Idiots Bahati Ya Mjinga Episode 5 The Night Train To Mombasa

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Idiots Bahati Ya Mjinga Episode 5 The Night Train To Mombasa

Postby jgh » Jan 12, 2014 3:15 am

Idiots Bahati Ya Mjinga Episode 5 The Night Train To Mombasa

The Idiots never intended to go to Kenya. Their objective was to join a sponsors’ group from Project Zawadi for a combined safari and visit to the remote villages where PZ operates – all in Tanzania.

Enter the Byzantine world of international airfares. The Idiots were able to get fares to Nairobi that, even after the cost of overnight hotels on both ends and shuttle buses both directions, were still much cheaper than flying directly to Kilimanjaro airport.

As the Idiots are wont to do, they decided to expand the time in Kenya to allow some exploration. Kenya’s primary tourist draw is safari travel, which the Idiots would be getting enough of in Tanzania, so they looked at other alternatives in Kenya. Idiot She picked the visit to Sheldrick and the baby elephants. As he read through lists of things to do, one item caught Idiot He’s attention:

The Night Train To Mombasa.

Doesn’t that just roll off the tongue? A friend took to asking Idiot He to remind her what the Idiots were planning to do in Kenya just so she could laugh at his rousing “The Night Train To Mombasa!”

A little more reading resulted in a complex picture. It was clear that this journey was no longer the semi-luxury travel of the colonial years. From there, descriptions diverged. Some riders gave nostalgia-tinged descriptions of 3 course meals served with silver on white table cloths by attentive white-uniformed staff. Others simply said the train was slow and run-down and not recommended – 9 hour buses or 1 hour flights were preferable to the 15 hour train ride.

The Idiots have always dreamed of elegant exotic train travel… Orient Express style. They took The Night Train To Mombasa in hopes of faded glory. Alas… it is not to be found.

They learned that the descriptions of elegant service in shabby-chic facilities all refer to a time prior to Kenya railways giving the franchise to a private company… sometime in the last 8 years or so. The new company is clearly only interested in squeezing every shilling out of this run. They replaced all the rolling stock with old, shabby cars. Gone are the silver and the white uniforms and tablecloths and starched sheets. Stained linens and bedding, torn seats, non-functioning fans and sinks… Idiot She said it well – “You said we were seeking faded glory… instead we got a cheap replica."

A disclaimer here. Though the descriptions may appear quite negative, the Idiots had a good time on the train and are glad they did it – once. They can honestly recommend the ride – but only if one is seeking a train “experience” and is open to some fairly rough travel.

First impressions are always important. The Idiots left their guesthouse 1 ¾ hours early for a ride that, if traffic isn’t too bad, takes 25 minutes. They almost missed their train. Downtown Nairobi traffic is not just heavy – it becomes snarled in ways that gridlocks various streets in unpredictable patterns. They were stopped dead in traffic, sandwiched by four-across traffic in three lanes… once for 10 minutes and once for almost 20 minutes. One never knows why they are not moving… or why the traffic again begins to flow. It is a great mystery to all Nairobi drivers. Traffic lights become irrelevant and policemen seem to step in like Wild-West lawmen, grabbing a particular corner or roundabout and directing traffic in whatever way matches their style and mood.

Arriving at the station – at least they could see it a block or so away – they got into a major queue only to find that construction has cut the whole area off from the station. They spent perhaps 10 minutes creeping through traffic toward the station, with the lane they needed to be in on the other side of a walkway and fence, only to turn around and go back out to the hair-raising roundabout to make another attempt.

They entered a narrow lane that until recently functioned as a sidewalk - now repurposed as a sidewalk AND a driveway for those brave enough to face the obstacle course ahead. The Idiots' driver considered them frail by Kenyan standards and was determined to get them and their luggage to the door of the staion.

The passage full of pedestrians carrying packages and hundreds of handcarts selling all types of food and goods. Eventually the passage resembled driving down the aisle of a busy flea market. Many times the Idiots believed the spaces allowed were a foot or more narrower than the taxi mirrors, but though there were times when one mirror was bruising a guy carrying a sack appearing to weigh perhaps half a ton and the other mirror was snapping off the corner of a roasted corn cart – somehow their driver got them through to the station,

Idiot He asked the fee. He immediately doubled the amount and sent their favorite driver off to face the same journey in reverse.

Pulling their bags across uneven walkways the Idiots eventually got into a line. A bit later they got into the correct line. After security, they were sent to the Upper Class Travel office – and got into another line. Eventually, reservations were confirmed and vouchers issued. They were directed to line 2.

As luck would have it, their car was near the middle of the train and thus was almost straight in front of them. Unfortunately, a steep drop off the platform to the empty line 1, a pull across the tracks and open space, and then a tough climb up a vertical set of narrow steps to a level about 5’ off the ground faced them. They watched other (younger) people do it, so off they went. With great relief they tossed their bags up into the car and boosted themselves up the ladder. Facing nervous exhaustion from the taxi trip and the daring access to the car, they were relieved to find their “First Class Stateroom” was the first one down the aisle.


Old train stations are much of a muchness…




That’s a long way down… and even harder coming up – with baggage!



They later learned that the proper approach was to go down the stairs to a dank, rank tunnel under the tracks to a more reasonable access to the car on the opposite side. Who knew?!

The sun went down as they entered the car.

The train functions on electricity generated by movement, so as the sky darkened and the batteries were drained, the lights faded to a dim glow and the train became a warren of dark narrow hallways crowded with people and luggage. The lack of air movement and old, barely functioning windows sent people to hang out of windows and doors to catch the occasional puff of breeze.



German tourists know there are few hardships that can’t be improved by the application of beer…



Idiot He was approaching the open door near their cabin when a heavy projectile flew past him into the hall area. It was quickly followed by a second and third. Making his way to a window, he learned that it was a porter throwing the packs all the way from the platform across line 1 and into the waiting maw of the car. Each pack contained the bedding for one berth.


Finally the train began to move and the lights began to work. The Idiots assessed their cabin. The seat was wide – easily enough for 3 people – but stained and torn. The floor was not something one would want to make contact with. There was a tiny sink with broken formica covering. The cupboard could hold one or maybe two carryon-sized bags… but the latches didn’t work so the doors, when not wedged by other stuff, would flap for the next 15 hours. There was a fan that didn’t work. The ladder for the upper bunk was missing. The window worked sort-of… the screen could not be operated to cover the open window…with the window and the door to the hall open, some air movement would pass through the cabin.

Moments like this are the true test of an Idiot Traveler. At this point it is all about attitude. That Johnny-come-lately Karl Plinkington (longtime readers will know that these Idiots Abroad reports long predate the Ricky Gervais series on British TV) would do a humorous segment on how miserable he was in the humble surroundings.

The REAL Idiots decided this was all part of a grand adventure… in spite of some rustic facilities, they were still on

The Night Train To Mombasa!






Giving each other their best Idiot grins, they settled in for a long ride together. It had been a long time since lunch, so the Idiots looked forward to dinner. First class tickets included a three-course dinner and breakfast in the dining car.

Around 8 PM the porter asked to make up their beds. They demurred as they weren’t ready to turn their seat into a mattress. They suggested he do it while they were at dinner. He dumped a couple of canvas sacks onto their seat and disappeared. Around 9 PM the porter was more insistent about making up the beds… and they learned that they were second seating for dinner. They didn’t actually see their soup course until after 10 PM.


The dining car looks considerably more inviting in the morning sunlight…



The food was distinctly so-so. One small ladle of watery mushroom soup was quickly consumed by ravenous Idiots. The main course came in segments… first a serving of savory vegetables… a few minutes later some rice… maybe 10 minutes later some tolerable chicken. Dessert was a non-descript fruit cup. All of which would have been OK if not for the “presentation.”

Obviously harried workers, each working independently with no coordination, provided service just short of surly. The tablecloth was dirty from the first service, with a big dirty wet spot in front of Idiot She. The Idiots were pleased when one of the workers took the dirty tablecloth off… and less pleased when he shook it out onto the floor, turned it over, and presented Idiot He with the reverse side of big dirty wet spot. Idiot He responded by covering the spot with a napkin – the only napkin – a thin paper one…

The cutlery was of a stamped steel construction – Idiot He was reminded of Scout camp. One could probably do a photographic essay on the various shapes that cutlery can be bent to and still function somewhat for dining.

So dinner could have been a major bust if not for their dining companions. Across from them were two gentlemen – one a Londoner on assignment from the BBC and the other a Kenyan who had worked for the BBC and who returned to Kenya and does freelance work in the broadcasting field. They were working on a BBC radio program on Indians who migrated from India to East Africa to England in the latter half of the 20th century.

They had a rousing discussion of many topics – and the “leisurely” quality of the service meant they had perhaps an hour and a half to swap stories and experiences. Both men had ridden the train in “the good days” – one as recently as 2004. They said the current train is a pale shadow of what they experienced in previous years.

Michael, the gentleman from Nairobi, kindly corrected the Idiots’ Swahili for the title of the adventure.

The Idiots feel extremely lucky, so the first title was Idiots Bahati – “Lucky Idiots.” Idiot She wanted to include a reference to the fact that, in spite of the perspicacity attributed to them by some readers, they really can take little claim for their successes… the Idiots best experiences tend to come from falling into things while they were planning something else. Thus they altered the title to “Idiots Dumb Luck.” This is where Google Translator sent them wrong. “Idiots Bubu Bahiti” really should be “Idiots Bahati Bubu.” More importantly, bubu means dumb – as in mute – not as intended.

Can any regular reader imagine either of the Idiots as mute?!

So thanks to Michael, the journey became Idiots Bahati Ya Mjinga – pretty much “Idiots with the luck of fools.”

The conversation was not without challenges. The Idiots have not talked about the noise. This old train has noises… and it has noises that make noises. The tracks are laid on metal “ties” and are poorly maintained. There was no syncopated rhythm generated by the trains passage… more clinks and clanks and shakes and rattles. Clashing, clanking, irregular vibrations rattling every fiber of the human body…

Steve Goodman wrote the classic “City of New Orleans” (many will remember Arlo Guthrie or Willie Nelson’s versions) – a nostalgic description of the classic train from Chicago to New Orleans. An excerpt:

And the sons of Pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel.
Mothers with their babes asleep,
Rockin' to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they dream.

But this was not The City of New Orleans – this was The Night Train To Mombasa! Not so much a lullaby as a punk rock assault on the senses.

The linkage between the cars made a major contribution to the noise. Much of the hallway lighting was insufficient or non-functional, so the passage from one car to another was often done darkness. The original technical design had moving plates on each car allowing flexibility, covered by a large flat plate to provide a stable base for passengers as they cross.

Instead, damage and poor maintenance have resulted in bent plates that shift and slide and clank, and sometimes fold up and down and open and close… leaving passengers to estimate their locations and jump over the gaps or land on the supposedly safe middle plate at the risk of having a foot captured between jaws of steel.


A flash photo gives a sense of the challenge at each junction… a door each side that may be closed but is more likely swinging back and forth and the mouth of a demon at the center…


In daytime, the opening and closing of the jaws provided interesting views of the junction and the tracks below,..



Back in their cabin – which could only be locked from within by throwing a latch bolt into the floor – pleased to find all their belongings intact - the Idiots could have minimized the cacophony by shutting their window and door. The trade-off was that the temperature in the cabin would rapidly have reached temperatures fit for baking cookies.

So the Idiots gave up on backgammon and conversation and put themselves to bed. Idiot She had the lower bunk. Idiot He was relieved to find the porter had purloined a ladder from another compartment so he could climb and throw himself into the narrow upper berth – if the train ever hit a stable enough stretch of track for him to climb without being thrown off the ladder or bashing his head repeatedly into the ceiling while clinging to the swaying ladder waiting for an opportunity to launch himself on the final stage. Once in the bunk, he latched the cargo net designed to prevent his being expelled from the bunk to become yet another stain on the floor, and settled in to a troubled sleep.

The canvas packs for the bedding were stored under Idiot He’s pillow, so as He dozed his body moved down the length of the berth. At one point He woke and realized three things. One, the train was on a particularly rough piece of track and the back and forth and shaking woke him up. Two, the reason He had been feeling some relief from the heat was that one of his feet was cool because it was actually sticking out the window of the car. And three, He, as an old man, was responding to shaking and vibrations the way most old men do – he needed to seek the lavatory.

So how hard can it be to go and relieve oneself?
First, disconnect the cargo net in the dark.
Second, climb over the cargo net and onto a narrow ladder that is lurching violently from side to side.
Third, try to find a flashlight and pair of shoes and enough clothing to avoid arrest for indecent exposure.
Fourth, try to do all this without waking Idiot She.
Fifth, head to the four lavatories, two in each car, where the cars join.
Sixth, discover the first lavatory isn’t… it has been converted to a maintenance closet, though the odors suggest it may occasionally serve its original purpose as well.
Seventh,find the second “Choo” is locked for the duration.
Eight, launch himself in the dim light across the clanking plates to check out the lavatories in the next car.
Ninth, discover the third has been used – a lot. Idiot He is has an unwelcome reminder of what was served in the dining car earlier. He backs into the hall.
Tenth, He enters the only semi-clean lavatory and, amidst significant jostling, manages to successfully complete his business.

Idiot He is pleased to report that two subsequent nocturnal trips to the choo were easier based on this first excursion.


Flash photography makes the passage look ever so much more inviting…


The facility. Readers always want to know. And yes, one does get to watch the ties rush by through the hole in daylight…



And then it was dawn. Both Idiots hung out windows and shot fuzzy picture after fuzzy picture trying to capture a sense of rural Kenya in megapixels. They both had gotten just enough troubled sleep to leave them exhausted but wired to observe everything going on around them.

Breakfast fell mid-range between adequate and dismal. They soon headed back to their windows on the world.


Idiot He found he got fewer bruises by walking sideways down the hallways, alternating collisions with the compartment handles on his front and the window frames on his back. One needs to find their own technique and rhythm to manage the very narrow passage. Daylight makes it look almost cheery!




Upon arrival in Mombasa, Idiot She pronounced the trip a success. Her assessment – it was a lot better than the Chinese hard-seat train! Idiot He replied that she had set a very low bar. She replied that 44 years of marriage had given her a lot of experience in that regard.

So that sums up the Idiot experience inside the train. The next episode will give some sense of what the Idiots experienced outside the train. As a preview… a night shot through a dirty train window a mile or two down the track from the Nairobi station…

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Idiots Bahati Ya Mjinga Episode 5 The Night Train To Mombasa



Re: Idiots Bahati Ya Mjinga Episode 5 The Night Train To Mom

Postby Violet Wood-Hoopoe » Jan 12, 2014 6:14 am

Love it! Much better than you related it vocally. We shall book it!
The Dinner service reminds me of someplace we met!
Keep it coming you lucky idiots.
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Re: Idiots Bahati Ya Mjinga Episode 5 The Night Train To Mom

Postby GrannyNanny » Jan 12, 2014 7:56 am

Night Train to Mombasa -- it's an Agatha Christie novel, just begging to be written! Your description conjured up several literary bits and pieces stored in odd corners of my mind. First, the train noises -- right out of Shakespeare: Caliban, saying "The night is full of noises". Then, the trains going over the tracks: "clickety clack, echoing back the Blues in the Night." (Especially when trying to locate an acceptable choo!) Finally, your last pic showing the shacks, people and detritus beside the tracks:(with apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge).

Garbage, garbage everywhere,
The very soul doth shrink.
Garbage, garbage everywhere,
The smell, the stench, the stink!

We in the USA have no idea how fortunate we are to have enough to eat (most of us, at least), and to live in a country where people "adopt a highway", and go out and pick up roadside litter! The contrasts are almost too much for the mind to wrap itself around. Thanks, Jim, for your wonderful descriptions and photos. Phyllis
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Re: Idiots Bahati Ya Mjinga Episode 5 The Night Train To Mom

Postby Haricotsv2 » Jan 12, 2014 10:18 am

Night Train to Mombasa might also be a great title for a jazz album. Your dinner companions sound great, your middle of the night sojourns, not so much!
Sending love on Bob's 65th,
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