Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Gautrain - a bonding experience

South Africa is not known for its public transport. There's a bus here and there, which may or may not run around the time that it says it will arrive on any given day. There are private minibus drivers that fling themselves from one side of the road to the other, cramming more bum cheeks than conceivably possible into the back of their vehicles.

But even these run on very limited routes, and during work hours (I only recently learnt that taxis stop running to Soweto after 8pm. This is shocking on two parts - first, that I never knew that simple fact about my own city and second, unless you have your own car, it is incredibly difficult for most people to travel between suburbs overnight in Joburg). But that's not supposed to be my point here. Sadly the Gautrain also runs on - what I think to be - far too limited hours during the day, but... it's an attempt at first-world public transport. And from what I have seen so far, it is working.

I know my enthusiasm stems from the fact that I am lucky enough to live in one of the very few areas that the Gautrain buses already service, which means that I can use this novel creation to its full extent. Walking just four blocks from my house, I can catch one of the buses that come past every 10 - 12 minutes on week days to Sandton and from that station, I can get to Central Johannesburg (one train to Rosebank followed by another bus, which is always on time), or to the Airport, or to Hatfield in Pretoria... all in 40 minutes or less, easily and comfortably.

There are complaints that it is expensive, which it probably is, compared to what South Africans are used to. But we are also used to not paying much and not getting much. I don't think the price I paid yesterday from Randburg to Hatfield was unreasonable at all - a R49 total journey. Getting to the airport is twice that (and then a bit), but airport transport always comes with a surcharge. Always.

I've only used the Gautrain out of peak hours, and don't know if I have a particularly approachable face, or a neon sign on my forehead and incessantly flashes "Talk To Me!", but that's exactly what happens on every trip. People strike up conversation with me. I don't know why, but I am almost always entertained. This whole accessible, functioning, public transport thing is still a novel and exciting experience for most of us in the third-world.

We usually discuss, with great enthusiasm, the marvel of the high-speed train, or the marvel of regular buses that arrive when indicated on the timetable, whether the costs are worth the trip (they are). More often than not, the little fact that no food or liquids are allowed to be consumed on the train or in the station is mentioned. Where else, aside from Singapore, is the public transport so posh that you're not even allowed to chew gum..?

But yesterday was my favourite experience to date. On the train back from Hatfield, two gogos hobbled on and sat at the window opposite me. They were elderly black ladies, I can't imagine they were much younger than 65. Winter has arrived in Gauteng, the one lady had a thick dark green coat on, the other had a more traditional blanket wrapped snugly around her torso. They both had sensible, well-used shoes on, and respectable hats. One was relying heavily on a crutch.

And they were giggling like two naughty teenage girls bunking school.

The lady with the coat was taking pictures of her friend on her cellphone, clearly documenting their train journey. Then she asked me to take a picture of the two of them and - of course - started telling me about their trip. They were going from Pretoria, to Joburg, catching a bus around Jozi and coming back again. A big day out - the gogos' first, and I think I can safely guess only, time on first-world transportation.

Soon, they were calling one of the (many) train guards over, to include me in their train trip memories. So I sat squished between two large-bottomed grannies on a two-seater Gautrain seat, excitedly sharing their enthusiasm with me.

These two women lived through Apartheid. And there they were, sitting on a high-speed train, overflowing with exuberance... doing the trip simply because they could. It was a wonderful experience just to be with them in their adventure.

I suppose I better get up now. I need to catch a bus, to catch a train, to catch another bus to get work in Braamfontein. Viva Public Transport!