Mister Thirty Five and the Box Cutter Kid

The Shosholoza Meyl train in South Africa does not check passengers’ passports. We learned this when we went to buy tickets from Cape Town to Johannesburg.

Excited and nervous for our first overland trip leg, we went to the train station. It was clean and cool, with fruit vendors outside and little stands where you could buy shoes, belts and power converters. Inside the station, there was a kiosk offering free, while-you-wait HIV tests with a long line; scary because it reminded us early on of Africa’s high rates of HIV/AIDS, for which we would come to see many hand painted public service announcements in the following weeks, but heartening that people are getting tested and self educated on risk and prevention. A nurse hollered out as we walked by, “Number thirty five, your results are ready!” I crossed my fingers in my pocket, hoping for negative results for Mr. or Ms. Thirty Five.

As we gave the clerk our information, she typed in Daniel’s last name for both passengers. Thinking it might be like an airline where if your name doesn’t match your ticket, you miss your plane, I asked if it would matter that we have different last names. She shook her head and after we had paid, she explained that no one would be checking our identification or, raising her eyebrow and laughing a bit, our marriage certificate.

In Cape Town there is evidently a high demand for couture models. Every few blocks we would see fashion shoots happening—on pedestrian bridges, parking spots on the street (with four tires aligned as though they were once attached to a vehicle, the models in casual business attire were to feign surprise at the missing car), on the steps of official looking buildings. The subjects, dolled up and unaware of passerby, stood still while the passerby walked into the middle of the shoot, equally unaware.

Car guards stand on each block in navy blue jumpsuits and blaze orange vests, shooing away idle thieves looking over their noses into backseats. People begging for money haunt the tourist area, one discreetly flashing us his box cutter while asking for/demanding a hundred rand (about fifteen dollars), careful to keep his shoulder to the public safety officer standing nearby, falling back when we ignored him.

We did some touring of the surrounding area before leaving Cape Town, going to Kirstenbosch, the botanical gardens, looking at plants that haven’t evolved for millions of years, strange turkeys with blue wrinkly heads and paisley-like feathers, and giant, paper-flat spiders in the public restroom. Some kids on a school field trip, totally uninterested in the plants, played rugby with a water bottle for a ball in a nearby field. We took a tour bus along the waterfront to Hout Bay Marina and Camps Bay. On the water, so blindingly glittery in the setting sun, were huge oil rigs far out on the horizon, looking a bit like the Eiffel Tower balanced on the surface. On a whim, we bought a black and white painting of some elephants from a painter who introduced himself as Steve from Malawi; on further inspection in the hostel, we discovered that he had covered the original signature with a permanent marker and re-signed it, simply, STEVE. I later lost that painting in the Johannesburg airport, running to catch a plane.

We went to the Cape Peninsula, which was definitely worth the embarrassment of being seen on one of those awful buses full of tourists. We got to see seals, birds of all sorts, dassies (the nearest living relative of an elephant, but it looks like a groundhog), lizards and penguins, making up for the dearth of penguins at the South Pole.

We hiked over the ancient looking, cellular, striated rocks of the Cape Point, past stretches of earth that looked like lines of cayenne and curry powder, looking down on great white sand beaches, shockingly beautiful—clean, green sea, white breakers, menacing rocks just under the surface. The Cape has claimed hundreds and hundreds of vessels seeking shelter from storms.

When we reached the highest point, the peak of the tip of the peninsula where the old, out-of commission lighthouse stands, you could turn around and survey the land behind you. It is a place where, Daniel pointed out, you can see the resemblance of the terrain you’re on to the paper map in your hand, living geography.

When we finally boarded the train a few days later, we were ready to go; we’ve been discussing lately the importance of, while traveling, leaving a place while you still like it. The train itself was nice; we got a compartment to ourselves despite only purchasing tickets for two beds (I’m under the impression that this is normal practice, not special treatment). There was a little sink basin under a folding table between the bunks that even had a trickle of running water for hand washing, although it ran out of water a few times. We could order food and coffee from room service on scheduled rounds, or from a restaurant car that seemed practically new except for one completely shattered window – this made sense after the train was shot with a paintball gun by some jerk kid outside, giving us quite a start and leaving a slimy green blob on our window, slowly expanding in the wind.

The train ride presented us with stark comparisons of South Africa’s rich and poor, slammed up against each other in bursts of towns separated by vast stretches of land uninhabited by anyone but gangly ostriches. Squat cinder block structures, the homes of rural people, had corrugated metal roofs weighed down with large rocks or sometimes bricks. Poor black adults slept on sheets of worn cardboard, fifty yards away from whites exiting high-walled compound homes in their SUVs, followed by piles of plastic trash, followed by black and white residents playing golf together in knitted vests on pristine driving ranges, rounded mountains sagging in the distance. Numerous wine estates flashed by, their rows of vines neatly stitched into the earth.

Entirely rusted out skeletons of cars that seemed to be from decades ago stood in fields, and every now and then we would pass a disturbing relic of previous train systems: an entire line of train cars, derailed beside the track, coated in rust with plants growing over everything, trying their best to reclaim the material. We passed by many towns that seemed to be nothing more than a sign stating its own name, ensuring its continued existence. Some thirty hours later, outside of Johannesburg on Sunday morning, the train interrupted a group of six people conducting a church service in pristine blue and white robes, standing by the tracks amongst an unreal number of busted up TV set skeletons. And then, only five hours late due to a midnight engine swap (a conductor had explained to us that we had the “wrong” locomotive, which we assumed meant it was broken), we arrived in Johannesburg.


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