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Monica Dispatch

Tall Tales from the Train

The ghost train route
Monica and Kavitha may have already spent too many hours on African trains -- the rest of the Team thinks this mode of transportation may be playing games with their minds! However, it also provides us with an opportunity to enjoy half-fact, half-fiction stories, like this mysterious tale written by Monica (AKA Hugh Dunnit). See if you can guess what's true and what's not! Hope you enjoy it as much as the rest of us:

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All aboard the magical, mystery train!
"Clickety-clack, clickety-clack," went the train as it sped from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls, under half-moonlit skies. Kavitha had booked a two-person coupe for Ms. K. Rao and Ms. M. Flores for the overnight express ride leaving at 9 o'clock on the dot, and she and Monica were finally getting settled in.

Earlier, at the Bulawayo station, there had been some commotion with the conductor. The pair had arrived early, boarded, and found their coupe with the help of an over-friendly porter. However, upon putting down their backpacks, the light wouldn't turn on. Monica tried flipping the switch. Nothing. Kavitha tried jiggling the switch. Still nothing. Hmmmm... precursor of strange things to come?

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The train ride started innocently with sandwiches and candles.
The conductor eventually sent the electrician their way. The girls had set up a candlelit dinner with bread, avocados, sprouts, cabbage, and their ever-present garlic, on the pull-out table. They were just starting on their sandwiches when the electrician arrived with his toolkit. The conductor, standing outside the window on the station platform, pleaded with the couple, "Do hurry and move your things, because we are waiting for you before we can leave." Monica thought that silly, as the two had waited for the electrician for over twenty minutes, but they set aside the sandwiches and stood in the hallway drumming their fingers. With a wave of his fingers, the light flickered back on. In the harsh neon brightness of the repaired light fixture, the electrician blew out their candles haughtily and leered down at the girls. "I hope you have a good trip," he intoned, and gave them a sinister smile.

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Ghost stories anyone?
After giving each other questioning looks, our intrepid heroines arranged themselves back in the coupe once again. They re-lit the candles and spread out the refreshments, nodding their heads. "Ahhhh," Kavitha sighed contentedly. Monica spread out the avocado with a shiny spoon. Tastefully appointed with cozy wooden paneling, a fold-down metal washbasin, a mirrored cabinet, small table, and freshly-laundered bed linen on the comfortable green bunk beds, the train hearkened back to the early days of fashionable travel. This is the era when Cecil Rhodes wanted to build his rail line from Cape Town to Cairo but made it to Beira, Mozambique, and the Congo border, before telegrams and air travel made his railway unnecessary.

The train gave a giant lurch forward, and off they went, pulling out of Bulawayo at 9:07 PM. As they passed, they excitedly pointed to the posted train schedule, which, in bold letters, announced "Arrive Hwange National Park 1:00 AM. Arrive Victoria Falls 7 AM."

Periodically, the train stopped for long stretches of time. But why? Some would say it was to make up the time difference: the journey by bus takes five hours. The train goes all night. To arrive at a decent hour in Victoria Falls, the train paused while on the tracks. Or was it a more frightening plot?

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The calm before the storm. Watch out for mysterious hands!
At one stop, Kavitha, engrossed in typing her Odyssey dispatches, saw a rustling movement out of the corner of her eye. Turning her head, she shrieked, "Come back here!" Monica, outside in the hallway, hastened into the coupe and asked what happened. Kavitha pointed to the open window with distraught eyes. "There was a hand, feeling in my backpack. I think it got away with a plastic bag!" Sticking her head out the window, eyes getting used to the darkness, Monica looked first up, then down the tracks. Nothing. Disembodied hands that reached through the windows? Lights that turned on only when the railway staff touched them? Meaningless stops while on the tracks? Monica raised one eyebrow, then helped Kavitha find out what was missing. Only her rubber shoes, computer, bag of spices, and scarf were at the top of the backpack, but those were all still in the cabin. The mysterious hand made away with... what?

Monica made her way through first class to the dining hall, and ordered a Mazoe orange with soda water from the graying barman. She had heard that Mazoe was a uniquely Zimbabwean, non-alcoholic flavor. While she waited, she turned around the corner to visit the snack section, where the man behind the counter beamed at her and boomed in a heavy voice, "Oh, you are Filipino!"

"How do you know?" she asked, after a pause while she regained her composure. No one at all during the entire trek had placed her origins accurately. And fellow World Trekker Kevin had his own identity issues in Peru.

"I know, because I like the face!" he slapped the counter. She politely solicited his advice between the chocolate creams and the lemon cookies (he preferred the chocolate), and collected a bag of chips from him. He continued, "How many children do you have? I would very much like to marry you!"

When she protested and showed him her silver ring from Potosi, he shooed her away, grinning, "I will buy you an emerald and a gold ring. I like your face! I really do!"

On her way back, the train swayed from side to side. Although somewhat prone to motion-sickness, Monica was now accustomed to the frequent pauses, the whiplash of the train starting again, the constant rocking movement, and the periodic tootings of the train horn. Mulling over the attendant who knew far too much about her, as well as the question of the misbehaving lights and the mystery of the thieving hand, Monica stuck her head out the window for a refreshing blast of highveld wind.

Outside, the night air whistled through miles of grassland. Who knew what beasts lurked in the high plains, encircling their prey, waiting to pounce? There was no sound but a lone dog barking from a faraway village, mixed with the rustling of the high grass. The faint lights of single-room huts, small fires in front, burned in the distance.

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Mirror, mirror, on the wall... Bring Kavitha back before Vic Falls!
When she arrived at cabin 1073, coupe C, she was momentarily taken aback. The image of Kavitha, lit by candlelight, seemed to have appeared in front of the door, for just an instant, but when Monica blinked, hard, it disappeared. "Kavitha?" she questioned blank air. She looked up the hallway but there was nobody there. Shaking her head bemusedly, Monica opened the door to come inside and sat down on the empty bottom bunk bed. And screamed!

There was Kavitha, banging wordlessly on the mirrored glass of the cabinet door for help. There was no sound but the clickety-clacketing of the tracks while Kavitha mouthed out some urgent message that Monica couldn't seem to hear. "Kavitha! Are you okay?" Monica rapped on the glass. Kavitha's mirror image suddenly looked frightened, turned around and moved away, vanishing into the darkness of the mirror. Monica was left staring at her own image.

The overhead light flickered once and almost went out, and Monica, hands on the mirror, made a fist and banged the mirror surface frustratedly. The lights went back on again. Stunned, she sat down and with wide eyes, put her finger on the outline of where Kavitha had appeared. The train slowed to another pause on the tracks, and she stood there, in silence, eyes wide with fright. She hurried to the neighboring coupe and knocked on their door.

"Ja, Who is it?", inquired the voice inside. A faint pause while Monica knocked again, whispering, "Please, hurry."

A German man opened the door a crack, blinking with sleep. "What can I do now?" he inquired, as he rubbed his eyes. Monica hurriedly explained and said worriedly, "You must come next door and see, please."

"Ja, you must just let me put on my trousers," the man said, and closed the door. "I will come in a moment," his muffled voice came through the door as Monica stood in the hallway fidgeting.

"I'll just be inside that coupe. It's next door. It's number one-oh-seven-three C, just to the left," she called out. She hurriedly went into the room.

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Monica shouts wordlessly and helplessly as the train rolls onward
The man, pulling on his trousers, was shaking his head. Too many travellers in one place sometimes irritated him -- especially the Americans who always wanted something. He buckled his belt, tucked in his shirttails, then stepped into the hallway and turned down to the neighboring coupe. Knocking, he heard no answer. The train slowed again for one of its infernal pauses on the tracks. He knocked again, while the train creaked to a stop.

Finally, the man pulled open the sliding wooden door to the entrance of the coupe. There was nobody inside, but there were backpacks, the remains of a meal, some burnt-out candles and even a portable computer sitting around. He frowned, then shrugging his shoulders he shut the door and went back to his room. "Americans," he muttered.

He hadn't noticed the image of Monica, reflected in the top cabinet mirror, wordlessly yelling for help.

"Clickety-clack, clickety-clack," went the train as it arrived into Victoria Falls Station. It had travelled the Bulawayo-Vic Falls route many times before. It would go this route many, many times again.

-by Hugh Dunnit

Monica - Cecil Rhodes: Lowdown Thief or Hero for the Nation?
Team - The Mark of the Pioneer Column
Kavitha - Fables of the Falls
Kevin - The Creature Within

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