Unfamiliar Tracks

How a short train journey changed my life

It’s Sarah’s fault, you see. She put me onto a train from Muizenberg saying it would be fine. I had a headache, but I went willingly; my middle class, green guilt  made me.  And, anyway, public transport is my new hobby. It may be lousy at rush hour sometimes, but it’s a bit like a Main road meisie - cheap and easy.

The logic goes that cheap and easy means I can reduce my carbon footprint. Also, it’s a fairly straightforward line from Simon’s Town to Cape Town and lines were made to be crossed. That’s what this piece is all about.

Let’s just say that Sarah and I share the blame for what was to come, just as we share the legacy of being bright, white women who sometimes have dark, heavy hearts in a hard, hopeful land.

Scaring the bejesus out of me

I very much got onto the wrong carriage. It had  nothing to do with which class I chose, and everything to do with a frantic evangelist who was plotting to save us all. Bon Iver was belting out his stripped down, go-slow ballads, and for a moment, all was good; the train pulled off gently, a slight sway, I found a seat. But with motion came the aural devotion of a believer, rough and ready to scare the bejesus out of me.

He was loud, and proud, and believe me he was truly South African. There’s nothing for it when the force of faith is swirling around – I’d only have damaged my hearing by trying to drown the fire and brimstone with skinny love. At the next stop, I hopped off onto the platform, and then, slyly, swiftly, hopped back onto the next carriage. I’ll be damned if I was going to have my train trip defiled by a manic messenger. Instead it was defined by many.

Trouble looks the same as joy

An old man was making sounds at the back of the carriage. Immediately I thought of the droning, toneless blind buskers who come armed with keyboard and a personal assistant, and wondered if I’d struck it unlucky twice in one train. On closer inspection, no. He was a man with a guitar, singing a slow, sweet song to himself.

I didn’t mind, either, it had a lulling effect– it reminded me of Maskandi chords rolling softly over the backs of sheep or goats and along the hills of KZN.

We were sliding swiftly, clackety-clack over the dusty plains of Retreat. Heathfield,  Diep River. The train didn’t pick up speed, but the soloist picked up participants. Something was moving through the carriage, on the lips of total strangers, something singing itself through their steady trek into the city.

Steurhof, Plumstead, Wittebome. I looked around, because a hum was building,  following the guitarist slash vocalist. Tubby men mouthed the words, looking here, looking there, looking nowhere. Interspersed across the carriage, individual women harmonized as one without looking at each other, their melodies held together by some invisible thread. One solitary soul rang out a refrain, making up his own words to compliment what has become the choral leader.

New commuters boarded at Claremont–young ones with naughty looks who looked like trouble. They tapped their feet and start rapping in rhythm and I realised that trouble looks the same as joy.

Rondebosche. Rosebank. Observatory. The whole carriage was singing. Except me.

Salt River. Woodstock. A crew-cut ex sailor, gaunt and haunted by things he took and things he couldn’t take stood bewildered in the beautiful sound. I wished I knew if it was a hymn or a folk song. Or if these are even different things on a train into town.

That day, third class was a life lesson.  Africa is alive, you just have to climb out of your comfort zones to meet it, and for a few moments my hurting head was  humming along happily. 

By Jess Henson

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