The idea first seemed like a glorious adventure. The kind of adventure where you go camping with your family on the 4th of July and watch fireworks over a lake and all seems right in the world. Well, it sure was an adventure but in the moment it seemed more like surviving a stay in a Siberian gulag where everything was definitely not right in the world.
Let me start at the beginning. My friend, Neil, and I had taken a year out of college to work at a hospital near Kigoma, Tanzania. It was coming up on Christmas time and we were planning a trip down to visit my family who were living in Mozambique at the time. Taking a train from Kigoma across Tanzania to Dar es Salaam on the coast and then taking a bus from there down to Malawi and on to Mozambique seemed like the most epic route possible. We had no idea just how much adventure we were signing up for. We purchased tickets in Kigoma and chose first class because we wanted to ensure we'd have a place to sleep and not have to worry about people stealing our stuff. Once the trip got going it was supposed to take two days and one night in between with a couple of stops in the major cities. We soon discovered that that itinerary was more of a suggestion of how the trip could go but not how it would go. The train would stop ever half hour or so in random spots where there weren't even buildings but there'd be a few people beside the track who wanted a ride. Let's just say a rapid pace we did not make.
Our little room was decent and we had it to ourselves which was nice. The downside being that our car was closest to the engine and if we opened the window to get a breeze we'd also end up with a room full of smoke from the engine. Our window was held up by a stick and the conductor instructed us to leave it closed when asleep or out of the room as "bad men might climb in and rob you". Well, thanks Mr. Conductor. We didn't want to feel safe or anything anyways. The trip progressed with equal parts sweat and adventure. We ended up spending an extra night in the train stopped in a station because another train had broken down on the tracks ahead of us. Some of the highlights included having a rat run across me on the lower bunk as I tried to sweat myself to sleep, being bitten by a monstrous bug that needed lunch and meeting a new friend named, Nigel, who liked country music. By the time we reached Dar es Salaam Neil and I had decided we were going to make a slight adjustment to our travel itinerary and fly from Malawi to South Africa where my family would be for the upcoming weekend. That still left us being a mere 1700 km from where our flight would leave from.
We had heard that you could get a bus that would take a day and a night before depositing you in Lilongwe, Malawi. After wandering about Dar we were able to get tickets and showed up at the appointed hour early the next morning to leave. Our tickets had specific seat numbers on them which gave us hope we might not have to fight for a place to sit. At first this seemed to be the case but our bus began to stop for people along the road who quickly filled the aisles and the battle for space had begun. The trip went quite smoothly compared to our train trip up until we got to the Malawian border. We reached it at night and most of the passengers on the bus emptied out to find nearby lodging. We and a few other foreigners remained on the bus along with a guy who had been sitting beside on of the foreigners in the back of the bus. Just after falling asleep I was awakened to see the foreigner from the back of bus standing in the aisle asking if he could sit by me. He introduced himself, (we'll call him Carl) said he was from Canada and proceeded to tell the story which had forced him to seek some sleep near us. He had fallen asleep in the back only to awaken and see his seat mate with his hands in Carl's bag rummaging about. When asked what he was doing the wily thief stated he was picking up Carl's water bottle as it had tipped over...out of sight inside of Carl's bag. The rest of the night passed uneventfully and the next morning started off with one individual from each group of foreigners getting called into an official's office to be questioned about our backgrounds and plans for entering Malawi. Thankfully Malawi continues to be the warm heart of Africa and as I had been born in Malawi my questioning ended in laughs, smiles and requests to move back to Malawi in the future.
The rest of our trip went by in much the same manner and would require a mini-series to do it justice. Let's just say that to truly see a country you need to leave the airport, beach resort or safari lodge and get out and travel with its people. My travels in Africa and that year in particular rank up at the top of the places I've been. If you're looking for an adventurous trip and to meet friendly, amazing people then start planning your trip to Tanzania and Malawi...before moving on to the other amazing surrounding countries.