Tazara train to Zambia, 25 August 2010
We crossed from Tanzania to Zambia around 6pm. There weren't any signs welcoming us to the new country, our only indication that we had actually crossed the frontier was a boy holding a handmade net attached to a post and a policeman standing next to him who was wearing a different uniform. The Tanzanian customs officials who had stamped our passports DEPART had gotten off at the previous stop and the train was full of people calling out "change" as they roamed the corridors. We exchanged $100 USD for 420,000 kwachas and bought some simosas (triangle shaped pastries filled with mystery meat) from the vendors who swarmed the exterior of the train. I bought a visa for Zambia for $50 USD- since we are in first class the customs officials came to our cabin.
This trip has been very enjoyable and scenic. A steward brings all our meals to our cabin and the washroom is just a few doors down. If we want a drink or snack there is a snack bar in the next car. A couple police officers are in the last car of the train and they patrol the first class cars, and have been more alert since we crossed into Zambia.
It's been hard to tear my eyes away from the window. The landscape has been awesome and ever changing. The villages have changed their shape and building materials (cement vs red clay bricks, tin roofs vs straw) and its great to get a glimpse of people in their normal lives. In some towns the women are washing the clothes in the creek and spreading them out to dry on the rocks, in another area some women had dug a pit in a dry river bed and were using buckets to scoop up water to carry back to their homes.
It's also been interesting to see the brick making process as we fly by on the train. In one area people are mixing the clay and putting it into forms. Next to that another person is stacking the dried grey bricks into a tower with ports at the bottom and an open center area. In another area someone is jamming wood into the ports under the bricks and covering the tower of bricks with clay. When it's all sealed up, they light the fires under the bricks and start them cooking. Further down one can see some clay towers that were broken into and the reddish-orange bricks inside.
One great thing is that everywhere we go the children are excited to see us. If they can get close to the train when we stop they will run alongside it calling for water bottles or soap in Kiswahili. Whenever we stick our heads out the window they would cheer excitedly "muzungo!". Even in the villages the kids would hear the train coming and run to the edge of the village and wave as we rushed by. Even some of the adults will break into a smile and wave if you waved at them.
Very few muzungos are left on the train now. Most had gotten off for safari in a national park or in one of the larger cities before we left Tanzania. The missionaries got off the train around 4:30 this morning for a four hour truck ride into the mountains to get to their compound. I think only the Russians and us are all thats left.
Another interesting aspect to the train is how it serves as the local marketplace and gives villagers in remote places an opportunity to sell their goods. The Africans in the car next to us have been on a shopping frenzy; at one stop they bought two huge sacks of potatoes, then at the next stop a huge sack of rice that must have weighed at least 20 kilos. They must travel this route a lot because sometimes people will walk right up to their window, talk a bit in Kiswahili then exchange the heavy sacks for some cash. Even at 3am, the locals are waiting for the train and are selling everything from chicken to sugar cane. In the larger settlements they even have the duty free shops with people selling cookies and perfumes.
Unfortunately some of the other great cross-border train routes have stopped operation and probably at a great loss to the local economies sustained by train travelers. I was hoping to take the Dakar-Bamako train but it has been out of operation for three years now. There are still some train services like the Rovos which travels all over the continent, but a luxury price. The trip from Johannesburg to Cairo would be amazing, but costs $45,000 for the "economy" ticket. I am very happy with my $50 USD (70,000 Tanzanian shillings) ticket.