On the Beach

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Traffic Jams, Capetonians and Paris

This semi-expat thing is a constant learning experience. Just when you think you have everything sussed- BANG- you get blindsided.

Over the Easter holidays I learnt, amongst others, the following 2 things:
1. Capetonians and Parisians have a surprising amount in common.
2. There is such a thing as a traffic jam in the Western Cape.

Over the Easter break, we went away. Getting away when you live in Cape Town is incredibly easy- there are so many beautiful, reasonably priced places to go, just a short(ish) drive away.

Getting away is the done things at Easter, as I am told it ALWAYS rains at Easter in Cape Town (and actually it has the last 2 years). A friend of mine who stayed in CT over the Easter break, said that the city was like a ghost town, abandoned and spooky.

Leaving the city is all very well and good but, it seems that Capetonians- like Parisians- happily leave and return at the exact same time as one another- year after year. It's like they never learn. Perhaps Capetonians, Parisians and goldfish all have something in common?

In Paris, France, the city empties ritually on the first weekend in August, much like water running through a sieve. OK, that metaphor is way too fast, maybe a bit more like couscous (lumpy) going through a sieve. Then on the last weekend in August, the city refills and it id like lumpy, uncooked couscous trying to ram itself back through the same holes through which it came out. Angrily and aggressively, preferably on a sweltering hot day. It happens every year, no one ever learns that maybe the holiday could be more pleasant if it didn't start and finish in a bumper-to-bumper rage. Mind you, the French dont take well to advice and instruction.

And so the Capetonians, like the Parisians, like to enter and exit en masse- on the Thursday before Easter and return on Easter Monday.

I must say, I had heard fanciful tales of traffic jams from the natives but I had a tendency to dismiss them. Apart from traffic jams in the rain, of which I have spoken before, a Capetonian's idea of a traffic jam is if they can see another car on the horizon. Seriously, it's like how they complain about the weather when the sky has the audacity to have a cloud in it (although, I must confess that my definition of "nippy" has gone up a few degrees since I've been here).

I can't testify to the traffic on pre-Easter Thursday as I was long gone by then. However, sadly, I was there on Easter Monday.

Where Cape Town is more problematic traffic-wise than Paris, is that very little of Cape Town is accessible by road, as compared to its circumference. Go now, find a map of Cape Town...ok, see, it's basically a peninsula with 2 main motorwayss carrying traffic in and out. So when the entire population decides to leave, it like a test tube erupting. Which is easier than trying to cram everything back IN to the same, slim test-tube which is what happened on Easter Monday when the population returned.

We had been warned about the traffic but, based on the general driving hyperbole, we largely ignored these warnings, simply trying to leave early. For the first 3/4 of the journey we sneered and jibed as we coasted along- more cars than usual for sure- but doing a good smooth, speed. What's the big deal?

Then, over the Houw Hoek pass, the traffic slowed to a virtual standstill. 2 lanes of it. Without warning. For 2 km we went at about 5 km per hour. At this point, we were about 70km from CT, having already done 450km. I had never experienced anything like this is CT. London, all the time. Buenos Aires I think just is a traffic jam. But never before on the open roads of the Western Cape.

On the radio, it was apparent that the gridlock was also around Durban, Pretoria and Jo'burg demonstrating that all South Africans are actually Parisians. What really amused me though waster fact that the Minister for Transport had issued an emergency statement for broadcast on the radio urging people to be calm and stay patient. It was a very seriously delivered message- clearly the government was envisaging absolute savagery and rioting on account of traffic. And it made me think about all the coverage South Africa gets here and especially abroad, how every story predicts it will all go "like Zim". And here are South Africans being told to stay calm in a traffic jam, not to resort to road rage, not to fall into a "Falling Down" frame of mind. It's nice to think, in a way, that some of the problems in South Africa are commonplace in the developed world, that we're actually pretty normal here, in lots of ways.

How else are Capetonians and Parisians similar? They both have the arrogance to assert that they live in the best city in the world. And,I must say, they're both justified in their own ways.

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