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THE AFRICAN VERSION OF THE FAMOUS ORIENT EXPRESS

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When I informed my reporter/friend Mr. Makande of the Mobasa Times of my intention to take the train from Mombasa to Nairobi, he immediately asked me if I had already purchased my train ticket. I told him I had. He then inquired, "You, of course, purchased a first class ticket. You must only travel first class on that train." I said I had purchased a second class ticket. "We must then go immediately and change it. The difference in price is very little, but the difference in service and comfort is almost unbelievable!"

He went on in a very insistent way, "If you do not have the money, I will loan it to you. But you must go first class. Go get your ticket and we will take care of the matter right away."However, rather than return to the railway station, Mr. Makande took me to a travel agency. It was, in fact, the same agency where I purchased my safari tour package. Mr. Makande explained, "At the train station they would tell you there are no first class tickets left, even if you are buying your ticket for the first time. So everyone who wishes to travel first class must buy a second class ticket first and then go to a travel agency and hand it in and pay the small difference. Then, and only then, will you receive a first class ticket. The travel agency cannot sell you a first class ticket without a second class ticket having already been purchased."

I asked the obvious, "Why?" Mr. Makande responded, "This is East Africa, not America where most things are logical. There is no simple explanation. That is the way it has always been done. Only the travel agencies can issue first class tickets. I do not wish to discuss it any further!" With that we walked back to my hotel.

It was raining very hard on the evening of my departure from Mombasa. I went to the station several hours early to watch the train come in from Nairobi and to observe the people arriving and departing.

Not only am I a railway buff. I am also a train station buff. When I caught my first train in 1950 I went to the Union Pacific depot hours before the train was scheduled to depart. There was from the beginning for me so much of the human drama to observe in and around a train station.

It is my remembrance that the most unusual and curious train stations to spend time in are in India. The Indians have the capacity to inhabit their stations. They will arrive days before their departure. It would appear that every relative finds his way to the station to see even the most distant uncle or cousin off. They wash and sleep and cook on the platform. They may even stay there several days after a family member has departed. In no other country do people make the train station their own quite like the Indians.

In Mark Twain's entertaining book, "Following the Equator," he described the activity of an Indian train station as, "that perennially ravishing show." He was so caught up in it in the city of Allahabad that he did not notice the train he intended to catch was departing without him. Rather than run after it, Twain decided to sit down and wait for the next one. He was approached by an Indian platform official with a green flag. He asked Twain, "Don't you belong on the train, sir?" "Yes," Twain said.

"He waved his flag and the train came back! He put me aboard with as much ceremony as if I had been the General Superintendent."

I walked the full length of this famous train as it briefly paused in Mombasa before it began its 131/2-hour journey back to Nairobi. There was a single green diesel engine, four box cars, six passenger cars, one dining car, three more box cars and the caboose crew car at the rear.

I looked through the windows of the two first class cars. The compartments were being cleaned by the station cleaning attendants - all large, black, laughing, native women. Even from outside these first class compartments, it was clear to me that a faint tinge of luxury remained within them. I had the feeling I was about to board the African version of the Orient Express.