Learn to roll with the train

Romanticized things rarely fulfill romanticized dreams. That is the fatal flaw in the build up, you often find yourself disappointed. At that point, people tend to pivot one of two directions. I myself have learned over the past year that a good laugh can get you a long way. So please, join me on a journey of laughs on my train ride through South Africa…

At the conclusion of my holiday fun, it was time to make the trek back from Cape Town to my village. Cape Town is nestled by Table Mountain in the Western Cape of South Africa, essentially the very south west corner of the country, while my little slice of heaven and Ole Pinkie are int he opposite corner, north east by the border. The simplest way to travel from there to where I live, is to fly from CT to Johannesburg, at which point it is just an all day bus and two taxis for me to make it home.

However, a quick little flight wouldn’t do well for an entertaining blog post, or for my emaciated bank account, so I opted to take the train 🙂

I did a bit of quick research, and the 26 hour train ride seemed like it would be fine! It had sleeper compartments for R780, a dining car, and it would give me the chance to go right through the center of the country and see some of the areas I otherwise would never find myself. So, train it is!

Happily, I had been traveling with another PCV my lovely friend Tahlia at the time, so I had a partner for this upcoming adventure. Once we had decided train over plane, we went to the main station downtown to book our ticket for the following day. After somewhat impatiently waiting in the ever slow lines to purchase our ticket, we make our way to the front and wait as the attendant fumbles over the computer program a few times before confirming what, at this point, both Tahlia and I fear to be a full train. Indeed, all the sleeper cart tickets have been filled, but there were a few third class tickets still available for the bargain price of R480 (approximately $40) so we say go for it, and instantly begin laughing. 

We don’t at this point know what a third class ticket on a 26 hour train will actually be like, but the laugh was filled with less humor, and more a daunting, insane, what have we gotten ourselves into laugh.

The next morning, we said our goodbyes and headed to the train. Our new friend from Cape Town was kind enough to drive us to the train station (a magical luxury) and even took us to a cafe for one last cup of really good coffee ahead of time. Tahlia and I are in travel mode, purchasing add on items we can eat on the train to save money, and mentally reviewing the plea we plan to orate to the train manager trying to get at least one bed somewhere in a sleeper compartment so that we can rotate getting a little shut eye.

Alas, the train manager can not help us until later in the journey when the see if anyone has not gotten on at the stops along the way, so we walk down the long platform, passing car after car until we reach the very front of the train with the last 5 cabins holding seats for 3rd class ticket holders. Upon further review of our ticket we realize that in third class it is free for all seating, and we nestle ourselves into two seats that had the minimum pee smell. From across the isle we glance at each other and start to laugh, wide eyed anticipation echoing in our sounds as we settle in for our very long ride.

Still with 30 minutes to departure, Tahlia decided to mission around through some of the other cabins to see if perhaps something better is hidden in this train. After a few minutes, she returns with a triumphant grin, and announces for me to pack up my things and follow her for she has found us a new home. She tells me that it is beautiful, a completely empty cabin! The air conditioner is cooler there, the pee smell does not exist and there are no people to entertain. It is, by all accounts, a miracle cabin! Once we grab out things, the train attendant tells us that the front compartment Tahlia found people can’t sit in because the toilets on either side no longer work. We explain that we have no problem walking to another compartment for the bathroom, and giddily skip to the front of the train, open the door to cool fresh air and settle into our new space. At 9:59, one minute ahead of schedule, the whistle blows and the train slowly begins to roll forward.

The best part about our new home we found, is the space where the forward facing rows of seats and backward facing rows of seats meet. In this magical no mans land between, there is enough space to lie down completely if you tuck your feet under one of the rows! We have been saved! Our very own “sleeping” space, at the bargain price of R480. Tahlia had with her the blow up camping one man sleeping pad, and I have a pile of clothes covered in a towel. Two perfect beds. We set up, pull out our books, and let the train lull us into a nice morning nap.


It is 12:11, a quick two hours into our journey, when I open my eyes, uncomfortably hot and sticky. Tahlia too is sitting up, taking out her ear plugs and removing her sleeping mask as we look around, confused that our once gloriously cool cabin has transformed into a ripe sauna in such short time. Clearly, they are trying to smoke us out of the cabin my turning off the air we joke, and walk up and down our whole section opening up the windows to let in the breeze. It was however very temporary relief, as the breeze coming through mimicked the hot sticky air we were currently breathing. We decide to wander through the train, find the bar car, and see if other cabins are cooler.


(above: The moment we realized no air con anywhere)

It is on our bar car mission we learn that no where on the train is cool, and that train wide, the air conditioner is no longer working. Cabins are lined with overheated passengers, first and third class alike, sending hopes and prayers out the the next 23 hours and 50 minutes is not going to be as horribly hot as it was in that moment. Spoiler alert: the air con never came back on.

Instead, this now becomes a mission of will. We know, that once the sun goes down, it will be cooler. We know it usually takes about two hours after sun down to feel a difference, with each passing hour after that getting a bit cooler and a bit cooler. That gives us about 9 hours until we will have relief. This is also the same time when we go to the bar cart to buy a cold drink, and learn that the food and drinks are all cash only. Together Tahlia and I were able to scrape together about r200, and we begin to strategize about what meals we can share and how we can stretch our money to survive on the train.

At the four hour mark in our journey, we are reading books in our compartment, now in as little clothing as socially acceptable, wetting bandanas and our cool ties, trying our best to not overheat. When walking through the other 3rd class cabins back from the bar car, men and women alike have all removed their shirts, children are down to diapers and underwear, as we all try to weather this heat together. It is 1:47 when we decide to turn back on the phone to see where in the country we are, and laugh hysterically when we see the little blue dot on google maps showing the progress we have made.


(Note where Cape Town is, Johannesburg is, and we are the blue dot)

One thing Tahlia and I did on this train was become buddies with all the staff. She was able to speak Zulu with majority of people, while my XiTsonga got me some minor greetings, but the effort was appreciated still. Zulu and XiTsonga are both black languages. The staff on the train were all black. With the exception of Tahlia and I, every passenger in the third class compartments was either black or colored. When the staff told us it was fine to go into the premier/first class lounge to get ice from the ice bucket, we opened the door and transitioned into an all white compartment. As we visited the compartment a few more times throughout the train ride to get ice, I noted there too were first class black travelers. But never in any of the stops or change overs were there any white passengers who ventured into the 3rd class side, minus a friendly 19 year old white South African who was curious about what Tahlia and I were doing there, intrigued we were in 3rd class, and came back to our cabin to play cards and explore.

The first time we went into the first class lounge to get ice, we were a little hesitant since our ticket was a 3rd class, but staff assured us we would be fine. So we crossed the threshold into the cabin, made our way around the bar and scooped a few of the last remaining ice cubes into each of our water bottles. There were two white ladies sitting in the lounge, who overheard Thalia and I discussing how nice it was here vs our accommodation. They spoke up, assuring us that it would be no problem if we wanted to hang out in the first class lounge because we were white, and we fit right in. Tahlia and I shared an awkward-attempt to be polite smile- with the women, and returned back to our side of the train.

As our friendships with the staff progressed, they would come on breaks to hang out in our end of the train compartment, chat with us, relax, and have a drink from out “sharing bottle” of tequila we brought to make friends. But another thing that happened, that can be attributed to a combination of factors including that we are white, that we are women, that we are foreigners and that we are Americans, is that every time Tahlia and I would leave the compartment to go explore, visit the meal cart or play cards in another spot on the train, is that someone who worked there would go and sit in our compartment and watch our stuff. We didn’t ask for this, and candidly we took our valuables with us every time we left the compartment anyways, but it was an observation we made during our trip.

Once the sun had finally set, we had a family of three come into the compartment and set up camp next to us. We moved so that the makeshift bed for myself and Tahlia was only on one side of the isle, and they were able to make a bed for them on the other. When we woke the next morning, our compartment was a whole new world! We had a group of ten people or so who had speakers and were jamming out to some SA tunes. We had an older white gentleman who joined our compartment, traveling to Joburg after spending the last few months on a rafting trip with his group the Fossil Floaters! Shout out to you my friend for living life well!

The other noticeable change to our compartment was the lack of change to our outside scenery. When we had looked out the window two hours before, the same exact landscape peered back at us as the landscape we saw currently. Upon further digging, we learned that the train was having electrical issues and we had been sitting in that same spot for about two hours. What we didn’t know, was whether or not we had stopped for periods of time at other times during the night. When we finally started moving and got to the next spot on the trip, we looked at what time, according to the schedule we should have been there, to learn that we were in fact 7 hours behind.

7 hours extra on a hot train is bad enough, but to factor in that we didn’t have money for the two additional meals we would now be sitting on the train for, we were feeling the dread. We knew we had to make a plan! We decided to talk to the restaurant manager on the train, who we had been hanging out with the night before, and attempt to surrender our passports as collateral that we could run a tab, and when we arrived in Johannesburg one of us would run to an ATM and the other would wait behind. While he wasn’t able to do that, we were able to trade him $20 American dollars that I found in my bag as leftovers from my parents trip, and alas we survived to the end of our crazy train travels.

There are many other parts to this adventure that I left out, since I am already in the weeds a bit with the story, but I hoped to put, in as simple and unbiased terms as possible, some of the things that we see and experience daily in terms of privilege. And what ended up being a 34 hour train ride through South Africa was just another isolated lens with which to view the unique country I currently reside in.

Side editorial comment: my friend messaged me to let me know there were numerous spelling and grammatical errors in my blog post. My response: I am sure there are. Please forgive such tragedies  prevailed upon the English language, but know that I do not reread, spell check or give any kind of review before I post. I want you to read exactly as I would tell the story, imperfections and errors and all.

water – aqua – acqua – mati

I should really being by saying that I have many “half baked” blog posts on water. It is very difficult to convey the importance of water to those who have not had to limit or live with less. And so, I have tried many times to find a way to tackle explaining water shortages, water insecurity and what a difference access to water can have in time management of your day, all resulting in me feeling that you still would not quite grasp the severity of what I want to explain. So instead, I will use a very different scenario, being back in a metropolitan area currently undergoing a water crisis, to finally broach the subject. I am hoping that writing about the experiences in a place that does have access to running water can help you all to relate a bit better to what the usage looks like.  I can tell you now that I firmly believe water IS the single most important commodity in the world, and we all need to do our part to respect that and savor it, because folks, thinking it will always be there when you switch on the faucet is accepting to ignore some very real challenges facing us, not for your grandkids, not in 50 years, not in 10 years, but now…

The last leg of vacation with my parents was a trip to Cape Town, a first time visit for both myself and my parents. The first thing I noticed as we went trough the airport were the plethora of signs, displays and audio messaging detailing the dire water crisis Cape Town currently is in, and its plea to utilize water minimally during the water shortage. At this stage, the city has taken many measures to try and minimize water usage, and the day the city will be depleted of all its water stores is fast approaching.

One display was a ceiling piece, with 87 strings tied and attached to 87 hanging liter bottles, imploring Cape Town residents and visitors alike to keep water consumption down to 87 liters of water per day. My initial reaction was to laugh. I could not use 87 liters of water in a day in my village if I tried! In fact, once it is your responsibility to use a “wheelbarrow” to and from a tap that is a 45 min walk away from you, wait in line to fill your 20L jug and push it back along the wobbly, uneven dirt “roads” (more like a beaten path) then you know exactly how much water each activity you do on a daily, weekly and monthly basis takes. But to take a step back down off my high horse, when in a city or area with basic plumbing and infrastructure, the only real “measure” you have at any given time is the water bill that you pay for the service each month.

How much water is in a flush of a toilet?

How much water is a “quick shower” or dare I say a bath?

How much water is used brushing my teeth? What if I only turn it on to wet my toothbrush and off right after, then on again at the end?

How much water is it to was a plate? To run a dishwasher?

How much water, really, does one use, when thinking conservatively, in a city?

These are all things that I honestly don’t know. So instead I will share with you a few of my “water moments” of the trip.

To the restaurant in OBS that can no longer provide tap water to patrons because of the drought, who instead lowered its bottled water prices to be at cost, thank you for doing your part.

To the rental car agency who provided us with a smudged, dirty car for our journey because they stopped washing the cars with water, thank you for doing your part.

To every bar, restaurant and public toilet that proudly displayed the water conservation anthem of “if its yellow let it mellow,” thank you for doing your part.

For the buckets in the showers of hotels, asking patrons to collect all shower runoff into the buckets that can be used for cleaning later, thank you for doing your part.

To all of the residents and travelers who found new and creative ways to shower while keeping to the 2 minutes per person per day limit, thank you for doing your part.

To my friend I made in Cape Town, who listened intently when I discussed my concerns over water usage in SA. Who asked questions, didn’t become defensive, and could openly discuss post apartheid implications of water inequality still existing in SA as a white South African with privilege, thank you for being open to a new perspective.

To the friend who after discussing water issues wanted to find a way to set up low cost rain catching mechanisms for the building he lived in so that they too can help to minimize waste, thank you for doing your part.

To the older gentleman I met, still holding tight to his racist ideals that believes the water crisis in Cape Town is a result of water waste from the people living in informal settlements outside of the city, which mind you consist of pieces of sheet metal loosely attached together to form walls and a roof, thank you for feeling free to share your opinions with me. I hope one day you will learn, that when people there are thankful for the rains because they get clean drinking water, even though the rain also means that sewage from the public toilet will flood the bottom few inches of their home, they are the ones who are doing far more than their part for the water crisis. To all of those living in such offensive conditions, I am sorry. We all need to do better.

To all of you reading this who will finish the blog and who will start to question their own water usage, thank you for doing your part.

To all of you reading who will finish the blog and actively seek a more water conservative lifestyle, thank you for doing your part.

And finally, to Ma Letti and Ma Cynthia who had to collect and carry water for me while my knee recovered, it is such an unbelievable kindness, and I can not thank you enough for doing way above and beyond your part.

Stay well, stay hydrated, and PLEASE conserve water.

Blog? What Blog?

For those of you who have been following my story and feel abandoned, left stranded in the world of silence and the blogless abyss you would be correct. I want you to know that your feelings are valid and that I have indeed left you in the dark. Apologies to all.

To help provide clarity, I wanted to share with you my process for writing, and how the story usually comes together. I typically find an incident, moment or experience that once it occurs, I find myself piecing together the words I want to use to describe that in a blog. That is my first indicator that it is time to write again.

For each post, I try to write it in one sitting. Once I break or step away, the freshness and reality of the scenario gets lost in  the sea of continuous days here in Peace Corps. Because of this, I have at any given time on my computer a dozen half written blogs, pages and pages of stories, experiences, emotions and encounters that lie waiting for my return to finish. Sadly, I rarely return back to the work, as a new blog has emerged and I skip ahead to work on that.

When I am able to finish a blog, I post right away. And as I know that I rarely return to half written blogs, the logical next questions is why not just finish each one right when I begin it? And while that is always my intention, the unfortunate reality is that life gets in the way. Some days I sit on a mat outside the door of Ole Pinkie, and can write until some of the neighbor kids come by asking to play a game. When I find myself in the city I seek out a quiet cafe with a small corner table to settle into the work, but get pulled away by the lure of volunteers I haven’t seen in months who are also in the city.

The question then becomes, what do I do to ensure I can keep my blog alive and well? Do I just post the half baked half written stories, giving you all a glimpse into the story but falling short of the conclusions? Do I practice stream of consciousness writing and provide you with every chaotic, unpolished thought that passes through my ever pivoting mind? Or do I endeavor to complete each work as they come, and tell life that it will just have to wait until I manage to get the words on the page?

I don’t yet have an answer to that questions, but I do have an update for you. My update, or rather more of a promise, is that in the past year of writing I have filled you in on many things about my life and experiences, but I have also been leaving out some of the more difficult experiences and realities of life here.

Many of my colleagues, myself included, have developed a mental barrier for ourselves, where we have had to adjust the threshold of “caring” in terms of the view we have on the world here. In order to not drive myself insane, or find myself in tears constantly, I have built metal boxes where I choose to lock away some of the heartbreaking realities that we see on a daily basis. My second group of visitors, my parents, have come and gone from South Africa, and one glaring similarity between their reaction and my sisters reaction when she came has forced me to acknowledge and seek to explain the hardships some citizens of SA experience. The ever tangible remnants of Apartheid regime, the continued economic oppression of groups of people and the blatant racism that runs free in this beautiful land is a painful thing to view and process as a traveler. It was the same for me when I first arrived. I remember feeling rage, feeling heartbroken, feeling sad and feeling inspired by the trials and triumphs of people here. And I no longer will be keeping these feelings in the box.

I am not sure what exactly will come next. I don’t know if I will go back and finish some old posts, or if I will publish them in their current state. One thing I do know, however, is that a few things are going to change. I am going to push myself to express and expose some of the issues that are going on here. I am going to talk to you openly about the horrid situations that young women in particular face. I am going to discuss “dinner table forbidden” topics that make us cringe, because to not is to do a disservice to you, to myself, and to the wonderful people I have had the pleasure of sharing my life with this past year.

Thank you for your continued reading and support, and please feel free to engage in a dialogue below if you have any questions, comments, or are looking for additional information on anything that I post.