07 March 2009

Ruminations on the train

Context: The Rovos train from Pretoria to Cape Town. A three day trip across South Africa. A long time to sit and look out of the window. There are only 33 passengers on this train, mostly couples, mostly retired, presumably relatively wealthy and all white. We have some Germans, an Italian couple, a few Brits and a bunch of South Africans. So there is a range:

Two Afrikaner couples travelling together with an innate sense of entitlement and lack of manners expressed in finger snipping and sparse use of the phrase "thank you". One of the expensively casual wives flashes her Blackberry in defiance of the request not to use mobile phones in public areas, while they generally monopolise the lounge with loud conversations.

At first I thought the Italian couple were Americans. The touristy dress sense and cranky Yankee accents gave them away, or so I thought as did the lady wife's tight facial skin. Out on the observation platform she said to me, pointing to a crack in the window pane where some rocks had hit it: "This train is not loved." I wanted to misunderstand her melodramatic comment and ask what it was that she didn't love about the train but instead wondered whether in her mind every graffitied intercity was a political attack on those who could afford public transport. But I wondered quietly to myself, fearful of cracking her controlled visage.

The two German couples also travelled together: A tall, confident, energetically dark-maned woman in her late 30's: we'll call her Stefanie; an equally tall, similarly aged male, tiny stylish diamond earring, dashing and casual: let's call him Stefan; travelling with two non-descript partners, early-middle age, crumpled and not even within earshot of those two in the handsomeness scale, she a dirty blonde with bargain rail clothes, he tired, sagging in the flesh: Gertrud and Norbert, let's say. So you would assume that Stefanie and Stefan would be one handsome couple, while Gertrud and Norbert were configured into the other. Matched in temperament, looks and inclination, you would assume, and you would be wrong. Despite the fact that Stefanie and Stefan flirt furiously, constantly, publicly showering sparks whenever Norbert and Gertrud are absent; despite the visible fact that they physically and mentally belong together, Stefan is in fact married to Gertrud and Stefanie lives in unmarried union with Norbert.

We have one single passenger, one person not travelling with a companion, a hunched over, balding gentleman from Germany. Without doubt everyone is assuming that he booked this journey with a travel partner - wife, maybe, but more likely his elderly mother, and that she passed away or was otherwise prevented from taking the trip. There is a stoic sad aura around him as he stares at the passing landscape, perhaps contemplating the semblance of this train driving through the dry veld to the travel through life, a trip that ends all too soon.

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