February 08, 2005

Overnight trains

We've made summer travel plans. Mike and Adam will travel two hours north to our New Hampshire cottage and spend a week painting it. We’ve owned the place for 20 years, and this will be the first fresh coat it’s received from us. In New Hampshire, paint jobs, like people, are hardy and weather-resistant.

Dana and I are going to Russia. We’ll spend a few days each in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I can’t wait to see St. Basil’s wild-tiled domes and Peter the Great’s sherbet-colored palaces lining the Neva River, but what I’m really psyched about is the overnight train between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

When I was a student vagabonding around Europe, rail was my mode of transport, and overnight trains saved the cost of a hotel room. (That’s Backpacking, Lesson 1. If you’re female, you learn Lesson 2, How to Keep Safe, on the fly. Trust your instincts, ladies, and when intuition speaks, listen without question. If you feel the need to hit someone over the head with your pack, excuse yourself from the compartment, and sit on the floor near the well-trafficked and brightly lit bathroom, do so without hesitation or apology.)

Despite an occasional misadventure, I grew to love the trains. When we went to Kenya as a family not long ago, I booked us on the overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa on the Indian Ocean. We didn’t sleep much, but we savored the experience.

Our cab driver, Emmanuel, deposited us at the Nairobi Railway Station. We bid him kwaheri, good-bye in Swahili, and went to the station’s central platform, where “LORI HEIN PARTY” was listed, with coach and compartment assignment, on the “Berthing Allotments” section of the station’s notice board. A railway worker in a white coat gave us four meal tickets for the train’s 7:15 p.m. seating.

We boarded, found our four-berth second-class compartment, and made ourselves at home. Dana read animal books and Archie and Jughead comics, Adam fired up the Gameboy, and Mike pulled out a copy of The Economist someone had left behind in the station waiting room. Luke, our “caretaker,” popped by to say he’d make up our bedding while we were at dinner. (When we returned he gave us a security drill, and his most urgent tip was to keep our windows closed at station stops to thwart thieves who’d try to reach into the compartment and grab things.)

A pair of stewards walked through our compartment banging a dinner gong, and we proceeded to the restaurant car. Dinner was orchestrated like a rolling ballet, white-coated waiters serving drinks, soup, bread, and rice and curry in an efficiently choreographed performance that gave you just enough time to eat, and them just enough time to clear, before the next seating. Dana, in the photo above, was dubious about the curry – she saw chicken in it. Not much of a flesh-eater, this girl has clothing that reads, “Spare an animal. Eat a vegetable.”

As we rolled toward Mombasa on this railway that Queen Victoria ordered built in 1898 to best the Germans in the European chess game of dominion in East Africa – Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm lived to outdo one another – I stayed glued to the window, recording every nighttime scene and nuance in my journal. Over a dozen stops. Emali, Kiboko. Makindu with its beverage stall lit up bright in the black night and music playing. Darjani, where a full African moon lit the landscape and a lone, powerful southern hemisphere star commanded the heavens. At each stop, I heard nighttime voices and the sound of leather sandals padding the platform outside our window, hurrying to get on the train before it slithered southeast to the coast. Mtito Andrei, where big rigs traveling the dangerously narrow and monotonous Nairobi-Mombasa highway were parked, waiting for daylight. The road parallels the tracks, and I’d experience occasional middle-of-the-night terror when an 18-wheeler barreled next to our train, engine and headlights blazing.

I remember Voi at 5 a.m. A road and railway commerce hub that sits between Tsavo National Park’s east and west sections, the outpost was humming with trucks and trains, all moving, transporting goods from one piece of East Africa to another. Before we reached Voi, I’d looked out onto Tsavo – the Nairobi-Mombasa train rolls right through it. Twenty-eight indentured Indian slaves, part of the contingent “recruited” to build the railway from Mombasa to present-day Uganda’s Lake Victoria, were eaten by lions in the landscape I looked upon. Two man-eaters plagued Colonel John Henry Patterson’s railway-building camp, carrying workers away in the middle of the night, feasting on them, leaving only limbs and bones behind. Patterson himself eventually shot and killed the two lions, and his 1907 classic, “The Man-Eaters of Tsavo,” recounts the whole bloody ordeal.

I’m excited about my next train ride. Overnight from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Will I sleep? Or, as it was in Africa, will so many fascinating vignettes pass outside the window that sleep is rendered impossible...

Ribbons of Highway proceeds continue to go to tsunami relief. The headlines have faded, but the need hasn’t. Details here.