Sunday, November 05, 2017

Last Friday

Friday afternoon saw me take a central line train back from the Pentech station - on the outskirts of our Bellville campus - to Cape Town.

I prefer, under normal conditions, a train over all other modes of transport.

But there was not a window left intact on my carriage; I sat, nervously, with my daypack still on, tight between me and the seat.

I'd also put my mobile phone on silent, then stuffed it in between my stomach skin and pants belt. I'd also made sure that I'd left my laptop at work.

Even though I was acting out of instinct, only yesterday did I read a piece highlighting what I already knew, that Cape Town’s rail commuter service is troubled, crime-ridden and appears to be fighting a losing battle.

But I didn't know that the line I was on is the most fraught one on Cape Town's failing rail infrastructure. It's what Metrorail has "described as Cape Town’s most dangerous line - the lines that service Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain. It runs all the way through to Bonteheuwel and Langa."

Even before reading the piece yesterday, I'd decided before I got back to Cape Town on Friday that unless absolutely necessary, I'd never take a chance on that line again. Many of our students don't have that option, nor does the majority of the people serviced by that line, by Metrorail.

Watching the bleakness, the ugliness of the landscape through the empty window frame, exaggerated because of the drought, I remembered some of Italo Calvino's words in Invisible Cities:

'The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.' 

Calvino conveys the notion that while some cities are dream cities and other cities are nightmare cities, they are but ultimately all the same city. Cities run on only two feelings he argues, namely fear and desire.

My Friday afternoon underscored this sharply to me: Cape Town is undoubtedly the epitome of both a dream and a nightmare city. 

Except that here, for me, the fear and the desire often stick through its thin and brittle skin, in my face, because it's so close to the surface, not unlike the jagged bones of a broken corpse.

All of this, I believe, is especially obvious to someone who's continually on foot in this city and unprotected by the safe bubble of a car. 

Someone like me.