Sunday, September 4, 2011

Train ride

Between Cape Town and False Bay (the bay Muizenberg and AIMS are located in) there runs a famously scenic railroad. Aside from being pretty at least on parts of the line, it is also our only means of public transportation out here, to move along the shore or into the city. This week I took the train for the first time, with two of my co-tutors: Emma from Scotland and Gordon from Ghana. At the train station, you have to buy a ticket, and decide between first or third class. Back in Germany, pretty much no one rides first class on trains, except for old and rich people; Everyone rides second, there is no third. Gordon picked up third class tickets for us, and it quickly became obvious that the situation is quite different here: black and colored South Africans travel third class, presumably the whites all got into the first class parts of the train -- Emma and I were the only white people on the train as far as I could see. What I started to realize last weekend and what has become more and more salient throughout this week is that Apartheid was abolished what seems like a long time ago, but its aftermath is far from over.

The first thing we noticed upon mounting the train, aside from our own exceptional whiteness, was a sign for "D.r. Sam, same day Penis enlargements: get Ur lost lover back" posted above several of the doors of the compartment, with a Cape Town phone number. The trains here -- at least in 3rd -- are the type with long benches running along the side of the interior, with lots of standing room inbetween; when we got on all seats were already taken but there was still plenty of space. While we were still joking about Doc Sam, a man's voice started sounding from a speaker in the overhead baggage holder. For a second I thought it was some official announcement, but no: from that speaker a cable ran to a dolly, belonging to a big guys standing just a few feet from us with something like a netbook in one hand, and a microphone in the other. "I will be riding to Cape Town, and if you are riding with me today, you will hear God's word." And he started preaching, at a volume that was just a bit too much for my ears.

At the next stop, the first candy vendor got on our train. These guys carry big bags of sweets and savory snacks, sometimes baskets as well, and go through the trains selling the miniature-sized lollies and packs of chips for a few Rand. Some of them are more vocal, some of them just quietly and slowly walk by and wait for you to call on them. We had a new one on our train about every 2nd stop, and I'm not sure how they make a living, since I only saw about 3 transactions happen on my roundtrip. But they must, I suppose.
More people started getting on as well, and things got a little more crowded; The preacher got louder. He alternated between a motley mixture of Christian-type music, and rather incoherent babbling about God and the Devil. He addressed the passengers as "my sick neighbor" in every sentence, and while I appreciate the fervor of the faithful in Africa I had to wonder if that was the usual address down here. Everytime our friend turned up his volume, he had to turn over the speaker to get to the controls at the back, and point right it at the poor guy sitting underneath -- completely unapologetically. That one put up with it a couple of times, then moved through the now considerable crowd to the other end of the train.

As we were being informed that "every tattoo on my body is a covenant with the Devil", beads of sweat now forming on the foreheads of many, some young colored guy standing near me found a pretty effective way to get some ventilation: he just held open the doors of the train as it was driving from station to station. It scared me a bit at first, but then I appreciated the breeze. After about 40 minutes, the sermon now much too loud for us to communicate verbally, we arrived at Claremont, our destination, and Gordon motioned for us to get off the train. We squeezed past people and heaps of chips and candy and jumped off, me holding my ears and quietly cursing the bearer of the good news.

Our return trip was a bit quieter, but the crowd on the train still depressed me quite a bit, and got me thinking. People's faces are empty, often sad (one of my students from Morocco asked me the other day: "Why do the people look so unhappy here?"). Presumably we were riding with the near-bottom of society in our area, those unable to even afford a car -- everyone here has cars. At least in my imagination their lives were reduced to mere survival, without any of the free time, glitter and dedication to enjoyment that characterize my own. These train-riding South Africans seemed more wretched than any Canadian I've seen. I bet some of that impression can be blamed on my state of culture shock, and feeling out of place to begin with. But the idea of living day in, day out just trying to make a living scares me nonetheless.

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