There are the days,
The ones we will remember forever
Tired eyes bear that same light
Tight corners at the smiles
Reflected in the tears that never age
The laughter and the pain of these days…
The Kapiri Mposhi station stands as the whitest of elephants in the literal Zambian bush. It’s a squarest square, all embossed lines and patterns in white and cobalt blue paint that was popular with the architects of the seventies. Or was it the eighties? My Lonely Planet is buried deep in a mess of dirty clothes on my back and I’m disinclined to fish it out to date the look precisely.
Bold, blue letters the height of the banged-up taxi on the orange dirt below declare ‘New Kapiri Mposhi’ on the roof of the edifice. There’s little new about the place. Built by ‘the Chinese’ to ship copper from Zambia’s womb to the hungry port of Dar es Salaam, we passengers are a secondary concern. Paying versions of Kerouac’s train-riding vagabonds, on our way to wherever. Today, ‘wherever’ happens to be where the copper goes. Tanzania, and another building which will presumably look a good deal like this – ‘New Dar es Salaam’ perhaps? I doubt it. There wouldn’t be enough space for the letters on the roof.
I am pleasantly surprised at the long beast sitting on the rails. Immaculate steel for hundreds of meters and cabins made for long, shared journeys.
Entering is cool, almost damp after the dry heat and dust outside, and I hang out instinctively with the other dharma bums I’d found my way here with. Naomi and Patric sit unconcerned in one corner of the boxed interior and watch life pass by unconcerned. Patric is somewhere around my height, but with the swarthiness and strong jaw of an Italian model. He has an easy smile and seems primed to laugh, relaxed. By contrast, Naomi seems tense and a little on edge. Tiny and blonde in comparison to Patric, an intimidating demeanour compensates for her size. Even as she smiles, her eyes aren’t there. Rifle-barrel cold. Next to Patric’s gregariousness, it’s even more pronounced. I can’t help but think to myself that it’s as if someone had filled her with steel through her eyes.
Sitting on our backpack fortress, we aren’t talking much yet. We’d crossed paths only hours before on the bus that brought us to New Kapiri Mposhi. I knew a little about them. Read that they were dating. That they’ve been travelling this stretch of Africa a lot longer than I have. I had seen them reading me too. We’re a little like strays that way, still sussing each other out. Deciding whether we liked what we saw. Deciding whether we might bite. Mostly, I was watching those eyes and backing down every time they watched me back.
The train itself, like a host late at their own dinner party, took its time in arriving. A thousand tonnes of steel sneaking onto the platform until a steamy exhalation tipped its hand. Families, children, bags and colourful chaos jostle through the baby blue entrances to the some-decade platform and climb aboard every open door in the now-silent machine. I am pleasantly surprised at the long beast sitting on the rails. Immaculate steel for hundreds of meters and cabins made for long, shared journeys.
Boarded and with a last check from the stationmaster, the train screams on the smooth steel rails and chunks, heaves, gathers itself and begins its slower, slow, faster jog.
Leaving is over, and three days now remain between us in our shared cabin before we’ll see the other side of this adventure. Sniffing over, Naomi turns her eyes on me as the three of us relax into the journey and start to open up a little and share carefully planned stories of ourselves.
She mentions, as the Zambian countryside begins to clack by outside, that she had worked as an aid worker in Northern Uganda. I ask her what that was like, picking up on the strange omen of her mentioning an place whose troubles represent something that I have my own designs on trying to see in time. Naomi, as if given permission by my interest, finally speaks in full.
Endless detail. Terrible stories of her time spent there. Of refugees starving in government camps, president Museveni’s massacring of whole villages in the war that brought him power. Of two brothers, small children, abandoned as villagers fled and subsisting on puddles of water and vegetation until they were found. Rescued, only to be left behind in a world that she, and every other dharma bum, is free to leave.
Held in the spell of her tales, I realise that the cold grey in Naomi’s eyes comes from looking into that worst darkness of the human spirit. Seeing it and not blinking or looking away. It’s a burned-in realization of the way the world is. It’s a truth, orphaned amongst the others that we polish for the world, of places too dark for us to know how to cope with. I am fascinated by the evidence of horrors seen that those eyes contain. Incontrovertible evidence of what lies in the places I wish to go some day with my own still-bright eyes and what light I can bring for as long as my fire holds.
I recognise, as conversation wanes and I watch the ochre sunset burn to slag on the horizon outside, that I have not chosen wrong. That where life leads is where I need to be. To learn what I must to see the world as it truly is. As the train clacks on into the night on its long, inevitable voyage, I am reassured a little at the strength of steel to carry me through the darkness yet.
I always tried
You will say.
Though the eyes age
They will always betray the soul
That lived in those days
The ones we will remember forever