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.