Murmurs from the Cape Flats express


 

This week marked a new chapter in my teaching adventures. While others in my profession move cities and countries, I’ve enjoyed the great adventure of moving my classroom from the suburbs to the city center! With the drop in foreign students over the wet Cape Town winter, a reshuffling of staff was in order and I took on doing what I had doggedly dodged for 8 years: working in the city. The idea of navigating the tedium of morning traffic around the mountain, into the heart of Cape Town, wipers swishing and demister puffing, has never inspired any degree of enthusiasm in me. And I had successfully avoided it by teaching in the leafy suburbs…until this week.

 

The truth is that I have been open to  new chapters this year: this blog is evidence of that. So I approached teaching in the city, with adventure in mind – a Metro Rail Adventure, at that! Rather than brave the carbon crawl in my car, I’ve opted for a real life, man-in-the-street experience. Which means (not the dreaded mini bus, thank goodness!) a morning train with my fellow South Africans! And it’s been a learning I continue to look forward to each day.

Now I’ve  traveled by train during various phases of my life before: as a high school and university student, and later as a young working mother. And what I’m getting is how differently we perceive life at the various stages of our journey through it. I accept that the world itself has changed: after all, I am no longer checked for the audacity of entering a first class carriage, signs are now displayed in three official languages inside the train and hawkers are allowed aboard to sell their wares. But what has changed most is my own awareness of life around me, of human behaviour, of the barriers that remain in place despite the apparent freedom we enjoy. As a teenager commuting only two stations, I looked forward to meeting my friends on the station then chatting all the way through the train ride and all through the walk up Kendal Road until the bell went for assembly. Barring a conductor throwing a passenger off for “jumping train”, I was oblivious to the people around me.

But I’m fully present now. And it’s been a wonderful discovery…

Embarking on any adventure requires a spirit of cheer and excited anticipation. So, despite the biting cold of Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, I rose early and eager. This was great! I was out in the fresh air, energised and ready for a real workday start. There was a spring in my step as I briskly trotted down the steps into the subway. Immediately, the whiff of government issue sanitizer hit my nostrils, barely covering the stench of stale urine that lingered beneath it. I found myself smiling and shallowly breathing through my mouth, intent not to gag. Horribly familiar, true, but the memory had faded better than the stench.

Up on the other side, I marched on to the platform and chirped a “Good Morning” to three women sitting on the sheltered bench. One raised a sharp eyebrow, another looked away and the third smiled her bemusement in reply. Determined to maintain my cheerful demeanor, I scanned the platform.  How could there be so many people and so little sound, I wondered. Of course! Coated up against the chill of the morning, almost everyone was wired up to an iPod or their cell. A few others had a book and even fewer sat in pairs talking softly. Here and there were some dejected souls looking like the day’s work ahead was a fate worse than I could imagine. And near the fencing, like me twenty years ago, a group of self expressed teens were freely sharing their opinions on life with their buddies and whoever else would listen.

As the train pulled in to collect us, I realised how sheltered we are in a car –  my usual mode of transport. Without the protection of our vehicles’ hulking metal, we are all afraid, too timid to say hello to a stranger, too self-conscious to even smile warmly. In our cars, we easily show another driver our emotion – a wave to say “go ahead, cut in” or a fed up arched brow saying “Do you think your big car makes your rudeness okay?” We even show fists or a finger when we’re justifiably fed up and we don’t hesitate to blow our horns. But take away the shelter of the windscreen, the roof and the bonnet, put us face to face in a carriage with other human beings and – as in a fully packed elevator – there’s a fearful shut down: eyes drop or stare unseeing, bodies compact and stiffen and bags are clutched tightly.  Nobody wants to engage. There is no acknowledging the other. Even for those teens yakking away loudly, their full-blown expressiveness operates only to keep others at bay.  And packed as the train is, we remain disconnected.

So with these insights, I observe the other passengers. I’m enjoying the world that this adventure has opened…I’m learning about myself. And I’m learning about everyone else. What have you been noticing lately?

I almost omitted mentioning  Three Word Wednesday and this week’s prompts: ‘gag’, ‘maintain’ and ‘omit’. Follow the link in my Blogroll and read some more of the responses.

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3 Responses

  1. I’ll report next month to you about my own experience. A long time ago I also had to go for work by train every morning – and had very good adventures.

    • I look forward to hearing about that, Anne. I expect that your train adventures in Germany would be considerably different to ours here in South Africa! For one thing, my train has not yet arrived at exactly the same time any two days this week…As the picture shows, Metro Rail, Getting South Africa to work…SOMEtimes. But that’s just one part of it. Write soon.

  2. thanks for sharing this.

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