I had been staying at Diani Beach, on the Kenyan coast, where the sands were of the purest white, the days warm, and the resort bar well-stocked. So relaxing was my sojourn, that I had forgotten to apply sunscreen on a snorkeling trip and my back was the same color and texture as sashimi.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay forever. I had to catch a plane from Nairobi in three days, and I had decided to take advantage (if that’s the word) of the infamous train journey from Mombasa to the capital.
There was a certain amount of foreboding on my part: the first-class compartments were doubles, and it was likely that I would be bunked with a stranger, hopefully not an Al-Shabab terrorist.
Booking the beast is no mean feat. A website, apparently put together by a person with kindergarten level skills, both in the English language and at website construction, requests your details and the proposed date of travel, and in return you receive a stuttering response, requesting that you immediately make payment.
I was apprehensive: what sensible person gives their credit card details online in Africa? Yet my choices were limited, and with trepidation, I keyed in my digits.I closed my eyes as I hit ‘enter’. Within minutes, a further email arrived, thanking me with gratitude, and enclosing an odd receipt/voucher in Excel.
My ticket would be available for collection on the day of travel from the ticketing office, it said.
My taxi driver was unfamiliar with the entrance to the station, which rather suggested a low level of popularity. He circled the platform before asking a random security guard for directions and was shown to a pot-holed track that looked like nothing so much as a quarry.
At the end was a dirty shack made from scraps of corrugated iron left over from when Moses was patching the ark. A sign proclaimed it to be the fabled ticketing office.
The service window was a curious device, with iron bars protecting the occupant from molestation. The bars were in two layers, each running perpendicularly for greater effect.
I squinted into the darkness and thought I saw a fellow in the depths. An old man in his hundreds sat on the bench outside, smoking and muttering imprecations to himself.
“Hello?” I called into the mire.
“Yes?” returned a terse voice.
“I have a ticket, today, for Mombasa.”
“Where is it then?”
“I got an email. I can show it to you on my phone.”
He was unimpressed. “What was the name?”
I gave it, and he shuffled through one pile of green books, then another. Nothing grabbed him.
“I don’t have it,” he said.
With difficulty, I shoved my phone between the bars to prove my veracity. He looked at it, and sighed like his mother was dying.
“Wait.” He said, testily. He made a call, presumably to the Nairobi office. It went on endlessly and I sat down on the bench next to the old guy, seeking shade. He nodded. “Jambo,” he said, agreeably.
After a few moments I heard a faint call. “Gregory, Gregory…” It was like the chirping of a baby bird from within a deep well. I went back to the window. My server was less than impressed.
“I was calling for you, why you not respond?” he asked.
Because you’re behind a soundproof wall, I thought. “Sorry,” I said.
“Your ticket is in Nairobi,” he said, unimpressed.
“I think you travel on Wednesday.”
“But you have no ticket.”
“Yes I do.”
“Where is it?”
“In Nairobi, You just told me that,” I said. “I need to travel today. I have a plane to catch.”
“Then you’ll need to buy a ticket.”
“I have bought a ticket.”
“Yes, from an agent, but not from me. It is against the law to travel without a ticket.”
“But I do have a ticket.” This was getting a bit Abbott and Costello. Who’s on first?
He sighed. If he wanted me to buy another ticket so that he could collect a commission, it wasn’t going well. He wrote out a boarding pass and handed it over. “You will need to collect your ticket in Nairobi,” he said, although why I would do so after the train ride escaped me.
The train was waiting on the platform, which was nothing more than a long, rusty shelter. I showed my pass to a guard and asked for directions.
(Next week Part 2 – Boarding the beast – A certain lack of beer)
The complete story appeared in GoNomad on 19 October 2017. Check it out here:
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