The Day Train to Nampula

Wednesday, August 9, 2006 | Nampula, Mozambique

The train trundled all day across northern Mozambique, stopping at every market town along its route.
After a relatively riot-free boarding process, the train pulled out of Cuamba before dawn. In our second class cabin was a young woman—my age at most—and her baby, stow-aways seeking to avoid the dregs of third class.

The frigid, damp morning air streaming into our cabin window soon warmed as the sun emerged, gently illuminating the large granite cliffs that unexpectedly loomed up from the otherwise flat plains of northern Mozambique.

At each station—every few hundred meters, it seemed—the train skidded to a long, screeching halt to allow an exchange of passengers. It was accompanied by an onslaught from the small army of men, women and children which each village had conscripted to hurriedly hawk fruits and vegetables alongside the train at the top of their lungs. After several minutes the chaotic scene would explode
abruptly as the locomotive's whistle tooted and, after a mulish, heel-dragging pause, the metal beast would lurch forward. The more ambitious and athletic produce sellers sprinted alongside the accelerating carriages, flinging papayas, chickens, oranges, sugar cane or cabbages into passengers' waiting grasp and diving to catch the coins pitched at them in return.

After the ticket collector reluctantly ejected the young woman and baby from our cabin, a new woman arrived in her place. In the few hours between her entrance and the train's arrival in Nampula, she managed to amass a small produce stand's worth of fruits and vegetables, which spilled over her lap and out from under her feet, defying her efforts to cram them under her seat.

A major highlight of the train ride was the spectacular "Mission Impossible"-esque leap one was forced (or fortunate, as I saw it) to make in passing from our carriage to the neighboring dining car. A door in each car linked the two, but the train's conductor had lost the key to one of the doors, leaving it permanently locked. Thus, moving between cars, even as the train sped down the rails, involved swinging around the outside of the train by clutching onto a series of handholds and cables hanging between the cars. The feat proves even more challenging—and, of course, more exhilarating—when attempted with a full mug of coffee in one hand just as the train reached top speed. "It doesn't get much better than that," I thought. That was, until Ben and I found a series of ladder rungs in the narrow space between two of the cars and managed to clamber up to the roof of the moving train.

Our arrival in Nampula was followed by Joop and Rene's usual hotel shopping period, after which they ended up in a $35-a-night lodge that could have passed for a palace by local standards. Trying to stick to my usual budget regimen, I took the cheap route, and ended up spending the night in the seediest hotel I've ever stayed in. It was so dodgy that that evening, after ordering my food at a local restaurant, I couldn't sit still—I had to rush back to the hotel just to verify that my belongings were still in my room before hustling back to eat dinner. By quickening my pace and ducking my head whenever I entered or left the hotel, I managed to avoid the advances of the prostitutes who loitered idly by the reception.

There being no screens on the room's windows, I spent much of the night clutching my sheet tightly over my whole body to keep the malaria-carrying mosquitoes off me, removing it only when I desperately needed to lie on it to frustrate the progress of the attacking bedbugs beneath me.

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