry sun baking the truck, switches of trees whipping at our arms and faces, we arrived at the riverbank. Stepping gingerly into beautiful little handmade dugout canoes, we tried not to think of the crocodiles and hippos we’d seen on the river the night before as the three captains punted and paddled the boats through river flats, eddies and gentle whirlpools, exposing stunning nooks and wide river vistas around the bends of tall grass. The other folks staying on the island welcomed us with a beer on arrival, and we buried our feet in the silky cool sand floor. We slept in a little three-walled hut, perched on stilts and open to the river, listening as the jungle sighed, shrieked, became quiet and later reawakened; monkeys and millipedes and some mysterious catlike shrew animal sleeping nearby.

We visited a nearby mainland village, learning about architecture of stick, mud and thatch wood homes, about school/church construction of more modern and costly supplies. We sat with a local mom while she skillfully wrestled a pot of nshima, the sticky cornmeal mush we ate all throughout our trip.

Village family
Kids, coming to investigate the funny-looking white foreigners.
A kid from the village takes a first photo of Daniel
Much better! He's a natural.

A little girl with a disability that would permanently prevent her from walking, playing happily in the dirt.
The still-being-built school and church building

A few days later we boarded a bus to Lusaka, still operating within the strict 7-day visa the border official had stamped in our passports. We didn’t really want to go to the capitol city, but after much debate we decided it was the most sensible option to position ourselves there so we could board a bus to Kapiri Mposhi, where we planned to catch one of the twice-weekly trains across the border into Tanzania. On the bus to Lusaka, I met a 12th grade girl named Felicit, coming home on vacation from boarding school. She was quite talkative and had all kinds of questions for me, normal chatty questions like what do you like to read?, do you like dancing?, what’s your favorite color?, to more in-depth questions about religion, faith, and tribal affiliations within the US, to the structure of our schooling system and specifically my relationship to Daniel.

We had decided to tell people we were married since a male and female sleeping in the same bed together out of wedlock is pretty taboo in eastern Africa, from what we had read, but Felicit first asked if we were engaged, to which I said yes because it seemed easier (we’re not, for the record), but then she had all kinds of questions about when we were getting married, how long we had been together, whether we lived together or not at home, what our parents thought about it, and my story sort of fell apart and I had to explain that, well, we don’t really have a date, and maybe we’re not exactly engaged. I thought it would be really awkward but I guess I underestimated the power of young people to flex from tradition, or maybe I hadn’t done my research properly and the whole thing wasn’t that big of a deal. She transitioned seamlessly into explaining to me all sorts of bits and pieces of local economy within Zambia, import/export and agriculture, and then she told me I was more talkative and friendly than most white people she had met, which I took to be a nice compliment.

After the bus ride, we faced the inevitable swarm of taxi drivers and people pretending to be taxi drivers. Too tired to haggle or discern properly, we got into the wrong one, a car whose driver stopped to pick up another friend and later tried to swap my 20,000 kwacha note (about 5 USD) saying I’d only handed him a kw1,000 note. We spent the night at a crummy hostel in Lusaka, pinning the mosquito net together with hair pins and rubber bands, hunting the bugs that got in before going to sleep, probably more worried about malaria than strictly necessary for a large city. We couldn’t sleep much, preparing for the long haul train ride into Tanzania the next day.

Zim-Zam!

The bridge that you can see from Victoria Falls, with trucks trundling over it and bungee jumpers sailing off of it, is the one you cross to get to the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. We walked there from Victoria Falls Town, and after getting our exit stamps in our passports, we took a $2 taxi through no-man’s land, a half mile or so stretch of road that is consistently being rained down on by the mist of the falls behind you. At first, we weren’t sure if we even needed a taxi–we were pretty skeptical that the border was very far away and couldn’t see round the bend in the road. What if it was only a hundred feet away? But after driving past multitudes of forlorn looking, soggy but determined backpackers, we felt pretty good that our two dollars were wisely spent.

When we reached Zambian immigration, and stated that we thought we’d be there about a week, they stamped in our passports a visa that lasted exactly seven days. Now, since the visas were $50 each regardless of whether we were staying a week or two or more, we could have easily told them were were planning to stay a month, but the passports were stamped and we were ushered on our way, a little bewildered, deadline looming.

We arranged a taxi with the first person we met (this is never, ever a good plan) and he took our twenty dollars and exchanged it with a shady man who was holding the fattest stack of cash I have ever seen. We later found out that it is quite illegal to exchange money anywhere but at a real forex bureau. Oops. Our middle man, who was not a taxi driver as he had originally implied to us, took a hefty cut of the profit and delivered us to a taxi driver, arranged for us to be dropped off at the hostel of our choice and sent us on our merry way.

We took a sunset cruise the very first night we got there, and got to see hippos, crocodiles, and all kinds of wild birds as the captain skimmed our boat up the Zambezi river. The sky was clear and we could see the mist from the falls downstream, and stared at the sun until it went under the horizon, blinking bright circles long after the sun itself was gone. I talked to our guide, Paul, who was maybe more drunk than we were (I learned that “sunset cruise” is synonymous with “open bar booze cruise”), about animals that lived on the river, and I did my best to explain and act out Minnesota wildlife such as bears, moose and wolves.

Bee Eaters
We saw the the tops of a lot of hippo heads.

Paul told me about his Kenyan friend who had brought a little crocodile over the border, and that they had raised it to be friendly, and that they had named it Duncan. (This explained why he called out to one of the crocodiles we saw, “Duncan! Duncan!,” clapping loudly and whistling to summon Duncan. Although he did come when called, we later found out that the croc was too little to be Duncan but Paul explained that he could have been Son of Duncan.) Duncan lived under their pontoon until they released him into the wild, like good parents have to do.

Duncan! ... here, Duncan!

The same evening, we sat and had a sandwich with a Zambian named Cephas staying at our hostel who started a conversation with us about how much he loved Obama. He was 23 years old and a criminal defense lawyer. We listened as he explained that the secret to being a criminal defense lawyer was to create doubt in the mind of the judge. One of his more recent cases, he told us, was of a woman who had been accused of killing her husband by slipping poison into his dinner as she cooked one evening. But how do you know, he asked us, that the poison wasn’t slow-acting and put into his lunch while he was out at work? Good point, we said. He also explained that he would wait until he was at least thirty to get married, because too many people change their minds or say “I love you” when they don’t, which we agreed with. He wanted a wife who was smart and who could be his confidante (and who would not, presumably, poison his dinner). He ended his train of thought by explaining that if you only have one bottle of Coke, and you have to give it to someone, that you give it to your wife and not your mother. I laughed, and then took some of Daniel’s beverage.

I am writing this from home. We arrived back in MSP on April 24th after a flight that went from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Rome, to Washington DC to Minneapolis. It was epic, but we made it.

We are in the process of moving into a cute little duplex with Daniel’s sister and her partner for six months, and are planning on going back to South Pole this fall; we were both able to secure contracts before leaving the ice, and I’ll even be getting a promotion to a better position. But I’ll keep writing posts to catch you up on Africa!

Johannesburg and Victoria Falls

Johannesburg was, unfortunately, a wash. We stayed at a hostel in Rosebank, a suburb of Joburg, that we chose carefully because it was very near to a post office (remember that we were waiting for Daniel’s credit card to come in the mail which his parents had very kindly posted). The tracking number showed it leaving the States and, for nearly a week, nothing. In the meantime, we talked a lot with the white Afrikaaner owners of the hostel about their country, race relations, crime and poverty; they had some very strong opinions that made me pretty uncomfortable, and plenty of rather paranoid advice about us going places in the area (whether this was well-founded advice, we’re not sure; half of all crime in South Africa happens in the Gauteng region where Johannesburg is). It was interesting and confusing to compare racism and race relations in South Africa to those in the US, and to see how apartheid history negatively affected everyone in the country, all races.

We took a guided tour of Johannesburg and Soweto, the township that was the site of a 1976 apartheid resistance uprising and riots. The catalyst was the death of a 13-year-old black student, killed by white police officers while participating in a peaceful march against the institution of a law mandating that all schools teach in Afrikaans. In the afternoon, our Zulu guide stopped on a little bend in the road in the “bad” part of Soweto: not, he explained, an especially dangerous place, just one where there is no electricity or running water. He asked a local lady if we could look inside her shack and I hesitated; to me this seemed like a creepy, voyeuristic intrusion. But we decided to go in after one of the older white ladies who was on the tour stubbornly insisted that she wouldn’t go in because, she said, “it’s just too depressing.” And it made me feel yucky, angry, elitist and racist to complacently agree with her by staying inside the tour van.

So we went in. Her home was one small room made outside of corrugated iron, lined inside with melamine pressboard, covered with bright, colorful ads and soda logos. She had a small dresser, on top of which was a stack of new, clean plastic tupperware; in the other corner was her bed, neatly made with a very plush looking golden duvet. She owned very little, but her home was clean and dignified. We gave her a few Rand for the inconvenience, and I backed out of the small door, nearly stepping on one of her neighbors on the way out, feeling extremely aware of my race and relative wealth, and of the fact that we hardly ever make the bed at home. To be honest, the whole tour was really strange, seeing everything from the confines of a vehicle.

The credit card didn’t make it in time and eventually we just decided to move on, buying a ticket to Zimbabwe. At the first of our many stops at this particular Post Office, the clerk stated she couldn’t tell us anything about the status of the parcel without the South African tracking number, and when we asked how to get that, she shrugged. On the very last day, hours before our flight, another clerk gave us the phone number to call with our US tracking number to get the South Africa tracking number (we were there hoping that maybe it was in the back room despite what the USPS website said). Daniel, defeated, said something like “but we don’t have time,” hoping maybe she could call for us. “Well,” she said blithely, “call when you get time.” Damn it.

This was the day I lost the painting by STEVE from the beach in Cape Town, running through the Johannesburg airport. Our first taxi never showed up to take us to the airport (after yelling at me as if it were my fault when I called). We got a transfer from the hostel we were staying at, leaving an hour late. Our driver seriously made an effort to make up for lost time, though, cutting through traffic, passing people at red lights, cutting over a dirt median, our own personal entrance ramp onto the highway. There were no seatbelts, and the bench seat of the windowless van seemed to not actually be connected to the van itself, vaulting a little each time we stopped. We made it to the airport, though, and with the help of an enterprising porter who saw us running in the wrong direction (clear signage is not the forte of huge OR Tambo International Airport), we made it to the tarmac just on time.

The flight to Zimbabwe was short but turbulent and followed up by a 150 kph taxi ride into Victoria Falls, slowing when we came to areas where wildlife tends to enjoy the warm asphalt. The road was long and slender, lined with dry green thicket and punctuated by paths that seemed to come from nowhere, people coming through the low trees to hail taxis and squat minibuses. Dry, red African soil clung to everything within a certain proximity to the ground.

In town, everything was stunningly quiet, people smiling and waving in that way Minnesotans like us can appreciate. In Johannesburg, people seem to keep their heads down, and we had learned to as well. People outnumber vehicles on the roads, walking softly in bare feet and worn sandals on paved roads and well-loved paths. The people we met were soft spoken and friendly, and even the dogs were mellow and relaxed. Kids leaving school for the day, boys and girls alike with short cropped hair, ran in groups across the streets and odd pickup trucks would slow and honk to shoo them off the road. They would wave at us and look amused or slightly alarmed when we waved back.

The scenery was fairly homogenous but beautiful: red earth, dry but green plants, pretty blue sky holding a hot African sun. Every now and then a tree housed a burst of pink or purple flowers or a hornbill toucan laughing at us from his perch. Toads were everywhere, by our tent, by the hostel’s pool table, in the shower or dried out and leathery by the side of the road. Baboons in little packs climbed cement walls and drank from fountains at restaurants.

We went right away to see Victoria Falls, one of our longstanding travel goals. Known in local language as “the smoke that thunders,” you can see evidence of the falls from far, far away: a cloudy plume rising from above the trees like haze from a wildfire. As we approached the falls park, the greenery became notably more lush.

It was incredible, really. Because of the volume of water constantly careening over the falls into the gorge, the mist is shot high into the air, which is why you can see it so far away. The water in the air catches the sun, and brilliant rainbows are everywhere: over the falls, draped from tree branches, on my sunglasses. I have never seen so many double rainbows in my life. And, naturally, what goes up must come down. As you walk along the full expanse of the falls (5604 feet—that’s more than a mile wide) you get wetter, wetter, wetter, until finally the fine mist falling around you has evolved into what feels like a torrential downpour. You can’t see the sun since you’re essentially standing inside of a cloud, and the rain and wind are whipping at you and pushing you around, daring you to walk up to one of the slippery rock face cliffs without a barrier. As we got closer to the end of the path, the “rain” let up, dripping off the overgrown leaf cover, and we came to the bridge that leads to the Zambian border where we planned to cross in a few days. Pedestrians crossed on foot, soft-topped semi trucks crawled along, and then, down from the bridge’s skeleton fell a bungee jumper, arms outstretched and screaming loudly enough that we could hear her from where we stood, far away. Walking back, we saw women with shower caps on to protect their hairstyles and couples laughing and posing for photos with plastic bags on their heads, puffed up like transparent flat tops.

We were drenched. The ponchos we rented were mostly useless, but just enough to keep the camera dry, and we had smartly enclosed our passports and all of our money into ziplock bags within our moneybelts. Teens in groups had the right idea, walking the path in their bathing suits, a few clutching waterproof disposable cameras. If we went again, I would have worn mine.

Mister Thirty Five and the Box Cutter Kid

The Shosholoza Meyl train in South Africa does not check passengers’ passports. We learned this when we went to buy tickets from Cape Town to Johannesburg.

Excited and nervous for our first overland trip leg, we went to the train station. It was clean and cool, with fruit vendors outside and little stands where you could buy shoes, belts and power converters. Inside the station, there was a kiosk offering free, while-you-wait HIV tests with a long line; scary because it reminded us early on of Africa’s high rates of HIV/AIDS, for which we would come to see many hand painted public service announcements in the following weeks, but heartening that people are getting tested and self educated on risk and prevention. A nurse hollered out as we walked by, “Number thirty five, your results are ready!” I crossed my fingers in my pocket, hoping for negative results for Mr. or Ms. Thirty Five.

As we gave the clerk our information, she typed in Daniel’s last name for both passengers. Thinking it might be like an airline where if your name doesn’t match your ticket, you miss your plane, I asked if it would matter that we have different last names. She shook her head and after we had paid, she explained that no one would be checking our identification or, raising her eyebrow and laughing a bit, our marriage certificate.

In Cape Town there is evidently a high demand for couture models. Every few blocks we would see fashion shoots happening—on pedestrian bridges, parking spots on the street (with four tires aligned as though they were once attached to a vehicle, the models in casual business attire were to feign surprise at the missing car), on the steps of official looking buildings. The subjects, dolled up and unaware of passerby, stood still while the passerby walked into the middle of the shoot, equally unaware.

Car guards stand on each block in navy blue jumpsuits and blaze orange vests, shooing away idle thieves looking over their noses into backseats. People begging for money haunt the tourist area, one discreetly flashing us his box cutter while asking for/demanding a hundred rand (about fifteen dollars), careful to keep his shoulder to the public safety officer standing nearby, falling back when we ignored him.

We did some touring of the surrounding area before leaving Cape Town, going to Kirstenbosch, the botanical gardens, looking at plants that haven’t evolved for millions of years, strange turkeys with blue wrinkly heads and paisley-like feathers, and giant, paper-flat spiders in the public restroom. Some kids on a school field trip, totally uninterested in the plants, played rugby with a water bottle for a ball in a nearby field. We took a tour bus along the waterfront to Hout Bay Marina and Camps Bay. On the water, so blindingly glittery in the setting sun, were huge oil rigs far out on the horizon, looking a bit like the Eiffel Tower balanced on the surface. On a whim, we bought a black and white painting of some elephants from a painter who introduced himself as Steve from Malawi; on further inspection in the hostel, we discovered that he had covered the original signature with a permanent marker and re-signed it, simply, STEVE. I later lost that painting in the Johannesburg airport, running to catch a plane.

We went to the Cape Peninsula, which was definitely worth the embarrassment of being seen on one of those awful buses full of tourists. We got to see seals, birds of all sorts, dassies (the nearest living relative of an elephant, but it looks like a groundhog), lizards and penguins, making up for the dearth of penguins at the South Pole.

We hiked over the ancient looking, cellular, striated rocks of the Cape Point, past stretches of earth that looked like lines of cayenne and curry powder, looking down on great white sand beaches, shockingly beautiful—clean, green sea, white breakers, menacing rocks just under the surface. The Cape has claimed hundreds and hundreds of vessels seeking shelter from storms.

When we reached the highest point, the peak of the tip of the peninsula where the old, out-of commission lighthouse stands, you could turn around and survey the land behind you. It is a place where, Daniel pointed out, you can see the resemblance of the terrain you’re on to the paper map in your hand, living geography.

When we finally boarded the train a few days later, we were ready to go; we’ve been discussing lately the importance of, while traveling, leaving a place while you still like it. The train itself was nice; we got a compartment to ourselves despite only purchasing tickets for two beds (I’m under the impression that this is normal practice, not special treatment). There was a little sink basin under a folding table between the bunks that even had a trickle of running water for hand washing, although it ran out of water a few times. We could order food and coffee from room service on scheduled rounds, or from a restaurant car that seemed practically new except for one completely shattered window – this made sense after the train was shot with a paintball gun by some jerk kid outside, giving us quite a start and leaving a slimy green blob on our window, slowly expanding in the wind.

The train ride presented us with stark comparisons of South Africa’s rich and poor, slammed up against each other in bursts of towns separated by vast stretches of land uninhabited by anyone but gangly ostriches. Squat cinder block structures, the homes of rural people, had corrugated metal roofs weighed down with large rocks or sometimes bricks. Poor black adults slept on sheets of worn cardboard, fifty yards away from whites exiting high-walled compound homes in their SUVs, followed by piles of plastic trash, followed by black and white residents playing golf together in knitted vests on pristine driving ranges, rounded mountains sagging in the distance. Numerous wine estates flashed by, their rows of vines neatly stitched into the earth.

Entirely rusted out skeletons of cars that seemed to be from decades ago stood in fields, and every now and then we would pass a disturbing relic of previous train systems: an entire line of train cars, derailed beside the track, coated in rust with plants growing over everything, trying their best to reclaim the material. We passed by many towns that seemed to be nothing more than a sign stating its own name, ensuring its continued existence. Some thirty hours later, outside of Johannesburg on Sunday morning, the train interrupted a group of six people conducting a church service in pristine blue and white robes, standing by the tracks amongst an unreal number of busted up TV set skeletons. And then, only five hours late due to a midnight engine swap (a conductor had explained to us that we had the “wrong” locomotive, which we assumed meant it was broken), we arrived in Johannesburg.

 

Cape Town: Glitter, Beggars, Mountains, Jazz!

We arrived in Cape Town on Friday morning after a brutal 32 solid hours of airports, airplanes and airline food. We were successfully able to check in at the Auckland airport without being asked for proof of onward travel (you may remember that I nearly missed a flight to Auckland because of this in 2009) and went through South Africa customs without a problem.

We were lucky to have accidentally chosen the weekend of Cape Town Fest for the date of our arrival, and were rewarded with a huge parade on Saturday night. People started queuing at the barriers on the sidewalk long before the sun set, donning sparkly feathered Mardi Gras-esque chintzy masks and drinking sour Castle beer from flimsy plastic cups, beggars with no teeth and mismatched shoes jingling handfuls of small Rand coins through the throngs of people.

Then, we watched as the streets lit up after dark, starting with huge foam puppet unicorns, giraffes, springbok, flying  owls, a kangaroo, gangly ostriches running circles around each other, a dancing tyrannosaurus rex. Church youth groups danced to intense drum beats, their elbows punctuating the rhythm around them, some in tribal costumes with glitter face paint, some in neon glowing pinstripe suits and bowlers with trumpets, kids with vuvuzelas tooting along to the beat from precarious window sill roosts high above the crowds. The hotpantsed moffies–gay men or perhaps simply in drag– doing casual backflips down the sidewalk or on parade floats (singing predictably to the Village People but attracting awe and attention nonetheless). Spectators lined the streets, oversized glitter bits clinging to their sweaty hairlines and cleavage, young men in skinny pants and vests, girls in short shorts or shiny leggings and gladiator sandals, fat older gay couples with button-up shirts and suspenders meandering along the movement of the street. Kids clung to lampposts with a certain borderline tantrum, too-tired-to-function-anymore look to them, right around when I started to feel the same way and we went back to the room to bed, too jetlagged to even be hungry.

The past few days we have been going to see jazz concerts in the garden park, eating tuna sandwiches and watching several different wedding parties stop for photos, radiant brides surrounded by bridesmaids in shiny gold or hot pink polyester matching dresses shooing away the pigeons before posing and smiling, Table Mountain in the sun behind them. Having coffee in little market restaurants, sitting in bright plastic chairs at bright plastic tables with bright plastic tablecloths covered in pictures of Barack Obama, yellow and purple cardinals holding a banner that says “Hooray for the President!”

The next step is deciding when to leave–we will take the train to Johannesburg or Pretoria, but without an agenda and being in a place we like, it’s hard to make that decision…

When it Rains, it Pours

We are in Auckland at an airport hotel tonight, getting ready to sleep off a kebab pizza (delicious food + delicious food = an even more delicious food), and then fly out tomorrow to Cape Town, South Africa.

Daniel wrote last about making and breaking plans and the constant flexibility required during travel; tonight we get to test our ability to be flexible and relaxed despite mounting arguments for freaking out. While researching the very real possibility that we will need onward travel tickets to board a flight to South Africa, we realized that a) our travel itinerary pdf was completely blank and b) Daniel’s debit card number has been stolen and someone has been trying to use it to buy advertisements for used RVs and yachts. Would you like to buy a yacht? Someone pretending to be Daniel can sell you one for the low, low price of $110,000.

We were able to check in to our flight and have a plan for exiting South Africa (after lots of panicking); the main issue that remains now is Daniel’s card. We’ve contacted the bank, and hopefully can come to a reasonable solution that may involve canceling the card entirely with no ability to collect a new one.

So, we hope to be able to post soon from South Africa (with a plan from the bank). We’ll let you know how it goes!

The Christchurch Earthquake

I landed in Christchurch late on Valentine’s Day, Daniel patiently waiting for me outside my hostel when I got there. The priorities of the next few days, in order, were getting a dark beer on tap, a shower longer than two minutes, finding a new place to stay the next day, getting a decent cup of coffee and going to the beach. We took the bus out to Sumner beach, a sweet little cliffside town with a U-turn cave inside a rock (creatively named, I believe, Cave Rock) where the ocean waves would pull little tidal rivers back and forth between the two mouths.

Daniel and our friend Eric spent a few hours flying a kite up and down the barely windy waterfront, the teenage boys at the beach trying to pretend they weren’t interested in the rainbow kite for the too-cool-for-school girls with them. We spent the next few days with embarrassing inverted-bandit-mask sunburns, having apparently forgotten what the sun does to exposed skin.

We left for Wanaka a few days later, staying with friends in a beautiful house constructed of hay, clay and yellow paint, with a fat juicy vegetable garden, trampoline and wood-burning pizza oven on the patio. I hadn’t realized until I got there that I really missed having the ability to cook at Pole—so while our friends were out tumbling headfirst down whitewater currents and mountain biking, I made bagels and bread and curry soup with a little orange pumpkin from the yard.

We were home making lunch on Tuesday when one of the other women staying at the house called out, “did you feel that?” We hadn’t, and debated for a bit whether it was an earthquake or not. We checked the news a bit later and realized that there had indeed been an earthquake, the epicenter being in Christchurch, that the city was completely in shambles, and that many people had died, with the numbers of fatalities climbing rapidly.

That evening was a nervous one spent checking the informal shared spreadsheet of the 500 or so ice people in the Christchurch area that someone from McMurdo had created, detailing who had seen whom at the CDC, who had posted online that they were okay, who was already home, and those people who were unaccounted for. The really hard thing was that there were plenty of people who you shouldn’t have been able to get in touch with, who had been planning on tramping in the mountains for two weeks and who might not even know that there had been an earthquake.

The earthquake was far more devastating than the previous one in September of last year, even though it was a lower magnitude; the epicenter was more shallow and closer to the city. Temporary morgues were set up in the streets, the city unable to deal with the numbers of dead. Hundreds of people have died, many are still missing, even now, and hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses are lost.

And now, everywhere we go we’re hearing more earthquake stories, where people were and what they saw. Daniel’s coworker Pablo, whose wife and children had just met him in Christchurch after a long season at Pole, lost everything he had in the hotel, half collapsed and listing so severely that no one was allowed to enter; including his passport, newly stamped from all seven continents. We overheard a woman with her teenage daughter explaining to some tourists in Kaikoura, “We’re on extended holiday while we find somewhere to work and go to school… and live.”

We met a German couple on the West Coast who had been at the New Brighton beach surfing; the woman was in her underwear when the earthquake hit, her partner in his wetsuit, and amid the terrible noise and shaking the surf rental owner came running up to them yelling, “Gas! Gas!,” because the line had broken, but they didn’t know what that word meant in English. They tried to describe to us the total chaos and panic that the Chirstchurch suburb was exploding into: of changing out of his wetsuit in the middle of the street because there was nowhere else to go and wondering if he needed to return it, running out of gas for the car and not being able to get any, camping in public parks with other refugees. Not having any clean water or food, and seeing abandoned groceries behind walls of broken glass; “well,” he explained, “the thought crosses your mind at that point.”

One night they stayed in a park with a man who was playing guitar and sharing bread and beer given to him by a shop owner leaving town, talking about the comfort that the music and the friendly gesture provided them, thirsty and scared and trapped. In the end they finally left the city when a police officer siphoned the petrol from his own vehicle with his mouth—they praised him, their hero who helped them finally escape the madness.

We spent the rest of the week in Wanaka feeling really fortunate to have been away during the earthquake, leaving a little bit more time for snuggling before getting up in the morning, watching the evening news and looking vicariously through the rubble for landmarks and familiar faces.

Africa or bust

The hardest thing about having plans is occasionally having to break them. We’d decided during our season together that another round-the-world ticket would be the simplest and most cost-effective way to do the trip we had been envisioning – plenty of time relishing New Zealand before flying to South Africa to travel overland to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, flying from there to the island nation of Mauritius for an island vacation, and then north to Turkey (which we’d hoped to see on our last trip, but cut due to budget concerns).

But flight taxes have only gone up, and the fare for the 4-continent ticket this year was nominally more expensive than the 5-continent ticket we bought last year, and on top of that we ended up delaying our purchase long enough that the slim number of flights to and from Mauritius during our time-frame were fully booked. Reconsidering our itinerary in light of all these factors, individual tickets are now our best option.

It’s a little scary and a little relieving; buying a single ticket which gave us a distinct outline for our trip and a time to be home was comforting, but by the end of our last trip we found ourselves wishing we’d bitten off a little bit less to chew. This time we only have a vague set of dates written down in a planner to determine where we’ll be, with plenty of conditionals and questions. We also have an escape hatch – we can buy a ticket home from nearly anywhere in the world, and we wouldn’t be throwing away thousands of dollars worth of flights.

We’re buying the first leg of our journey now, a long flight from Auckland, NZ to Cape Town, SA with an unpleasant 7-hour layover in Singapore. Our hope is to travel overland up to Victoria Falls through either Botswana or Zimbabwe, and from there cut across Zambia northeast, crossing into Tanzania and ending in Dar Es Salaam. We’ll travel around the coast of Tanzania for a while before flying out of Dar to Istanbul, the city we couldn’t quite catch last year, and we’ll use it as a base to explore Eastern Europe/Turkey/go home early. Same basic plan, just more tenuous; and Mauritius had to be cut.