Please Note: This posting contains a word that I am uncomfortable using. It is not my intent to offend or further harm those who have suffered because of this incendiary word. I find I can’t tell this story without quoting what was said to me. And, though it is early in my travels, the specific encounter detailed at the end of this blog captures what I have been experiencing on my train trips.
It had been a long journey from Cape Town to Laingsburg sitting in economy class on the Shosholoza Meyl train and traveling for six and a half hours through the hottest part of the day, in the hottest period of the summer, through one of the hottest spots of South Africa, the Great Karoo.
When I climbed on board the train I was refreshed and cool in a crisply ironed shirt. Within an hour of departure, I was wiping perspiration from my forehead and face. I could feel the sweat trickling down my back and soon my freshly laundered shirt was sticking to the plastic backrest of my seat. The savvy travelers, I realized after a few hours into the trip, battle to be first on the train to get the seats that will have the least amount of sun hitting them. My initial joy in having a row to myself faded when I figured out that both seats would have the sun blazing through the open window throughout the entire journey. How was it possible that over six hours the sun wouldn’t move enough in the sky to provide some relief from the intense rays that would leave half of my face, and all of the exposed skin on my left arm, sunburned?
Drops of sweat began falling onto the book I was reading creating pools of blurred text on every page. Reading “The Story of an African Farm,” the classic South African novel about life in the Karoo by Olive Schreiner, on a summer’s day in the confined carriage of the Shosholoza, was not the best source of reading material. The author’s description of the arid and parched land, thirsty for rain, and the still, hot air, begging for a breeze, only heightened my discomfort as her prose reinforced what I was experiencing barreling down the very train tracks that first made the Karoo accessible to travelers.
At scheduled stops in towns and villages like Worcester and Matjiesfontein, the passengers who boarded the train in Cape Town would scurry off to fill empty plastic bottles with water from the public taps at the small stations. At some stops, when no passengers got off the train and no new ones got on, the stops were so brief that the thirsty passengers would not have time to fill their receptacles. They would have to settle for quickly running their heads under the water faucet and dashing back to the train with water dripping from their heads. I was tempted to join them and let cooling droplets replace the sweat that was staining the pages of my book, but was too concerned that the train might depart without me, leaving me stranded and backpack-less, in some unintended locale.
With each kilometer traveled on the 260-kilometer trip, the heat index seemed to rise while the composure level of my fellow passengers fell commensurately with the temperature. Mothers became short with their generally well-behaved children. The jovial conversations at the start of the journey had been replaced with a heat-induced drowsiness that would only be reversed later in the day when the affects of multiple beers or shots of liquor, enjoyed by some of the young men on the train, led to boisterous laughing, then raised voices and inevitably to squabbling. A single beer might cool the body momentarily and the drinker might dispose of the empty can in the trash bags provided. By the sixth beer, the empties were being thrown out the window and the cooling affects of the libation had been overruled by raw emotions that were easily ignited by a poorly chosen word or a mistaken look or gesture.
Alcohol played no role, however, in an argument between a Shosholoza Meyl employee and a passenger that, by the time it was resolved an hour later, had disrupted the entire carriage. The passenger had brought a box of fish, wrapped in a plastic garbage bag, onto the train with her and placed it in the luggage rack above her seat. Apparently this is not uncommon with passengers coming from the sea and headed inland, or the train employee had a particularly good olfactory sense. Either way, the package of warming fish was discovered and this unleashed the wrath of the train worker much faster than the simmering passions of the beer-drinking men which would not be revealed until later in the journey.
With 20 more hours to go before arriving at the final destination, the employee raged in Xhosa and English, that the stench coming from the poorly wrapped dead fish would be unbearable by the time the train reached Johannesburg. The passenger was given an ultimatum – either pay 60 rand and have the offending parcel moved to a different car on the train or, in a dramatic gesture worthy of a B-list actor, the employee demonstrated how she would throw the stinking package out the open window and onto the littered landscape that runs parallel with the tracks.
The fish argument was happening about 10 rows away from me, but just like the children’s game of “telephone,” where messages are relayed from one person to the next, each row of passengers would pass on to the next what was happening in Xhosa, Afrikaans and English, until all but the sleeping and intoxicated passengers were aware of the raging debate.
At first, the drama created a welcome diversion for all of us weary travelers. Then, when it became apparent that the fish-toting passenger lacked the 60 rand to keep her prized possession, the tone of the carriage shifted from amusement to empathy for the argumentative and distraught passenger. As the latest update spread from row to row, one of the most popular words used in South Africa could be heard repeatedly from other passengers – “shame” – meaning, I recognize what is happening and I feel for you.
When the argument had escalated to a point where it appeared action was about to be taken and the fish might actually be thrown out the window, a passenger seated next to the woman paid the 60 rand and the now even smellier parcel was removed from the passenger coach. I’m uncertain if this was a random act of kindness to assist a fellow traveler in need, or if it was a selfish act on the part of the benefactor to simply put an end to the bickering that was disrupting the entire train car. No matter the motivation, the crisis passed, the fish-detecting employee moved on to the next car and the passengers slipped back into a semi-conscious state.
The sun continued to beat down on me through the window. I would read for a time and then close my book; too hot to concentrate. I would wipe the sweat from my face with a tissue only to then have to remove bits of Kleenex that would stick to my wet face. I would sit forward with my head on the seat in front of me to try to dry the sweat from the back of my shirt. I would join other passengers in standing for a time with my head as far out of the window as possible, in a lame attempt to catch something resembling a breeze.
When the smiling child with beads in her hair sitting in the row in front of me awakened from her frequent naps, we would play peek-a-boo for a few minutes until the activity clearly began to irritate the mother who seemed to be down to her last nerve. In an attempt to stop the game before the mother became angry with both the child and me, I would pretend to sleep, but this would only frustrate the child who had lost her playmate. Eventually, she would tire of trying to stir the white man and fall back to sleep.
I drank liters of bottled water I had brought with me on the train. I chewed and chewed and chewed on bits of spicy, salty biltong – this flavor being dried Kudu meat. I ate buttermilk rusks without the added pleasure of being able to dunk the dry, twice-baked biscuits in coffee. One by one, I popped sweet, red grapes into my mouth – grapes sold by a hawker on the train for five rand for a bag the size of the head of the pick-a-boo-playing child in front of me. I paid a similar price for four succulent pears that left my hands a sticky mess. Refusing to wash my hands in the toilet of the train – a description of which I will spare gentle readers – I used a bit of my drinking water to clean my fingers. I ate because I was bored, not because I was hungry. I drank, however, because I was thirsty.
Throughout the journey, hawkers peddled their wares down the center aisle of the carriage I was riding in, then on to the next carriage and then the one after that – all day long. Hands down, the most successful salesman was the grape vendor. He must have sold 15 to 20 bags of grapes in my carriage alone. The drink vendor did well too, dispensing Cokes and Castle and Black Label beers to parched travelers. The first time the man selling packages of chips and hard candy pacifiers got to the row I was sitting in, he said, “I know you. I’ve seen you on this train.”
“Yes,” I said, “I took the Shosholoza the week before last.”
“Where do you stay?” the vendor inquired.
“In Cape Town.”
“No, not where do you stay in South Africa, where do you stay overseas?”
My accent had given me away. “I live in the U.S.”
“Yo, the U-ni-ted States of Ah-mer-e-ca,” the hawker said, slowly stretching the words out and enunciating every syllable of my country. “You must come from a very strange place, man. The World Series! The world doesn’t care about baseball. The world watches soccer. South Africa had the World Cup last year. Baseball! E-yo!” he said, shaking his head.
“You from Cincinnati? I watch ‘WKRP in Cincinnati.’”
“No, I’m not from Cincinnati, but somewhat close to there. I live in Minneapolis.”
“I know Minneapolis” the chips man said excitedly, “I watch a show from there.”
“Is it ‘Mary Tyler Moore'?”
“Yes. May-ree Ty-ler Muhr. Yo, it’s cold where you stay, man” he said as he moved on to the next row hawking “Chips!”
I sat in my seat marveling at how decades old television series in the U.S. could transcend continents and cultures and serve as an icebreaker for a conversation on a train moving through the Great Karoo. Talking about sports didn’t surprise me, but “WKRP in Cincinnati?” Maybe Loni Anderson should become ambassador to South Africa.
I had just returned to my book when a very excited ice cream hawker began selling his wares in the train car. It was obvious that the heat was starting to affect his product. He had reduced the price of his melting strawberry-vanilla swirl ice cream from five to four rand.
“Ice cream. Four rand. Special price. Ice cream. Four rand.” he said, promoting his product in both English and Xhosa.
No one was buying as he raced through the car desperate to move more units before the heat claimed his profit for the day. A passenger eyeing the soft ice cream offered the hawker three rand.
“O.K.,” the hawker shouted, “Three rand. Sale on ice cream. Three rand.”
The fire sale worked and men began pulling three rand from their pockets and women retrieving three rand from coin purses and tied handkerchiefs that contained small change.
The ice cream seller was easily scooping generous portions of the soft ice cream from a pail, placing it in disposable cups, giving it with a plastic spoon to the buyer, and taking their three rand. Working left to right, row after row, he sold ice cream to someone in nearly every row.
When he saw me sitting in the last row, the only white person in the sitter car on the Shosholoza, the hawker’s head jerked slightly and a surprised look came over his face. “White nigger,” he said smiling, “you want ice cream?”
There was a slight pause before everyone sitting within earshot of the hawker began to laugh. The hawker was laughing and so was I.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. The ice cream man continued smiling, shrugged his shoulders and moved on, leaving the other passengers still looking at me and laughing.
By the time everyone’s ice cream was eaten, or drunk, as the case may be, the laughter had died down and passengers returned to their conversations, or looking out the windows or dozing. I couldn’t return to reading my book. The heat was still oppressive, but I didn’t think about that for the remainder of the journey. Mostly, I thought about what the ice cream hawker had said to me.
Few words in the English language are as inflammatory as the one the peddler had used. I thought, I can’t tell anyone about this experience because to do so would necessitate repeating a word that has caused extreme pain and suffering for centuries. At the same time, this man’s quip had completely captured my experiences on the Shosholoza Meyl and staying in the dorps along the train route. He nailed it.
Not always on the train, but usually, I was the only white passenger in economy class. As such, I stood out. I was the “what is different about this picture?” Yet, I didn’t feel uncomfortable.
In the towns along the tracks where I stayed, at least in the hotels and restaurants, I was not the thing that was different about this picture. Racially, I fit in. Yet, I didn’t always feel comfortable.
When I returned to Cape Town from this excursion I recounted the story of the ice cream hawker to my friends – black, coloured and white. All laughed.
When I told my friends that I didn’t know if I could repeat the story to a larger audience because of the highly charged nature of the word, all said I should.
One friend said, “No, you must tell the story and you must use the words the ice cream man called you. It is who you are.”
It is who I am.
I’m not sure. But when a stranger and a friend both find it to be a fitting descriptor, I must think about that. God knows there will be plenty of time to do so on my next, hot journey on the Shosholoza.