It has been a while since I have posted (busy doing training with the Peace Corps), and since I am going to leave for Durban in a few days, I figured I should at least get one post up before I go. So I figured I would write on a very current issue for me: transportation.
South Africa is remarkable in the fact that it has a really efficient and successful public transportation system. Most notable is that it succeeds in serving the vast number of rural communities and villages throughout the country. But at the same time, it is just as effective within the cities. And, as much of the country doesn't own cars and depends on the system, a large industry has emerged.
The system is based on combies (or often they are just called public taxis; there is of course, metered private taxis within the cities). Each taxi is essentially a slightly bigger minivan, which can seat usually about 15 people (seat makes it sound much more comfortable then it often is). There are two in the front row, next to the driver. Then there is a sliding door for getting into the back area, and usually three rows of three and one row of four at the very back. Each seat has its own advantages and disadvantages. The back row is often an unfortunate area to sit, because four people in a row is pretty cramped, but as long as you are not in the middle, you get a window (so it is a trade off). The row right behind the driver is very spacious, but that means you can get stuck having peoples stuff in your lap. Big bags, groceries, babies, all might be handed to the people in that row. Sitting in the front is scary, because of the driving and because often you are expected to make change for people as they pay (and if you make a mistake, it comes out of your pocket). My goal is to always sit near a window...
Most of the vehicles are quite old, with doors that seem on the verge of falling off and wires hanging out under the dashboard. Twice, I have been on taxis that have broken down (one started smoking). One local blue taxi barely gets over 30MPH (50km/h), has a door that won't close, broken windows, no gauges in the dashboard and was probably built in the sixties. But there are also modern, nicer taxis, which are much more spacious.
Often, even when it is very hot, all the windows in the taxi will get closed as soon as it starts moving. People will complain about how hot it is, but still the windows remain closed. The most common explanation is that people are afraid of catching a flu. In addition, the lack of personal space makes it even hotter. People will be leaning into you, squished against you or falling asleep on you. And finally, you have all your bags and stuff in your lap, so you can hardly move. So my solution is to sit by the window and crack it just enough so I get a slight breeze, and then I try to go to sleep to pass the ride. This is sometimes hampered by the fact that a lot of the taxi drivers invest theit earnings into getting a sound system for the car, so they can blast music throughout the drive.
There are two main ways of catching a taxi. One is going to a taxi rank. In the cities, there are huge taxi ranks - hundreds of taxis, lots of people. There are queue marshals who keep the taxis organized and are often a big help in finding the right taxi. Of course, being a white person in a taxi rank gets a lot of attention (I have only seen one white South African riding a taxi), so there will be many offers for help. Taxis will wait at the rank until they are full, and then depart. For common destinations, this can be a few minutes. Other places, this means two or three hours of waiting. While you wait, a number of vendors come by offering the usual stuff - refreshments (soda, sandwiches, chips), newspapers, airtime (for cell phones) - and the bizarre - sling shots, razors, jewelry, cologne, hats, loaves of bread. And there is a interesting understanding with all the vendors. For example, if you buy something they don't have or if they need to get change, they leave the box with all their stuff sitting by the taxi, so you know that they will come back. Finally, when all fifteen people and all there stuff is squeezed in, the taxi gets ready to leave and the driver pays a small fee to the queue marshal. The alternative to catching taxis at the rank is just to stand on the side of the road. Taxis with space in them will drive by and honk occasionally. If you are going somewhere within the current village or city, you point down, otherwise you point up (in fact, there are a number of signs that are used for communication, but those are the basic ones). And then the taxi driver will pull over to pick you up.
The cost of the taxis is quite inexpensive. For within Polokwane (for example, to go over to the nicer mall with a movie theater), it is less than $1 (R5). For me to go into town, it costs about $5 (R30 to R36, depending on whether I get the direct taxi). If you catch the taxi at the rank, you pay the queue marshal. Otherwise, you pass payments forward and say where you are going from or coming from. Then your change will be passed back. For the most part, the system works really well and other people always offer to help.
When you see your destination, you just ask the taxi rider to get off. Usually you will say something like "after robot", meaning you want to get let off after the next traffic light (they are called robots here for some reason). In the village, I say "Ke fologa CellC box" (literally translated, I am descending at the CellC box, which is a bright red box at the end of my little road). Climbing in and out can be an adventure sometimes, as almost the whole taxi has to unload to let you off.
Now the reason that transportation is a current issue for me is because there is a little war going on between two local taxi companies. One company (the Peace Taxi Association) is made up of drivers from my village and a neighboring village and has been serving the area for a while, including offering rides into town. A bigger company from another, slightly separate village has moved in and is claiming that it should take people to the city and that Peace Taxi Association should not be allowed to (instead, it should only serve the local area). Now I do not fully understand the details of the fight, and I am hesitant to take sides, because I think it is more complicated then the explanation I received. But, the local taxi rank (a tiny place where you switch from the local taxi to the city taxi) has a small group of police officers all the time, holding big automatic rifles and driving cars that look like the SWAT cars from the US (the police here are intense). Apparently, when taxi companies fight, it can get violent, so the police were called in early. Now, both taxi companies have been essentially stopped from running rides into town. The last time I went, the police officer with one of the big guns told me I should just try to hitchhike on the highway (luckily, one of the taxi rank guys helped me catch a passing taxi from an unrelated company). Later that day, when I returned, the taxi was stopped at the rank by a police officer. The driver was told to give us each R5 back, since we didn't reach our destination and then we had to find an alternative ride from the local taxi rank into the village. Rumor has it that they are now impounding taxis that try to pass...
So I am a tad worried about catching my flight to Durban in a few days, but I have arranged a backup in case I cannot manage to catch a taxi.