Wednesday, 12 December 2012

58 Hours Later ...

We did it! We survived the 3-day, 2-night train ride from Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The trip was not without its share of interesting stories and struggles, however.

We took a 2.5 hour bus ride from Kitwe to Kapiri Mposhi in the morning, arriving in Kapiri at 11:45 am. The moment we stepped foot off the bus, we were swarmed by taxi drivers. One guy tapped me (Byron) on the back and asked if I wanted to be taken to the Tazara Train Station. He offered to take me there for 20,000 kwacha ($4). As a general rule, I assume that locals try to double the price on anything for musungus (white people or foreigners) so I talked him down to 10,000 kwacha, insisting I knew it only cost that much. He grabbed our bags and led us to his “taxi” which was a beat up Toyota Corolla that obviously was not a legitimate taxi. We hesitated, knowing that we were subjecting ourselves to the risk of being taken for a ride and mugged. The guy seemed amused. “Why are you worried? I’ve never seen anyone so worried!” he said, laughing. Those words weren’t comforting but, really, we had no other choice. I took solace in the fact that it was broad daylight and that I know I represent a rather imposing figure, not to be messed with, in the eyes of many. Strangely, Diane was not as confident. Luckily, it was a short ride and we got to Tazara Station without any hassle. Immediately, a guy tried to help us take our bags out of the “taxi”. I said no several times but he kept trying to help with the bags. I literally had to push him back and insist that we didn’t need his help before he left us alone. This is Africa.

A month ago, I called the number on the Tazara website to reserve our first class sleeper cabin on the train. The guy on the other end of the line didn’t even so much as take my name but said I was booked and confirmed. I prodded for an email confirmation. He told me to call him later to remind him because he wasn’t in the office. I found it quite interesting that I hadn’t called an office but, rather, some random guy on his cell phone. Of course, I never received an email confirmation, despite calling the same number back a dozen times throughout the following weeks and despite even having Pastor Blessings speak to him in Bemba. So it was to no one’s surprise that, when we showed up at the station and inquired about our reserved cabin, we were told that first class was sold out and that we had to purchase second class tickets. I was pissed and determined to let them know about it. As a result, I was tossed around to different “managers” or “bosses” who did absolutely nothing to help me. All they could say was, “Yeah, that’s too bad. Sorry about that.” Awesome. Even more awesome is that purchasing an entire second class cabin is more expensive than an entire first class cabin because you have to pay for six beds instead of four. I demanded that, because it was their fault that they had given away my reservation despite me showing up to the station two hours before departure, I shouldn’t have to pay any more than what I was supposed to have originally paid. Who was I kidding? It’s not like any of these guys cared. In fact, I was doing nothing other than being a na├»ve musungu thinking that my huffing and puffing would land me in a more beneficial situation than the one we were already stuck in. After about an hour of stomping my feet, I gave in and purchased an entire second class cabin (approximately $225). What a sucker I am. This is Africa.

When it came time to board the train, chaos broke loose. Those in third class, which is similar to unassigned airplane seating, all rushed towards the gates. We felt the need to do the same and pushed and shoved our way through the chaos to board the train. After some searching (nothing is clearly marked), we found our cabin. Check it out.

Byron's bed. Luckily we brought our own travel sheets and travel pillows!
The narrow hallway outside our cabin
I don’t know why we were expecting any different but we were less than impressed. Our cabin was was no bigger than a closet, with three sleeping boards lining each wall. However, we took a little solace in the fact that a first class sleeper cabin was identical, with the number of beds being the only difference. Immediately, I felt vindicated about my decision to purchase the entire cabin. Sharing this tiny space with 4 random strangers for 3 days would have been a huge battle. We looked for the bathroom and found a door at the end of the train compartment. When I opened it, the only thing inside was a hole that led out to the bottom of the train and a small sink that didn’t work. There was no running water on the train yet the floor on the bathroom was soaking wet. Fantastic. Maybe we shouldn’t have worn flip flops ... What we had initially thought would be a bathroom, complete with shower and toilet, for each cabin was actually just a hole for each compartment. This is Africa!

The train rocked back and forth on the rails, at times enticing bouts of motion sickness. Because we were on the ordinary train, and not the express train (which only leaves on Tuesdays), it stopped at 63 different stations along the way. Yes, 63. Some stops lasted only a couple minutes. Others lasted a few hours. Every time we stopped, locals would run alongside the train selling food. Little kids would spot us out through the window and ask for soap or money. “Give me my money,” some of them would demand. We knew it was probably more due to a lack of English skills than it was them being rude but their lack of sweetness made it easier to ignore them. Others would just stop and stare in awe at the musungus on the train.

Every time we stopped, we were flung forward due to the abruptness of the braking. This was particularly fun when we were sleeping, or at least attempting to sleep. A good night’s rest was difficult to come by, partly due to how uncomfortable the beds were (whatever part of our bodies we slept on would be sore after a few minutes) and partly due to the constant noise throughout the night. It literally seemed like the train stopped every 15 minutes in the middle of the night, people would get on, and all this commotion would start up. At one point, we were stopped for a long time and it sounded like we were in the middle of a busy market in the middle of the day.

While on board, we were offered three meals a day, at a price of 15,000 kwacha ($3) per person (while we were in Zambia) and 3,500 Tanzanian shillings (a little over $2) when we were in Tanzania. Breakfast consisted of two slices of buttered bread, eggs and a couple of sausages. Lunch and dinner was your choice of rice or nshima (mielie meal) with chicken, beef or fish. By the end of the journey, we were so sick of rice and chicken! Before each meal, Richard, our waiter, would come by our cabin and take our order. After every meal, we tipped him 1,000 kwacha, which must have meant a lot to him because he started giving us preferential treatment. He would stop in our cabin when he wasn’t busy and sit down to chat, despite his very limited English. On the last day, he brought us our lunch of rice and chicken, as usual, and left to attend to others. Before we had a chance to start eating, Richard returned with another plate that contained a giant piece of chicken. He then swapped it with the measly piece of chicken on Diane’s plate, gave us the thumbs up, and then left to serve her former piece of chicken to someone else. Hilarious! For dinner that night, there was no room service because the train was supposed to have arrived in the afternoon and there wasn’t enough food to go around. No one knew about this. Richard, however, came into our cabin and told us about this “secret issue”, as he termed it. He told us that he would take our food order for dinner but that we couldn’t tell any of the other passengers. He got busted delivering us our food and got reamed out by one of the other passengers but he didn’t care. What a beauty.

Diane with Richard
The entire time on the train, we didn’t shower. We could barely even wash our hands with the lack of running water and soap. It was like we were covered by a film of grease and dirt by the end of the third day. Literally, we, and all of our stuff, were covered in dirt from all the dust flying through the open windows. We didn’t help matters by wearing the exact same clothes for all three days. Yes, I know ... we are disgusting. But we didn’t care. During the day, the heat on the train was unbearable. Even with the windows open, we were constantly sweating and sticky from the humidity. By day three of stewing in our own filth, we were more than ready to get off that train! On top of all that, we discovered cockroaches hiding out in the wall of our cabin. The roaches decided to come out as soon as we got closer to the coast where the humidity was significantly higher. To compound the gross feelings even more, we hadn’t gone “number two” the entire train ride because of our reluctance to squat on the soaking wet floor in a rocky train. Could you imagine … pants around the ankles, squatting over the hole, trying to keep your feet from making contact with any of wetness on the floor, when all of a sudden, the train jolts or slams on the brakes? Not a pretty sight.

The train was scheduled to arrive at 15:46 on Sunday. It didn’t arrive until 00:30, almost 9 hours late. This was a huge problem for us, not only because it meant 9 extra hours on the train, but because we were wary of arriving into Dar es Salaam in the middle of the night. When we were still in Zambia, we had called our hotel to arrange for a shuttle but indicated that the train would likely be very late. The hotel said that they would send a driver at 17:00. We had no way of contacting them because our Zambian SIM cards didn’t work in Tanzania and because the Tanzanian SIM cards we bought on the train didn’t contain any airtime (despite the guy telling me that there was 10,000 kwacha on each of them). We were convinced that there was no chance the driver would still be there so we asked Richard if he could help us get a taxi. I figured that if we had a local communicating on our behalf, we were less likely to get ripped off or mugged. He did one better and called someone to come wait for us at the train station. It’s nice to have friends! It turns out that the driver our hotel arranged for was waiting for us after all, creating an awkward situation with our new friend. We apologized to Richard and thanked him for being so helpful and decided to go with the safest option of using our hotel transport.

Apparently, the Man upstairs was looking after us. Some guys we met on the train (a Spanish guy and two Korean guys) had planned to travel to Zanzibar immediately after arriving in Dar es Salaam. With the train scheduled to arrive midday, they figured they would have plenty of time and, thus, didn’t bother making arrangements for accommodations or transportation in Dar es Salaam. We ended up seeing them at the airport a couple of days later on our way to Mombasa and they explained to us that, after getting off the train in Dar es Salaam, they got in a “taxi”, got driven somewhere far away, and then were robbed. The Spanish guy went so far as to say, “I’m not even joking. We were almost killed.” Unfortunately, they were extremely late for their flight so didn’t have time to stop and give us all the details. We exchanged contact information, however, so I hope to get the full story someday. It was a sobering reminder of the dangers of traveling in Africa, or any other developing nation, for that matter. It hit us particularly hard because we couldn’t help but think how easily that could have been us.

Needless to say, we were ecstatic to get off the train after three long days. Despite all of the inconveniences, the frustrations and the grossness, we were glad to have gone through the experience and to have had the chance to see the beautiful African countryside. The whole time on the train, we kept telling ourselves that this is an experience we would look back on and laugh about. Having said that, we will never ride an African train for that long ever again! I can’t write this post without giving Diane some major props. She was a trooper throughout the entire trip! Check out some of the scenery photos.

Displaced trains along the tracks. Not very reassuring!

After we heard about those guys’ story at the airport, I turned to Diane and asked her, “When we’re in heaven, do you think that we’ll be able to look back on our life and see all the instances where God looked after us and took care of us without us even realizing?” It’s easy for us to go through the day without ever turning our minds to the times in life when God has come through. We’re quick to question where God is in the midst of tragedy or the truth of His existence in the face of suffering. Conversely, we rarely, if ever, attribute daily successes or minor miracles to Him, choosing to believe that it is of our own doing or that we just happened to stumble into some dumb luck. Maybe I would be typing this blog post right now with or without God’s intervention on that train ride or even over the last few months of us being here in Africa. We’ll never know. But we can’t help but get a sense that the Man upstairs has been looking out for us from day one. For that, we are incredibly thankful. Please continue to pray for us along our journey. Your prayers have undoubtedly carried us this far!

Thursday, 6 December 2012

We're Off to Meet our Kids!

Tomorrow, on December 7th, we will be setting off on our Christmas vacation! It’s hard to believe that it was just a little under 3 months ago that we left home for Africa and now we’re less than 3 weeks away from Christmas. Time really does fly! This Christmas, we’ll be taking the opportunity to travel around Africa and to finally experience being a tourist here after all this time! As excited as we are to make this trip, it’s definitely bittersweet, as this will be the first Christmas away from our families for both of us. To make it an even tougher pill to swallow, this just happens to be the worst Christmas for us to be away from home! First, we are missing out on Byron’s mom’s 60th birthday celebration (apparently the most celebrated of all birthdays in Chinese culture) on December 18th, which we know she is quite disappointed about. Second, we are missing out on the first Christmas for the two newest additions (Reese and Teddy) to the extended Chan family. With all that considered, with a four-week break from work, we may never get a better chance to explore other parts of Africa.

Below is a rough itinerary of our upcoming journey:

First Stop – Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
This isn’t so much a chosen destination as it is a destination by necessity. Due to the very expensive cost of flights from Zambia to Kenya, we are taking the train from Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia to Dar es Salaam, en route to our intended destination of Mombasa, Kenya. The train is scheduled to take three days and two nights but we have heard of many instances where the train has been delayed – sometimes up to 24 hours! As if three days on an African train isn’t already long enough! While on the train, we have tickets for a “first class” sleeper cabin, complete with its own toilet and shower. First class is in quotation marks because everything here is relative. The train itself is pretty old and, from the reviews online, there seems to be a 50/50 chance that we’ll have running water in our bathroom! Gotta love those odds!

We are scheduled to arrive into Dar on Dec. 9th, and with our flight not leaving to Mombasa until Dec. 11th, we should have plenty of leeway to accommodate any lengthy train delays. Should we get to Dar on time, we will take the opportunity to explore the city. However, we’ve heard from quite a few people that Dar is a bit of a craphole, to put it nicely (apologies to any native Tanzanians reading this blog!), so we’re not too bothered either way!

Second Stop – Mombasa, Kenya
The reason behind the entire trip. In 2010, we became sponsor parents to two children in Kenya through Compassion Canada. Their names are Faith (Diane’s little girl) and Silas (Byron’s little boy). One lives 40 km north of Mombasa, while the other one lives 40 km south. Over the last few years, we have exchanged letters with them in the mail about once every few months. It’s been neat for us to develop a relationship with these children halfway across the world and now we are thrilled to have the opportunity to finally meet them! We’re also very interested to see what visiting our children’s homes will be like compared to the home visits we have done here in Zambia and in South Africa. Hopefully our experience over the last few months will really help prepare us for this very special moment and to be a real blessing for our children and their families!

Third Stop – Nairobi, Kenya
After Mombasa, we fly to Nairobi, Kenya where we will meet up with one of our fellow Hands volunteers, Jackie, a local Kenyan. We are very excited about this because there’s no better way to experience a country than to do it with a local! Jackie has also hooked us up with one of her friends in Kenya who has graciously helped us plan our entire trip. A few things in store for us in Kenya: giraffe feeding, elephant orphanage, flamingo park, local markets, Carnivore Restaurant (a famous all-you-can-eat meat restaurant!), local Kenyan church, a visit to Kibera (apparently the largest slum in Africa) and, of course, lots of Kenyan coffee!

Fourth Stop – Arusha, Tanzania
After Nairobi, we will travel by shuttle bus (approximately 5 hours) back down to Arusha, Tanzania, where we’ll stay with our friend, Terry, a pilot who’s been living in different parts of Africa for the past few years. Arusha is only a short drive from Mount Kilimanjaro and, while we put some serious consideration into doing the 7-day hike to the top of the famed mountain, it was a bit too expensive and a bit too time consuming for us to do this time around. I know you’re probably thinking, “as if you two could do a 7-day hike anyways!” which is a legitimate thought. But, apparently, Kilimanjaro can be a relatively easy hike, especially when you have porters carrying your packs and cooking all your food! The only thing we would have needed to worry about is the altitude sickness, which is the main reason the hike takes 7 days. That’s what Terry tells us, anyway. So, instead, our actual plans in Arusha will involve a 3-day safari in the Saharan desert! Terry tells us there’s no better place to do a safari. We’ll see if he’s right.

Last Stop – Zanzibar, Tanzania
Last, but not least, we will make our way by plane to Zanzibar, Tanzania, to take in the Indian Ocean and do some much needed relaxing on the beach. A day trip into the city to do a tour of Stonetown may be on the agenda but, other than that, we anticipate our days to look like this – Sleep. Eat. Beach. Repeat. We keep hearing about how Zanzibar is a must see if you’re in Tanzania, so let’s hope it doesn’t disappoint! Sounds like the perfect way to end the trip!

Contacting ...
If you want to contact us while we are away, email may be the best bet. We plan on getting local Tanzania and Kenya SIM cards during our travels but who knows what difficulties we may run into. We will have internet access from our hotels along every stop so we will be checking emails and you can expect a few blog posts along the way – both about our travels and about some stuff we wanted to write about in Zambia but didn’t get around to before we left.

Please also check out our prayer requests in our Prayer Requests tab. We will definitely need your prayers during our journey. Thank you!

Monday, 3 December 2012

Do you know what's happening in the DRC?

We felt compelled to write a blog post about the dire situation taking place in the DRC. We understand that what is happening right now is not getting much publicity outside of Africa and wanted to make everyone back at home aware of what is going on.

Hands at Work has a presence in the southern DRC and recently has been working at developing a community-based organization in the large eastern city of Goma. Please take the time to read a few (or all) of the articles below to educate yourselves on the current situation. We have also included some older articles on the DRC, specifically as they pertain to the plight of women, the constant danger they face and how they are subject to some of the most atrocious and inhumane acts beyond what one can imagine.

Below is an excerpt of an email sent to the Hands family on November 29th by our Service Centre Coordinator in the DRC, explaining the situation in Goma.

“Goma was in a gloomy situation but now water is available. The orphanage is full packed of children and refugee camps are multiplied all over. There are refugee camps behind the airport, in Mugunga, in Sake though the place has been destroyed because it is there the tense opposition stood between the 2 rival armies until the M23 took over, in the side of Nyamasasa there are plenty refugee camps. In shorts there are plenty of refugee camps where people are suffering with hunger. There is no bank opening and the situation is chaotic. As for the M23 they are still controlling the area and the population got used to it. The Monusco has taken control of the airport this time and the rebels have been given 48 hours by the government to quit Goma. Since the Monusco are controlling the airport we do have hope that things will change again. The situation which is controlling Goma more than the enemy is starvation from ordinary people who cant have access to their bank accounts and ordinary business to the victims in the multiple refugee camps where other people are hiding themselves. I think if our children are not starving in their village of Luhonga and Buhimba they should be scattered in some refugee camps where they may starve.”

Please pray for the women and children that are forced to flee their homes, that are subjected to torture and rape, and who face threats on their lives on a daily basis. Please pray for peace, that there would be no more bloodshed and that innocent lives would be spared. Please pray for the DRC.



Why Goma Matters (November 20)


Q&A: DR Congo Conflict (November 20)