Tuesday, June 9, 2009

my adventures with the minibus system

Having completed our classroom seminar a little over a week ago, we've struck out into the city on our own to begin interning. I am interning at an organization called PASSOP, whose name is both an acronym (People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression and Poverty) as well as a pun (the word "passop" is Afrikaans for "beware"). The organization focuses on issues relating to the refugee population in South Africa and has had a specific influence in the reintegration efforts that occurred after the outbreak of xenophobic violence a year ago. It's a young office, and perhaps as a result is also an energetic office, and in the week I've been here, I feel like my knowledge of South African immigration and asylum policy as well as issues surrounding xenophobia in the area has increased a thousand fold. It will definitely be an educational experience.


That's not the subject of this story.

My story is about the "getting-to" and "getting-from" parts of my internship. You see, the offices for PASSOP are located fairly far away from where our guest house is in Sea Point, meaning to get to work every day, Samuel and I take a combination of forms of public transit. Starting around 8:00 AM, we hop in a minibus taxi on the Main Road in Sea Point, which deposits us at Cape Town Station, where we board a commuter train that drops us off about three blocks from work by 8:50. We do the same in reverse in the evening, returning back to Stonehurst Guest House for a good night's sleep.

The train is fairly comparable to what you'd find on the Metro in Washington - sleepy people packed in, headed for work in various places, reading a book or chatting with a friend along the way. However, the minibus taxis are an entirely new experience. I think anyone in the program would agree with me. Essentially, you stand on the sidewalk until you see one coming, typically full speed, in your direction. You'll know how to differentiate a minibus taxi from a regular old VW van for two reasons: first, it will be honking. A lot. Second, there will be a man hanging out the side window, yelling its destination. In the mornings, when we hear "CAPE TOWN STATION!" being hollered down Main Road, we know we're about to head to work. After flagging one over (it's really not hard to do, since they're constantly on the lookout for passengers) you climb in, hopeful it's a slow day for the driver so that you can have a little leg room. After passing five rand to the man who was yelling the destination out the window (his job doubles as money collector) you can relax for about ten minutes.

Or can you?

Let's just say that the minibus drivers aren't known for their defensive driving skills. In the past week, I have been on board as a minibus decided that driving down the left side of the road (drivers function on the British road system here) was taking far too long and decided to drive through oncoming traffic instead. This lasted about two blocks. This morning, our driver stuck to the correct side of the street but chose to start braking approximately three feet before the car in front of him. (I screamed aloud - to my own embarrasment - not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES between Sea Point and Cape Town Station.) I also learned recently that, on top of making pedestrians aware of the destination of that particular minibus and collecting money, it's also the job of that same man to lean out the window and deflect oncoming traffic. Either he gestures to other cars on the road or tells our driver when to switch lanes or cut off someone while making a turn.

If I'm not already wide awake when I board the minibus at 8:00, I'm definitely awake by 8:10 when I arrive at the train station.

Hair-raising, death-defying trips between home and work aside, I actually have a growing defense on behalf of the minibus drivers. First of all, while riding in them, I am well aware that their mode of transportation is the most-used form in town. (President Zuma has actually suggested shutting down the minibus system during the World Cup next year, and everyone - EVERYONE - who has heard this news has simply laughed at the prospect that it could ever be possible.) Secondly, it's an incredible people-watching opportunity. There is almost always music playing and people chatting in languages I don't understand and eating brands of potato chips (excuse me, crisps) I've never seen before. In fact, I might be so bold as to declare our daily minibus commute the most uniquely South African thing we've done since arriving. As I get more and more used to the startling nature of these minibus rides (and come to the realization that - despite the fact that their driving style terrifies me - the drivers seem to have a pretty strong handle on what they're doing), I'm also finding that they might be the thing I miss most about Cape Town when I return to DC at the end of the month.

No comments:

Post a Comment