Friday, November 6, 2009

From a Car Window

In some significant ways my current Cairo routine takes me back to a routine I had maintained years ago while staying in Calcutta. Or at least I am taken back to certain memories from my past.

It was during my post-graduation period. I had graduated from university and spent a half year in India, the Northern Half, being a backpacker, a student of meditation, a volunteer. I ended my travels in Calcutta, having received a generous invitation to stay with a Bengali family for free. I found Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity in a back alley of downtown, and signed up to volunteer with the Sisters’ two missions – one an orphanage for severely disabled children, the other a makeshift school for Bihari street children. The family I stayed with became my family.

I happened to be in West Bengal during the hottest months of the year, the pre-Monsoon season. Just being would cause profuse sweating. The weather was so damp the air felt as a suspended cloud.

And I had a long daily commute. I lived in Jadavpur, a suburb of Calcutta, and volunteered in two locations quite far, more toward the center of the city, depending on one’s vantage point I suppose. I would wake early in the morning. Walk to a corner to catch a rickshaw – a motor-powered, not human-powered one. There would be a long line of early morning commuters waiting. When it would be my turn to catch a rickshaw, we would pile in. What appeared to be a two-passenger rickshaw easily turned into a six-passenger one, with me more often than not hanging out the rickshaw as it meandered its way through the dirt roads lining the many shacks. The rickshaw driver would drive so quickly, make turns so suddenly, that I often felt my life would end or a limb would surely be lost.

Hanging out of the rickshaw I would look upon the thousands and thousands of shack dwellers, brushing their teeth in waterways adjacent to the roads, children defecating along the roadside.

We would get dropped off at the underground metro, and I would take the metro to a stop not far from the orphanage. It was exhilarating work, as we volunteers and the Sisters took the children to the bathroom and bathed them and dressed them. It was so hot – and I was so drenched in sweat – that I would have a difficult time keeping hold of the children. I would lift them, but they would slip between my hands from the sweat. I would bathe them but would have to adjust my glasses as they fell from my sweating face.

When I would get home after another hour-long commute, my sweaty body would be layered in coating upon coating of dust and soot. The very first thing I would do when I got home would be to take a cold shower. It restored me. I would feel renewed and able to start the same routine over again in the morning.

I will never forget a comment made by a Calcutta family member during my stay. She was a doctor and her husband a well-known doctor. They were solidly part of a upper-middle class household. Like is standard for upper-middle class families here, the upper-middle classes in India have not only their own fully-equipped cars but they have their own drivers to drive them around. And this family member had a driver take her around the city.

She had just returned from a conference in San Francisco and said to me:
“It was my first trip to America. I thought it would be so different from here. But really I didn’t see many differences. It seemed just like Calcutta.”

I was stunned to silence. Then I quickly realized how differently one’s perceptions of a place are depending on one’s mode of transport. From the window of a car, I guess one could come to think of San Francisco and Calcutta as nearly indistinguishable. I mean, they both have highways, big buildings, water bodies, homeless people. In fact, from the “secure” place of inside a car, I imagine one could think of typologically-like places (e.g. “urban,” “rural”) as nearly identical.

Surely the uniformity of the experience in a car can not be divorced from the developmentalist narrative – of massive highway networks, private enterprises and big buildings and business complexes, cookie-cutter style housing complexes, huge shopping malls, and other urban delights.

And of course the flipside of the standardization of experiences and impressions from inside a car is the standardizing effect of decades of development policies on the experiences and quality of life of the millions upon millions of those reliant on transportation ‘for the public’ (whether publically or privately operated) to get around in huge metropolises.

In a de-industrialized era industrial goods like transportation come with foreign reserves or they come cheap locally or worn as donations. That makes good transportation very expensive for countries like India and Egypt. And during years of structural adjustments, that continue, even less money is available for essentials like buses and their spare parts. The combination of expensive essentials and less money for essentials is indeed quite disastrous. And policies that were supposed to fuel industrialization (such as high subsidies for leaded fuel) have instead led to extremely high levels of toxic pollution and resulting health problems like birth defects, cancer and asthma. American-style urban development –with capital and employment concentration in only a handful of urban centers (where privatization of real estate has made housing outrageously expensive) has led to very long commutes for commuters. Many here as elsewhere spend hours in commute daily.

I may not know how one experiences the world if largely from the window of a car, but I do know how much my experiences here have been affected by my to and fro. I have lived here long enough now and have gone through enough different phases to know how differently I experience this place if I am depending largely on a short walking commute, on taxis or on privatizing public transportation.

And so much of how I currently feel about this place is shaped by my many rides on the micro-buses and buses and the metro. I have long ways to and from. Any exposed hair and skin is covered in soot. I struggle to fight off allergy-induced illness and general constant congestion. I am surrounded by terribly obese women who can barely make it a step up into the micro-bus or metro. And the one thing I desperately look forward to – at least during the long, hot summer months – is a cold shower.

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