“Don’t ride Cape Town public transportation,” you will hear from many people. In fact, there’s a hierarchy of sorts. A private taxi is preferable to a shared minibus taxi, since misanthropy is a job requirement for the minibus drivers. The MyCiti bus is sure to be in better maintenance and less crowded than a Golden Arrow bus. The public train system is something of a question mark. Since today was a Sunday (mostly free of commuters) and I needed to get from Tygerberg to the Pinelands for a friendly lunch, the train seemed like a good option.
Let’s start with an oddity of the Tygerberg hospital campus. Francie van Zijl (“sail”) Drive runs along the western edge until it makes a rising spiral at the north end. That spiral is necessary for the road to have enough height for the bridge over the train system. A driver is quite likely to see pedestrians in this area, and my friend Gerard explained that they were making the trek to and from the train station. I started my walk to the station around ten-thirty this morning. The path is very well-used, and the ground is packed solidly.
In less than twenty minutes’ time, I was there. I noticed to my chagrin that Parow Shopping Centre was just a few steps from the Tygerberg train station; why did I take a taxi such a short distance on Wednesday? When I entered the train station, I was sad to see that the ticket windows were all closed. A friendly passerby walked me to the other end of the train station, where a ticket window was open. To write this reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from the Gospel of Thomas. The ticket clerk asked me if I wanted a first class ticket. To play it safe, I agreed (the cost rose perhaps 50% to 12 rand, still less than a dollar).
What I didn’t appreciate is that the MetroPlus ticket also gave me access to an improved waiting area. Instead of the T-shaped bench-and-roof concrete structures, I had access to a small brick booth. I decided to linger outside in the shade rather than wait in the darkness and graffiti of the inside.
This Sunday morning, the station hosted trains every half hour or so. When the train arrived, I sat in one of the forward and backward-facing seats. I read the stickers on the back of the car. I can’t say it was edifying. I learned about the wide variety of male enhancement and reproductive service professionals in town. I was, admittedly, a bit mystified by the cheap abortion service that included a free “womb cleaning” in their twenty-minute procedure.
I took the train to the Maitland station, where I needed to switch trains. It took a while before the new one came, with at least a twenty-minute delay before the train south arrived. I saw several fairly new electronic signs that should be showing which destinations were served by which tracks, but those signs were blank. I found the track I needed by asking a security guard, who consulted an ad-hoc poster of platforms. I spoke briefly with a pair of Xhosa speakers who started my education in that language: “Molo” means hello! The brown line headed down to the townships on Mitchell’s Plain. I needed to go only a couple of stops. I hopped off the train, and soon I saw my friends awaiting me! On my entire route down to the Pinelands, nobody had ever asked me to show my ticket.
On my return trip, I wanted to buy a ticket, but the ticket windows were all closed. I sat in the everybody section. The train cars had a line of benches down both sides of the car, facing inward. One of my friends was on the ride north, and she said that she didn’t trust the MetroPlus section, since people got robbed in there. I reminded her of Willie Sutton’s famous nonquote when asked why he robbed banks: that’s where the money is.
I had to wait at the Maitland station for at least a half hour, but once the train came, it was not a particularly long delay before I was back at Tygerberg. The train was perhaps a bit slow, but it got me a pretty substantial distance across the city with a minority of fuss. In retrospect, I realize that I saw almost no other white-skinned people at the stations. I would also say that I never felt in danger at any point. As would be true of many places, I would not feel comfortable being on the trains at night. I am glad I got the chance to try them on a beautiful, sunny December day!