The train station in Dar is cushioned from the street by a ring of families seated on their luggage, lounging in the grey light of the overcast day. The omnipresent and riotous mass of hawkers and street boys that surround the ferry to Zanzibar is absent here. The only things for sale in the street are the domestic supplies that three days on the train will require: five liter jugs of water and loafs of bread.
Rachel sits down with our bags and food on a bench just inside. While I am investigating the platforms a women sitting next to her asks for our two five-liter bottles. In broken English she indicates the child lying on the bench next to her. Rachel refuses just before the child’s actual mother returns to take her towards the train. As we rise to enter the platform we see at her feet already two five liter bottles, a mirror of what she asked us to give.
Third class is seating on a first-come first-serve basis. A stern, tightly packed crowd squeezes against the cars awaiting the conductor’s key. Across the platform sits an older train, one that has been gradually cannibalized over a decade of sitting in the yard. The glass is gone from the windows and the cushions from the seats. The light fixtures hang at the end of slack and worn wiring. Bare metal benches sit facing one another. The friction of a thousand sweating bodies has rubbed the paint from the metal leaving the dully glinting sheen of polished steel in the shape of legs and torsos. I imagine the struggle for these seats that has been repeated here over and over again – fighting for a comfort barely greater than the floor beneath it. And even after gaining a seat, three days of dust and bugs through open windows. Three days of unsleeping worry over luggage and theft. Rationed water and the sweet-sour stink of dirt and sweat.
In first class the compartment door has holes where the lock used to be that are plugged with wood scraps. The plastic light cover over the sole working fluorescent fixture is broken in a jagged streak. The pleather of the seats is ripped and faded from the sun. On each side of the door, facing the windows across the hallway, are one-way light panels with sliding covers propped open with scrap wood pieces. In the corner to the right of the window is a miraculously functional sink. I turn it on and wait for the pipe underneath to pool the water on the floor. Instead I hear it trickling down and out onto the tracks below. Above it, what might have been a medicine cabinet at one time is boarded over with the same wood that holds up the light panels and plugs the door. Down the hall, the toilet is a hole cut in the train carriage that drops right out onto the tracks. Squatting to release you can see the ground rushing by underneath. You watch as the contents of your bowels are splashed out across a half mile of track. We jury rig our mosquito net over the window and lay out our sleeping bags on the beds. We are shocked and delighted to find our rock-bottom expectations thoroughly contradicted even before a porter comes to the door with clean sheets and blankets. We are astonished to hear him ask us if we would like dinner delivered.
A half hour out of Dar Es Salaam the sound of car engines and paved roads on tires has disappeared. At our stops beside cornfields and tiny dirt crossings still more people run past us toward the third class cars and the only sound is the steam like hiss of the wheels as they slow to stop and gradually begin their roll again. The horn-blast signaling departure stands out like a beacon in the silence of the dusk. Sticking my head out the window as we enter a curve, I can see the train stretched our fore and aft, black heads leaning on arms as they watch the passing bush. The sounds of children and villages outside mingle with the voices of our neighbors and the people passing by in the hallway. We start and stop with an indeterminate and unfathomable regularity, as though god has asked us all to take a moment and dwell on this one spot. Consider this field and this sky. Absorb them honestly and fully.
There’s a dirty intimacy in this stifling space. Watching Rachel strip off her dusty, sweaty clothes to bathe with water from the tiny bowl of the sink, I imagine the scores of people sequestered in this space for two or three days of equatorial heat. Traveling with strangers or friends or family clinging to whatever ideas of personal space or hygiene are necessary to arrive at their destination. Rachel’s wet body under the dim bare bulb exudes a universality of human life startlingly distinct from the images of objectified female eroticism so often imbued in bathing. She stands half naked in this dirty and impersonal space as I will later and as people have since this train was new. Once upon a time the doors had locks and the floor was a solid mass of clean tile. The windows closed without bracing and the medicine cabinet was filled and emptied by each set of passengers who spent three days watching the landscape go coursing by. The clothes that lie piled on the bed and the walls that contain this bath are a changeable and ephemeral shell over a living, breathing thing. Rachel’s body enduring in the center of her manufactured skins; the endless procession of travelers removing the day’s dust continuing even as the floor has punctured, the locks failed and the windows cracked.
As night falls and the darkness outside carries only the mediated silence of a quiet summer rain. The light fades from the windows and the rhythmic beat of the train over the tracks fades from consciousness. Climbing into bed we turn out the light and find suddenly that the click-clack of the wheels over joined sections of track has diminished only within our own perception. In the dark, the motion and sound of the train become one thing cradling our senses and drawing us off to sleep.