“We don’t see many Americans on the train,” says Mr. Dawie Breet, the burly Afrikaans train manager who serves as my host for the 26-hour trip from Cape Town to Johannesburg called the Trans Karoo. No surprise, considering the 10,000 mile distance from my home of the last 25 years, Los Angeles. I am happy to be the eyes for my friends at home, privileged. It is a big world out here and too easy to become myopic within a big country such as the U.S. or, according to Mr. Breet, a small country set so far away like South Africa.
I am asked many questions on the train about being an American, by Mr. Breet, by the all black staff in the dining car where I spend much of my time looking out through the large picture windows, by the two couples who are traveling in the coupe next to mine, on their way to Krueger National Park – one of whom, it turns out, know Beth and Charles Hutchinson, the parents of my friends Annie and Lesley who I spent the previous month living with, between their homes in Cape Town and Saldanha Bay in the Western Cape.
It has been a long time since I oriented to the world according to politics and hierarchies, so I can say little in response to the questions I am asked about the men who appear to head our country except that their ways are of a past that is dying and much of what we see on the surface is their attempt to hold on. The shifts that are most poignant have already taken us beyond borders – technology that allows me to be connected with people on every continent via the internet, to write this article on the road, to be your eyes in this moment; the youth who have grown up in a new Africa where the pure and sane voice of Mandela set the intention for “a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.” and is continually rekindled in this country now 10 years into its shared experience of democracy.
It was the old South Africa that sent Annie to California as a young woman, so I must be grateful to the odd circuitous way human life has been shaped over the centuries. That same drive to go beyond, to find freedom is what sent my ancestors to America, hers to South Africa and eventually brought us together in Los Angeles so that today I have a home here with friends as close as family.
This is the promise of this new time, to find more creative and expansive ways to come together and relate as friends and as neighbors, to know our connection as the greater truth of our existence.
Not every aspect of my ride along the Karoo spoke of connection, however. An easy conversation with one of the waiters about my travels and new high-end camera, triggered a startled reflex, echoes of friends’ warnings about luggage disappearing from trains, car jackings on the news, and all the security precautions of metal gates, electric fences and car guards I’d been seeing during my stay here. I wondered if I had been too naive in discussing my personal business so openly, erudite woman, speaking in currencies of thousands of Rand and intercontinental flights to someone who lives in a township. Had I unwittingly fed into the view of the haughty American?
I felt the fear rise in me. Why had he asked me who I was staying with in Johannesburg? So many questions, concerns about who was meeting me. Were they leading me into harms way? Or was this a subtle gift from this man to move me into a greater awareness when I did arrive in the city?
I could feel the pull within me, my stomach tightening, a nervous confusion taking over. My body wanted me to retreat into my coupe, to close the door behind me and lock it. I went through the paces, not on automatic but as a witness, present to my thoughts and feelings. Captive behind the locked door, with only a narrow view through my window, I knew this was not the experience I had intended – not the palpable sense of place in which I’d been reveling, of South Africa pouring out at locomotive speed and ambling into stations full of people waiting for the metroline, Bellville, Wellington, Herman and Wolseley. And it was definitely not congruent with the intention with which I downsized my life in LA, packed what was left into storage, and set out to be a citizen not of any one country, but of the world.
I knew I had to face my fear to go through it. After collecting myself, I re-entered the dining car anew. There I spoke with Sipho the Dining Car manager and Matthew, the waiter with whom I’d been having the discussion. I acknowledged that I felt they had my best interest
at heart, and that I had to get to this realization through a very compelling tendency to go into “us” and “them.” It is a tendency by which everyone on the planet is challenged today. Whether age, race or gender, religious belief or national identity, the things that make us rich in our expression become deficits when they throw us into separation. The call and, actually, the opportunity of this time, is to move into a greater sense of who we are together – one people, one global family.
TRAVEL TIP: Trains are a wonderful way to get a sense of place and connect with people for real when you travel. The Trans Karoo is one of eight routes among South Africa’s affordable cross-country passenger trains known as the Shosholoza Meyl. Named for a traditional song sung by the men who lay the railway lines, Shosholoza translates as “push forward, endeavour or strive” and Meyl is short for Imeyili, a colloquial term meaning “long distance train”.
To find out more about train travel in South Africa (or practically anywhere else in the world), the best site I’ve found is: http://www.seat61.com
For Shosholoza Meyl train routes, times, fares and booking, go to: http://www.spoornet.co.za/ShosholozaProject/index.jsp My journey on the Trans Karoo was my first time over night in a sleeping car, which was amazingly restive as well as great fun, and there is also economy class seating.