“Make space, make space”, the crowd parts like the red sea and a schoolboy saunters through the masses towards me. “Space!” he says looking sideways at me. I obey and he brushes his shoulders impatiently as he passes me. Why do I envy him?
It’s loud, and we’re confused. My only other train experiences come from London which is completely different, India which doesn’t feel dangerous, and back in 2010 when we froze all the way to Jo’burg on an overnight trip from Durban. The bitter cold had made me swear never to catch a South African train again. Ever. Though an old man with a bottle of whisky had helped change my mind at the time.
In Park Station, Jozi, I look up at the platform clock, 4:15. Then down at my ticket, departure 3:50. Our train to Boksburg is as still as the building in which it stands. African time.
A train pulls in. We squeeze on. It’s packed with work commuters at the end of a long day. Hawkers walk up and down with an air of everydayness that is hard to explain. Ice lollies R2, five plums R3, two pineapples R4, five little red apples R4, grapes R2,50. Even the Daily Star newspaper is marked down to one Rand. There’s also the non-food hawkers who offer Vicks, Zambuk, earbuds, nail clippers, ID holders, ear phones, pens. More. Whatever you could ever want at the beginning or end of a journey.
Yet there’s not much variety; everyone is selling the same thing and they all know each other, creating a friendly competition. Each tries to outdo the other with a clever slogan or customer-winning smile. “Best plums, all others vrot!”, “Buy James’ apples, best price Jo’burg!”
We finally get going, only to tediously stop at about ten nondescript railway platforms along the way to Boksburg East. At each point more and more people clamber on, until we’re all shoved together, like too much stationery in an over eager school kid’s space case where the clasps won’t shut. Neither will ours. The doors stay wide, stopped from closing by the closest feet. It’s total disregard. Reckless endangerment. One of my favourite things about Africa.
As more bodies squeeze in my eyes are drawn towards an elderly gent. I’m tempted to give up my seat, but I’m stuck, wedged by shoulders and butts and the big bag I’m holding against me. The gentleman is wearing a white knitted shirt tucked neatly around his mkhaba. The zip has been left down, creating the impression of a collar. The open v-neck reveals a red-and-white beaded necklace. His silky navy pants are well fitted; he has leather loafers and a light brown belt. His snappy felt hat has a reddish orange feather tucked into the band. He has a short, stubbly beard, greying slightly, and eyes which are dulled, yet kind. I think of the old 'Drum' era writers. Can Themba. Nat Nakasa. The others. That space between worlds, first and third.
In the poverty around me I feel contentment. I realise the beauty of growing up in Africa and experiencing the third world. It’s a naive truth and the idea is a passing ghost. A crippled man drags himself along the floor with his arms, towards me. Pushing a tray ahead of him, he collects coins and pieces of fruit from whoever is willing.
I think of India. The Holy Man in Solan who dragged himself up and down the hill outside our motel. Every day. His saffron robes dirtied by the earth, shoes on his hands to help with the dragging. A bowl of coins for baksheesh was nudged ahead of him. I saw him and thought morosely of a dog with a ball playing fetch.
With our big backpacks, missioning around Jo’burg, everyone assumes we’re not South Africans. I realise to a certain extent I’m a foreigner in my own country.
We get out at Boksburg expecting a busy platform, but it’s quiet, empty and completely unmarked. A few people skip over the train tracks and disappear into the distance.
A small boy calls, “Hey mista? You’ve left something behind”