Saturday, August 09, 2008

A Combination of What?

CAPE TOWN, Aug. 8 — Take a New York City Transit bus, add a New York City cab, preferably of the mini-van variety, throw in a pinch of dance remixes from the late 1990s, an incessantly hooting hooter (yes, hooting hooter — it’s not a honking horn here in Cape Town), and about 15 people, including a crazy driver and a “caller” hanging out a special side window, and you get a minibus taxi.

The minibus taxi, or kombi (possibly also spelled C-O-M-B-I) is a kombi-nation of eccentricities, all brewed into one* of the most commonly used forms of public transportation here in Cape Town.

Callers, who sit in the seat closest to the sliding, curb-side door, often hanging out the window (or half-window that has clearly been designed into some models for this purpose) whistling at and calling to potential passengers, are apparently unique to Cape Town, but “this whole concept of transportation in that form is African — it’s certainly not anything we have in the States,” my girlfriend explained.

The caller works for passengers, works the door, and sometimes works the money, except for the occasions when the front-middle-seat passenger gets stuck playing change maker.

From what I’m told, one doesn’t really “get” the kombis until riding them, or at least one. So, without further delay, a brief riff on my first kombi trip today.

Walk up the hill from Obs to Main Road, careful to look right when crossing the street. (Main Road, as you might figure, is the main surface road running into Cape Town, and the kombis run both ways, hooting all the way, crossing multiple lanes of traffic to pick up of and drop off passengers. I tend to look both ways as an extra assurance against being flattened by a stray vehicle, but I’ve still had a couple close calls.)

As we hit Main Road, the hooting starts, or, rather, the callers eagerly seek us out. “Wynberg, Wynberg?” one asks before we even cross the street to the lanes going out direction. He’s inquiring whether we want to jump in the kombi on the corner bound for Wynberg, at the other end of the line (if you can call it a kombi route a “line”). No thanks, she says, shaking her head, and we dart across the street to the opposite corner, just below the Grute Schur hospital, home of the first heart transplant, and still a transplant center for Africa.

Several kombis roll by, and she waves them on. “Too full,” she said of the first couple. “Too empty,” she said of one with no passengers. “It’s no fun if there is no one in it!”

Five to seven minutes later, a bright yellow model with tinted windows rolls up, and before I realize what’s happening, we’re boarding. “This one’s a nice one,” she whispers over her shoulder. The passenger closest to the curb-side door in the second row of bench seats, the seat over which everyone must climb to get to the two back rows, climbed out, and we climbed in, headed for the back two middle seats.

Wallet safely secured in the zipped, inside pocket of the messenger bag, along with the nice sunglasses and the cell phone, which I’d been warned against having accessible during the ride, I fished a five-rand coin out of the coin pocket of my jeans, and passed up the rest of the money, enough for three to Cape Town, including our seat mate in the back.

Dance remixes vintage 1997 blare through the relatively nice sound system. “Do you want it all, or nothing at all…” The LCD screen in the front of the passenger section is dimmed, but I half expected it to light up and for a strobe and disco ball to drop from the kombi’s ceiling. Songs continue, “… it’s now or never …”

Bombing along Main Road, the caller, head and left arm hanging out the half-window, whistles, calling to potential passengers, “Cape Town! Cape Town?!” A black woman shakes her head no, ignoring the driver’s hoots. At this point, I realized the hooting and calling are not at all coordinated. The caller calls somewhat routinely, but the driver hoots randomly, sometimes to help passenger recruitment, other times to warn pedestrians and other vehicles on the road that he’s about to cross three lanes of traffic to load or unload.

A passenger disembarks from the front seat, and jump-seat man, the one in the second-row-door seat, jumps out and into the front so he can avoid climbing out and back in every time we pick up a new rider. We cruise a few more blocks as the dance remix fades from one dated song to another — I know they’re dated because I know all of the songs (if not the remixes), and I know I’m not up on current music, nor have I consistently been since the late ‘90s. Jump-seat man, bald head and all, jumps out of the front a few blocks later, and a black woman with braids hanging to the bottom of her shoulder blades jumps in, riding for a few blocks before bailing and hiking up a cross street.

Soon enough, it’s clear that we’re close enough to city centre that no more guests will join this kombi party. The party-goer to my left is wheezing and hacking, not quite in time with the music, and I’m clutching my messenger bag on my lap, hoping it’s not something contagious.

We pass through some of downtown Cape Town, and onto the roof of Cape Town Station, the train station. The minibus taxi terminus in the City Bowl, as downtown is also known, is on the roof, overlooking the train yard and the Golden Arrow bus station (more on the buses to follow). To appreciate the kombi station, it helps to imagine the yellow cab holding lot at JFK — hundreds of cabs and their drivers waiting for a dispatch to the airline terminals for the big $45 fare to Manhattan, hoping not to get screwed with a short fare to Queens or Brooklyn. The Cape Town kombi terminus is comparable. Replace the yellow cabs with minbus taxis of all makes, models, and colors — Toyota and VW seemed to be the most prevalent. There was even a fuschia-colored kombi with a Reebok decal in the back window. Somehow I don’t think that means Reebok was once in the vehicle-manufacturing business.

Over some speed bumps, rather roughly, especially in the seats over the back wheels, and into a clusterfuck of kombis, passengers, drivers, and attendants (although it was entirely unclear to what they were attending). There are some stalls off to the right, perpendicular to the entryway where we’re stuck, where the kombis queue for the return-trip from Cape Town to all points outside town, and they sit queued until they are full. My girlfriend always opts for a sedan cab back to Obs from the City Bowl instead of waiting in the madness.

Finally, the door pops open, and passengers poor out, into a gap maybe two-feet wide between our ride and the kombi chillin’ against the curb. We quickly snap a photo or two, deftly stepping around the man who’s decided to relieve himself along the concrete barrier marking the edge of the lot. From there, we cross a pedestrian bridge whose metal panels give a good three inches toward the street every few steps we take, and we head down some rusting metal steps, past the bus station and into the bustle. This is Africa.

*There seems to be some debate about whether the kombis or the Golden Arrow buses carry more people to and from work in Cape Town on a daily basis. One of my girlfriend’s colleagues at the NGO where she worked suggested that despite the buses’ larger capacity, the kombis probably carry more people daily because there are many more of them than buses. Another took the polar opposite position, suggesting that the capacity of the buses must more than make up for the greater number of kombis. If you’ve got more insight, please share. As for me, I’d like to throw another wrench in the gears of this transportation question. What about the trains, which run up and down the peninsula and from the Cape Flats, the areas where the townships area, into Cape Town Station? They surely bring people to work and return them home in the evening, but I’m not sure proportionally how much traffic they comprise.

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