Big Heads, Little Heads

Apr 11, 2020 | 2020 Articles, Maria Ruiz, Travel

by Maria Ruiz

Maria often shares stories with us about Santa Barbara history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.

The train was slowing, and as I looked out the window, I couldn’t see why. There were no galloping giraffes, no wildebeest or gazelle, nothing. A few thin women with pitiful offerings of a tomato or a couple of potatoes on a hub cap or woven plate, a few thin and raggedly dressed children running along the side of the train. The train pulled into what seemed to us like the middle of the African Continent of NOTHING. A chain-like fence kept Africans away from the train and kept the tourists (like us) from leaving the train.


Baobob Trees from Train

A man was walking down the aisle calling out “Visa Officials.” Everyone returned to their cabins. We were prepared, or so we thought. We had looked up the cost of a Zambia Visa on the internet a couple of days before boarding the train and it said $50 U.S. each. We had a hundred dollar bill in our wallet.

In the dining car, the official men had set up their machine (the infrared one to read bills looking for counterfeit ones), their stamp pads, and a metal box for the cash. The girl in front of me in line said, “I’m glad I heard about the increased visa costs before we left Dar Es Salon.” Visa Increase! “What increase?” I managed to squeak out. “They doubled it. A hundred dollars each.” My stomach dropped. I needed another one hundred dollars, and as I looked out the windows, I could see no bank, no town, nothing. She handed them the hundred dollar bill, and they held it up to the window, pushed it into the machine, looked at her, smiled and stamped her passport. I moved out of the line.

I rushed back to my roommates, “Could anyone loan me a hundred dollars just until we get to Kapiri Mposhi, the next big city where we were to disembark? One of the German girls I was sharing a cabin with pulled out a hundred and handed it to me. money

I rushed back to stand in line and finally got to the front. The official took my two one hundred dollar bills, briefly looked at one and handed it back. “Heads too small.” Heads! What heads? And what did the size of heads have to do with it anyway? He pointed at Ben Franklin and repeated “Too small.”

I looked at both bills and sure enough, one head was bigger. He handed me the bill with the smaller one and shook his head. Now what? Which one of us was going to be put off of the train to sit and wait in the middle of nowhere until the other could return to ransom the left one. I rushed back to the German girls, and they managed to put together a hundred with smaller bills but big heads. They didn’t need to get visas as they had gotten them in Berlin before they started their travels. I took the bills back to Ted, still waiting in line. Finally, the official, stamped our passports, and we returned to our cabins.

We finally pulled into Kapiri Mposhi and pulled our luggage off of the train. Standing in the middle of great confusion in the train station, I left two of the German girls, and Ted and I went off with the other German to find a bank that would either get me money from our account or from one of my change cards. We found the main street and went into the first bank. I handed the clerk my bank card from Nairobi. She shook her head, “We don’t take those.”

“Why not?”

“We can’t be sure it’s real.”

“Of course it’s real. Here, see my passport.”

“No, we don’t accept them.”

“Okay, give me a cash advance on my Visa card.”

“Alright. What is your pin?”

“I don’t have a pin. Just put it through like a charge.”

“We can’t do that.”

We moved on to the second bank where we had the same discussion. On to a third bank. Then onto a Check Cashing office which was closed. Next bank four, five, and six.

By now it was getting late, and we made it back to the train station. Meanwhile, Ted had been on one of the girl’s phones, looking for a youth hostel. The only thing he could find was a Marriott hotel outside of town for $80 dollars a night. That would blow our entire budget, especially as this was an unplanned trip because we couldn’t get back to Kenya until we entered Zambia. “We are staying with the Sisters of Mercy at their mother house, maybe you can stay with us.

Sitting on some steps in the middle of a dirty, noisy train station, unable to get any money, having walked all over Kapiri Mposhi and ready to cry, I nodded yes. After a phone call, the girls said we were welcome to go with them. I could have kissed the girls, the sisters of Mercy, and even the taxi driver.

As the taxi entered the grounds of the mother house, all the nuns came pouring out of the house to greet us. Each and every one hugged us as if they had been expecting us and welcomed us into their lovely, clean and quiet home. We were shown our rooms and where we could shower.

After showering, we sat with them around the table for a very welcome hot meal. The conversation was enlightening and entertaining from some of the nuns that had been there since 1948. Afterwards, we climbed into a clean and comfortable bed for one of the best nights we had in Africa.

maria falls

Victoria Falls

The next morning, after saying goodbye to the wonderful hosts, we boarded a bus for eight hours to Lusaka. We figured we’d get money there, see the Victoria Falls, return to Dar Es Salon, and back to Nairobi. We never figured we’d still have more bumps in our path than we did. More for another story at another time.

Maria Ruiz was born in Santa Barbara, California; her family had been there since the Spaniards first converted the Indians & created small towns. She graduated from the University of San Diego State in 1972 & taught for 8 years before starting her own business. After retiring she began a ten-year odyssey to visit and live in 57 countries around the world. She just recently relocated to California. Her book, I’ll be in the Fourth Grade Forever, can be ordered on Smashwords & Amazon. Her blog can be found at


  1. Thank you, Maria, for sharing another good travel story. vb

  2. Absolutely amazing story I just do not know what we would
    Have done in that situation.
    You were marvelous.
    Photos fabulous

  3. I wrote a short story about a pre-cellphone trip during which my husband got on the wrong train while I waited on the correct one. We had no plan for how to find each other if we were separated. He was able to read the German signs before catastrophe. Your adventure sounds much more harrowing. Isn’t it lovely that there are always good people around (like your German girls) who are happy to help!

  4. Your descriptions make the stories much more interesting and I can feel the events in a visceral way. Thank you again and again. Love you, V


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