Across the border and onto the train


Apologies for the tardy post, but since we said goodbye to Malawi, time has raced by. After crossing the border into Tanzania, we spent five days waiting for a train in a city called Mbeya and did very little there other than play Yahtzee, drink coffee, and get depressed at our prospects (while this doesn’t sound like the kind of experience where time races by, it did, strangely).

The border crossing was painless as we’d read all the advice about rip off merchants and neatly side-stepped them, but it takes a certain amount of tunnel vision as well as polite but firm ‘no thanks’ to the several hundred people offering lifts, money-changing services and goodness knows what else.

Mbeya is fairly relaxed, the centre is quite thinly populated, but the whole place sprawls and the suburbs seemed very busy when we drove through. Like most places in Malawi, the city pretty much shuts down at dark and if you want to get dinner at 9pm, you need a bit of luck to find somewhere. This will involve asking locals and then walking down pitch dark streets with a small amount of faith that you will find the place and not get mugged en-route (though the fears are usually unfounded).

But here’s what’s different – even in a small southern city, it’s immediately apparent that there’s a lot more money here in Tanzania than there is in Malawi. Blantyre, Malawi’s biggest financial hub, is noticeably less well off than Mbeya, which is apparent in everything from what’s on sale in the shops, the food on offer in cafes, the size of the buildings and the volume of cars.

Mbeya itself didn’t have much to offer visitors, but we acquainted ourselves with plenty of cafes and restaurants of varying qualities. There’s a place called the Ridge Café which we have since found out (from our wonderful host Leanne, in Dar es Salaam) was set up by an American guy who used to work for Starbucks. He has done a very good job of it, using some of the business nous from his old employer (attention to detail in reducing wastage, processes etc.), and selling locally produced coffee as well as locals’ crafts. They have a branch in Mbeya and one in Dar. Interesting to see how that goes.

After five days waiting, at least five phone calls, several text messages, three visits to Mbeya station, and a five-hour long wait at the world’s most understaffed ticket office, we were very relieved to find that we did in fact have a space on the train to Dar. Ross did very nearly have a nervous breakdown over the sheer disorganisation of the place (a particular highlight was when he waved a cheese sandwich round preaching to no one in particular about the wonders of said cheese sandwich). But when we got on the train, found our cabin, and cracked open the wine and cheese, life seemed a great deal better!

We spent about 23 hours on the train, passed through beautiful countryside including Selous game reserve (the largest in Tanzania). We didn’t spot animals, but the whole experience was pretty enjoyable.

As I write this, we are just about to leave Dar, but it definitely deserves a post all of its own, so that will be coming in the next few days. Suffice to say that the depression at our prospects lifted, we’ve met some really amazing people, and taken part in some excellent projects in the short time we’ve been here. This all thanks to the lovely Annelies who we met in Ruarwe and who put us in touch with her contacts here, and to the kindness, generosity and love from our hosts here in Dar.


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