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A Nomad's Life (5)

by Nomad Sat Sep 27th, 2008 at 06:59:12 AM EST


That first bewildering taxi ride somehow never fades from memory - it's the one that attacked my European senses the most relentless. Simply because of the sheer alienation with what used to be ordinary. Of course I took my maiden voyage with a guide who was well versed with the taxi system. Because the most effective public transport system in (South) Africa needs some getting used to for uitlanders (foreigners). The African rule seems to apply: you find out how things work by doing them.

Two days brand-new in Johannesburg, murder capital of the world or some such slogan. Blinking in crisp morning sun, I was standing on a corner of the colourfully rundown Louis Botha street, and still no gun battles raging around me. To the contrary, although I now was in an exotic environment, people were doing most demure things. Like commuting. I watched the incoming traffic roaring up the incline, towards town, towards Hillbrow (the area I should not go to, my brain tells me automatically), towards the city business district. Khuthadzo, my companion, lifts his arm and his index finger, as were he asking a question. I learned that's the symbol I need to use to flag down a taxi - that is, if I want to go towards town. (There are dozens of finger symbols for dozens of other routes.) From the third lane, a cratered and rattling Volkswagen mini-van swerves across the traffic with near suicidal precision and stops abruptly in front of us - with total disregard of the madly hooting traffic behind it. This is normal, assures Khuthadzo. Is it also normal that the indoor panelling of the sliding door has fallen off and that people inside need to reach out through the window to open the door from the outside? Oh yes, Khuthadzo specifically hates the ones where you look down from your seat and can see the motorway moving through the gaps in the floor.

This minivan is in a slightly better state: it comes with a sound system and the owner is clearly very proud of it. The two sound-boxes fitted above the last bench bounce with voluminous kwaito beats. It's his taxi, says Khuthadzo, so you can't complain about the music. Or the volume. Logically the last bench is also the only bench where we can sit and the next 10 minutes my ears are bombarded with a drumming beat that I will be able to recall for the next two weeks. It probably took that long before my brain stopped reverberating.

What about payment? You pay the driver, but we're on the last bench and the driver is out of direct reach. It's seven Rand, tells my guide. How do you know the price, I ask. Khuthadzo grins his teeth bare. You just know. Is it also seven Rand for other taxi routes, is there a standard fare? Of course not, silly, don't you love capitalism? I give up and dig in my purse for the very likeably designed South African bills. I only have fifty (~ 4.5 Euros) on me. Khuthadzo stops me. Don't do that, he explains, they won't have the change this early in the morning. He pays for me with a twenty bill which is passed on by the fellow commuters in front of us and this way the bill travels to the front seat. Clearly the driver doesn't have the change for twenty either: while driving uphill doing sixty and skipping lanes, he rummages around in the ashtray where he keeps his spare coins. He pulls to a sharp stop at a traffic light next to another taxi and loudly whistles to draw the attention of his colleague. Some words follow and bill and coins are exchanged through the windows across the street. Of course the traffic light already jumped to green and the money exchange is actually done while slowly ambling forward with the traffic behind us going berserk with the hooting, again.

In the meantime I'm falling prone to worrying: we're heading straight for the Telkom radiotower more and more - the beacon also known as the Hillbrow tower. Hillbrow, screams my brain, is not where I should go. I nervously query: we're not going too far, are we? Khuthadzo, grinning again madly, assures me all is under control, the very moment we actually pass by the "Hillbrow" designation sign. My brain gibbers.

And of course less than a minute after that Khuthadzo shouts "After Robots!" as indication to the driver that he needs to stop after the next set of traffic lights which he promptly does. We worm ourselves out, and our taxi spurts off with a roar of sulphurous petrol and continuous beats. Leaving us standing at the edge of Hillbrow near Constitution Hill and with my brain screaming a lot at me. And off course nothing happens while we walk the final 500 meters to campus, the same amount of nothingness that will happen to me all the times I travel the same route. Yet that day, by the time I cross the campus gate, I already feel I've done half a day's work...


April, 2008. Coming back from the exploration conference at Glenhove centre, Tuso and I both need the same taxi to get back to town. Town means the city business district, that is, downtown Joburg. There are two final destinations, or taxi-ranks, when you go to town- Noord and Bree station. Both are massive in size, both are pits of chaos and both are infamous, particularly Noord. Noord station hugs a thoroughfare between Hillbrow and the business district; Bree is actually in the business district, just across the Mandela Bridge which spans across the train tracks. Noord is a bulwark of misogynist conservatism of the taxi culture. Noord has its own rules - the authorities have a very weak grip on the taxi industry as a whole, anyway.

It's Friday, after five and the roads are full. When we reach the location of a frequent taxi stop at Jan Smuts avenue, there's a group of people already waiting for an empty taxi to pick everyone up. Oddly enough, especially in contrast with the ubiquitous chaos on the roads in Jozi, everyone queues impeccably. I've previously seen rows of people, forming stringers hundreds of meters long on the pavement, all of them orderly and patiently waiting for their turn. The mood at the queue is amiable and people are (again) surprised with me as "mlungu" using mini-taxis. I make some friends with handshakes and customary hugs, especially with the younger generation who are even more pleased when I can handle the slang.
"Eta ola?"
"Sharp sharp."

The taxi has a maximum of 15, so reads the sign inside, but the line holds 19 and we cram the extra 4 in - with 4 on every bench. A standard scenario for me now, but it always makes it difficult to get hold of my purse. It's near impossible to squeeze forward, or actually, to squeeze anywhere, except up. The taxi roars up Westcliff hill, swings into Braamfontein and I begin to wonder when we are getting out. Tuso should know best, but when we're in the thick of Hillbrow I nudge him in the side and he confesses that he wasn't paying attention. So we pass through Noord before we curve back for Bree - that should be good. I've only passed Noord a few times with a rental car and then immediately wished I hadn't. Ordinary car drivers hate getting close to the taxi ranks because taxi drivers are very passionate about not caring about road rules and jump into every centimetre of free space you accidentally leave open. Their dented mini-busses are testimony how bumps and scratches are par for the course for taxi's - which is not something you really want with rental cars.

The few times I had passed through Noord, it looked chaotic and noisy and very African in a rowdy sort of way. I thought I had seen it. But this time. This time, it is late afternoon on a Friday and the exodus of people leaving for the weekend is in full swing. The two-way lane is full. In fact, it is stowed to the brink. You could almost walk across the roofs of crawling mass of trucks and taxi's. Noise and frantic music is everywhere, from the sound-systems in taxi's, from street vendors with radio's, from the cacophony of hooting taxi's trying to be first to squeeze through an opening gap. There are traffic lights, but their functionality has been superseded by those who have the most audacity. People, from men and women in snug suits, to the elder, bulkier women in traditional dresses, to teenagers with funky frizzled hair who carry babies on their back wrapped in a big towel, all of them crossing through the traffic. Taxi drivers shouting and greeting at each other across the street. There's even a courageous biker, slowly weaving his way through the milling masses. I come close to a heart seizure when our driver dashes forward in an opening while another taxi from the right reverses into it. Swift breaks, outraged hoots and a bit of drama follow. I pick up the words, "Suche wena!" (A very useful yet coarse expression in Jozi: Fuck off, you.) As long as they don't start shooting, I'm happy. High-running disputes between taxi companies and competing taxi drivers are often settled with a gun, and that members of the clientele lose their lives in the process appears not really a big problem for the taxi business. (Addendum July 2008: an usher at Bree station was shot dead apparently because some people thought he was switching affiliations.)

We zigzag through town in similar fashion before the driver orders Tuso and me (the final two passengers) out, on the street before the entrance hall of Bree station. Whatever you say baba. Bree station cannot hold all the taxis - the wide dirt field across it also serves as taxi-rank which we cross on our way to Mandela Bridge. Again, I draw looks and it's one of those uncomfortable moments that I feel terribly white, surrounded by a mass of people openly staring or glancing my way. Business is dying down: the field is dotted with small fires and plumes of acrid smoke, groups of men huddled, fondling beer bottles. At the back of a deserted building, a row of cow heads staring at us with empty sockets. With their skin, eyes and ears removed, the heads will be put on the fire to stew them ready. The tongue and brain are considered a delicacy. Boy, do I feel out of Europe now. I try to explain to Tuso about Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease and how it affects European thinking about eating animal brains. He just comments how good it tastes.


February/March 2008 (no date). Another early, sunny morning in Johannesburg. Pulling away the curtains, finding an unblemished blue morning sky, sunlight sloshing into the room - for a Dutchman, it is a gift that makes me almost automatically merry. I swear, out of the 365 days in a year, Johannesburg easily comes with 350 mornings of stupendously clear skies. And that morning firmament here often comes in a wondrous shade of blue that is just mesmerizing, glorious, wholesome. Hard to describe.

One morning, Dagmar and I were climbing up the street, on our way to Main Road - a major thoroughfare and a taxi-route that passes the Wits campus. On some mornings, the smell of Africa lingers particularly strong - like the shade of the sky, I find it particularly hard to describe. It's an electric smell, rich, earthy, tantalizing yet comforting - it belongs to this place, it feels ancient. This was one of those mornings - but you could also sense the rim of winter cold approaching. As we moved up, our conversation struck taxi's, the culture of taxi's and how dominated the industry is by men.

Once, during her volunteering years, a taxi driver had given Dagmar reduction in price to the "mlungu" and asked for her cell-phone number - which she gave, somewhat foolishly, not really expecting a follow-up. She had guessed wrong and before she knew it, began receiving frequent phone calls and persistent requests for an evening out. It did not end until someone pretended to be Dagmar's mother and thoroughly scolded the guy at the next phonecall.

A bit later this year, a woman at Noord taxi rank was stripped off her clothes, humiliated and sexually violated by taxi drivers. Her offence? She wore a miniskirt, which was inappropriate dress according to the taxi drivers, resulting in her "punishment". Some taxi drivers even had the stupidity to use the defence that their African culture demanded women to cover up. (The event led to national outrage and several protest marches of thousands of women, all in miniskirt, sweeping through Noord street. You can't say South Africa is boring or unresponsive. Anyway, the friction between misogynist elements in African cultures and the modern empowerment of women is really a subject on its own, both fascinating and endlessly frustrating. )

Yet apparently a handful of female taxi drivers do exist - Dagmar knew of people who had been on taxis with female drivers. We wondered how they would keep their stand in the deeply conservative culture of the industry and both sighed how cool it would be to get a ride with one of them one day. A longshot, we both knew. Some 40.000 taxi's serve the Gauteng province.

And our chances were soon to dim even further - already we had begun commuting with a friend, to save on the increasing costs of petrol. Dagmar and Leon would get their car in April and I could catch rides with them both mornings and evenings.

But the stories are true. That glorious morning, when we had reached Main Road, a red and dented taxi that stopped for us had a woman behind the wheel, with a shawl elegantly wound around her hair and with ears adorned with simple round earrings. The stories are true: they drive even more aggressively and are as curt as their male compatriots. Eyes of flint and a voice of steel. This was her taxi, and it was a brief but memorable ride.


The moment the taxi decelerated to pick me up I already know I shouldn't have flagged it down. It is old, rusty while the young driver is compensating for the lacks of the machinery by aggression and reckless driving. And there isn't much place left, it looks stowed. But well, I take the ride anyway, having stood on the corner already for nearly ten minutes - I'm getting seriously spoiled living here. With taxi's you hardly ever have to wait very long at the side of the street - unlike the public transport in either the Netherlands or Johannesburg.

But I wish I had reconsidered. It's one of those monstrous taxis still not towed off the road by the Metro Police. The benches sag under the weight of the passengers, everyone already looks uncomfortable and sad - we all suffer in stoical silence. I squeeze onto the folding chair beside the door, which has difficulties to stay shut. And which can only be opened from the outside through the window. Taxi drivers generally don't wear safety belts, but this one doesn't even come with one for the driver's seat.

The taxi cannons down the hill toward Campus Square and when we turn left, my folding chair tilts me almost out of my seat. I still manage to sneak a peak at the odometer - we're doing 100 at this point. The driver, continuously hooting and sticking his index finger out of the window, steers the taxi through a narrow gap of traffic onto Kingsway, takes third lane, then lurches back to the side - because there's another customer to be picked up. I squeeze one row further back and the next person gets the folding chair of torture, but now I'm centred on the edge of the bench and this row's folding chair and squeezed between two other persons, which doesn't really alleviate my position. I notice I can actually look through both the floor and the sides of the taxi. And it's humid and hot, with the sun gaining strength. I feel perspiration build uncomfortably on my back. But I still don't get out.

The queue of cars waiting before a traffic light is clearly looking too long for the driver and seeing the other lane is still deserted, the driver swerves right, punches the minivan to maximum velocity while driving on the wrong side, then steers back (just in time for a truck turning onto the lane) in front of the line of cars. Just when I think it's nearly over, the taxi driver decides that he is going to Bree directly and I need to get off where the route splits. Generally when a taxi-route splits, the taxi driver arranges with a colleague to take over the customers who need to go to Braamfontein centre - my route. But not this driver and I've to squeeze all the way through the people to get to the door, foolishly fumble with the latch in a hunched position while sweating copiously, get out, and walk the final 300 meters to the campus entrance. I feel endlessly stupid and tricked out of my money.

Grrr. Taxi-ride from hell.


Taxi scenes, pure South Africa. One Sunday set out to work some more. At the corner of Main Road, in front of the Adult World sex shop, a taxi stands parked, the motor idling. The nearby usher who attempts to coax people into it is inebriated. He looks like a gaunt version of Thabo Mbeki - same build and moustache, the same greyness to his hair. I can smell the waft of alcohol around him when he greets me. He talks slurred Xhosa at me, and I notice most of his front teeth are missing. I can't follow him at all, smile doltishly, untangle myself from his handshake and slip onto the third bench in the taxi. Obviously that's not what he expected from me - during future encounters I realise he hungers for a monetary contribution - but I've no idea what service he's even pretending to provide. When they're lucky, street ushers receive a small fee from the driver, not from the customers. But I'm a mlungu, and mlungus always have money to spare. This is sadly a very persistent stereotype, and even when not completely untrue, rooted in false conceptions.

In my ruffled shirt and knee-pants with stains, I feel like a complete slacker, sitting next to the two very smartly dressed ladies with expensive looking yet cheap handbags in their laps. Probably returning from church. Their style in clothing, the sober greens and browns, the black fake fur hats, always remind me of the clothing style of my grandmothers. When the taxi reverses onto the road, Thabo the usher squeezes in, aggressively muttering and slamming down the folding chairs. I wonder how I should perceive him, as a nuisance or as a clown. I glance at the sticker above the driver's seat, which reads, "In this taxi you're a customer, don't be a problem."

I politely greet the ladies beside me, and we pool together our taxi fare of R6.50 per person. I put in my ten Rand bill, which means I should get back R3.50 from the driver, but he hands us back a R5 coin. When I attempt to make clear its fine and the lady can pocket it, this is not accepted at all, and a mission of digging through handbags commences. From the lady one seat behind us comes 1 Rand, and the other two also stack little coins until R3.50 is puzzled together, likely from the leftovers of church contribution. I pocket it foolishly, knowing it's less than €0.30.

But I refuse to hand it over to Thabo who's now one seat behind me and is arguing loudly with either himself or the driver or me. The returning comments of the driver, probably in isiZulu, make the church ladies openly chuckle and result in wide hand gesturing of Thabo. Damn it, I wish could I follow the conversation, although I thought the driver used the word, "Shlapanza" - which means, "sit down and be quiet". Thabo does stop talking, however, from gods know where he digs up a harmonica on which he starts whistling tunes with a reckless abandon. The ladies chuckle a little more. He stops, we all patter some applause on him. He never laughs, addresses some words to me looking glassily. If he still wants money, I don't understand him. And it's time for me to get off anyway, as we bank into Jorissen street, passing the Origin Centre.

"After robots!" The driver sticks his thumb up and squeezes through the traffic to the left. Bye Thabo, you made it worth it.


Previous instalments:
(1) Pierre, Tom & Sharon
(2) Nina & Henri
(3) Cape Town with Dagmar & Leon – Part 1
(4) Sarina

My taxi riding days are mostly over.

NB: "Mlungu" is a word out of isiZulu, meaning "whitey" but apparently it also means "white scum off the sea"...

by Nomad on Sat Sep 27th, 2008 at 07:04:44 AM EST
Brilliant, nomad.

You should be writing travelogues....

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Sat Sep 27th, 2008 at 08:01:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
great writing, nomad, love it.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty
by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sun Sep 28th, 2008 at 04:45:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What a fantastic read, thanks for sharing this.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Sat Sep 27th, 2008 at 10:05:36 AM EST
... minibuses of Grenada. The zooming over the narrow twisting streets with banana on one side down the slope below one side of the road and nutmeg trees above the other side  climbing up the slide, from one side of the island with 'beep beep' before each blind corner, and only staying in your half if there is a 'beep beep' around the corner.

Catching the minibus, "St. George, St. George, One Time, One Time" ... the Grenville Drivers association is tight, the route is steep, hard on transmissions, and they can't afford to undercut each other, so you just take the first minibus set to go first. Conductors for drivers on flatter routes fight to fill up their minibus  "One Time, St. Davids's, St. David's, One Time", "No, we go one time, we gwan, One Time!"

... and of course in St. George market square coming home, all the conductors at the front of the descending, "Grand Anse, Grand Anse, One Time, One Time", grab hands back from the pushiest, encouraged by too many passive ex-pats who put up with it ... "I going Grenville, Oui, I ain gwan Grand Anse", Grenville conductor spying me coming across, "G'wan now, him ride with me." The Grand Anse conductors give way ... Grenville drivers not easy, no, and if they know somebody, they really must be going to Grenville.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat Sep 27th, 2008 at 09:06:25 PM EST
There's always something special for me when a writer writes so well you enter a world, often strange to you, so effortlessly.  This series captures such strange flavors so well, i feel i can taste this land where i've never been.

Thanks, Nomad.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Anaïs Nin

by Crazy Horse on Sun Sep 28th, 2008 at 06:03:50 AM EST
Finally got to read your diary 'proberly'. Skimming it is just not good enough. Wonderful reading - hope there will be more sequels!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  :-)
by Fran on Mon Sep 29th, 2008 at 02:02:15 AM EST
This is another wonderful story that goes by in a minute and I realize my brain has been in a long-legged body in a cramped vehicle, my body has been squeezed in a row, and my bones have felt the uncomfortable seats....  What you got is Amazing!

Thank you!

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Fri Oct 10th, 2008 at 04:12:04 PM EST
Hi Metavision.  Hope to see you in Madrid at the beginning of November.  Are you around?

Vote McCain for war without gain
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Oct 10th, 2008 at 04:36:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hello, Frank. I misunderstood your trip was in October, but if I can stay away from doctors and there are no arrests, I will be here, denmadrid circle gmail, to plan a little better.  

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Fri Oct 10th, 2008 at 04:57:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
sent test email

Vote McCain for war without gain
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Oct 10th, 2008 at 06:25:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
E-mail doesn't seem to have worked.   Mine is frankschnittger(at)hotmail.com

Vote McCain for war without gain
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun Oct 12th, 2008 at 05:36:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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