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Posts Tagged ‘transportation’

They say that smell is the strongest trigger of memories. Lately I’ve been having flashbacks of my trouble-making youth, when I went through that phase where you like to light things on fire and see how they change. Today on the bus to Allepey I remembered my Grandmother’s damp basement and me and my sister and two of my cousins striking matches and then burning the end of a ballpoint pen. Little black globules floated in the dim lit air like drugged-out fruit flies. My heart raced from the thought of our Grandma catching us. We knew what we were doing wasn’t allowed, but back then curiosity was the excuse that made allowances for everything. I smooshed the melted pen onto a piece of paper and smiled; it looked like a royal seal.

Sitting alone on the bus this morning I found myself holding my breath more often than usual. Every few minutes my lungs would feel the faint contraction that comes from inhaling dirty smoke. Most of the time it was just a pile of old leaves and garbage that was burning- it’s the dry season in Kerala and thinks are getting brittle. But every now and then I’d know that I was smelling burning plastic and my mind would go back to that brown house in the country, the last on the left on Green Grove Dr.

There are some things that I know I will never take for granted again. In the U.S. I can turn on a tap and know that I can drink the water without having to worry about getting hepatitis (I can get this water basically for free, unless of course it becomes privatized and corporations get to charge whatever they want so that they can make a profit from it).  In the U.S. there’s this idea that people have a right to clean air (unless, of course, you’re a poor black kid living in the South Bronx. Or a poor white kid living in Scranton next to Route 81). In the U.S. anyone can get a great education, so long as they study hard (and are already in the middle class so that they have the money to afford skyrocketing tuition).

Something I’m starting to realize is that there are things in this world that are universal.  Everywhere has its mischievous children and scolding grandmothers.  But when it comes to shaping the world that we live in and the way that we’re influenced by it- a.k.a. when it comes to pushing for environmental change- whether it regards health or aesthetics or infrastructure, there is a lot that the U.S. has already been done.  There isn’t trash on the side of our roads and our air isn’t clouded with the toxic fumes of burning plastic.  But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing left to fight for.  It’s the things in the parentheses, the people in the parentheses, that we need to make sure don’t go unnoticed.  This is why activism is so necessary.  When there’s someone in the U.S. pointing out how clean our air is and how free our people are, someone else needs to be there to point out that actually the cleanliness of one’s air and the freedom that one has depends on the size of one’s wallet.

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The bus ride

Never did I think I could get a workout from riding on a bus. But after spending four hours yesterday and another five hours today on (and off, considering all the times I was literally thrown into the air) the peeling blue vinyl seat of a public Indian four wheeler, my muscles feel just like they did after the first time I tried yoga. Except now I have neck aches instead of a spiritual breathing high.

I am exaggerating a little. Although I did get flung into the air a few times, there were definitely stretches of relative smooth sailing. And I have to say, the public transportation infrastructure here is something to be envied. I know that I can go to any major city and there will be a bus or train going to wherever I need to get to next. At the most it’ll be a stop away. When I’m on the bus, I see hardly any cars on the road; mostly it’s circus-colored freighter trucks and other buses. I did have a little trouble on the way to Hampi. My overnight 2AC (it has beds with curtains) train reservation didn’t make it off of the waiting list and I had to spend the night—all twelve hours of it—on a wooden bench with my meager general ticket (but that’s another story).

Imagine a train network that ran all across the U.S… If you wanted to go to California, book a sleeper and you’d get there in a few days. New York to Florida? Not a problem. But I can’t even get a train home from New York City to Scranton. The tracks are there, but I’m guessing it probably just wouldn’t be profitable. After all, when everyone has cars that they can chill out in while they’re going their average four miles an hour (I know I’m repeating this, but I just can’t get over it), who needs trains? I’m just saying, maybe cars are great, maybe they’re the worst thing ever invented. But either way, grade A good public transportation is something that we Americans missing out on.

To be honest, I like the long bus rides. India’s landscape changes so quickly that I’m content to stare out the window and watch the vast planes of cotton fields and rosella plantations turn into forested hills that look strangely Pennsylvanian. And yesterday a flock of middle schoolers just happened to get my bus and flock to the back, where I was quickly treated like a glossy magazine pop star. They all wanted to shake my hand- something that happens a lot, and something that’s started to make me feel really uneasy. So instead I taught them the ‘secret hand shake’ shake, grab the thumb side of the hand, and finish it off with a pound. They liked that. As for me.. well, it’s certainly humbling to be the one white face in a bus full of brown ones. And precious time to just sit and think and reflect becomes suddenly plentiful when you don’t have to focus on the road.

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A fallen city

Whenever I do something that I know is bad for the environment- buy a plastic packaged beverage, take an excessively long shower, throw away a piece of paper instead of recycling it- I always get a wave of what I’ve started to call “green guilt.” It’s inescapable. I do my best to live with as little impact as possible, but no one is perfect and I’m far from a stellar model of the sustainable citizen.

By now I’ve accepted that I’ll have to buy copious amounts of bottled water while I’m in India, but this morning my green guilt meter reached a recent high when I decided to rent a motor bike for the day. I could have gotten a bicycle. I love to bike. But the fact was that there was no way I’d be able to see the sprawling capital city of the fallen Vijayanagar Empire on a bicycle. Definitely not without getting sun stroke and since I lack Lance Armstrong quads, probably not at all. This is what I told myself as I watched the shop owner pour a liter of honey-colored fuel out of a water bottle and into the bike’s gas tank.

When I was on that bike, I was completely in control of my life. The wind was whipping my hair into knots and the red orange rocky landscape sliding past me. I could go anywhere, when I wanted to, at my own pace. It felt like the first time I rode my bicycle in the city. It was freedom, but at a cost. There was that edge of fear always hanging around the periphery of my thoughts—I could get hit. I could crash. I could run into a cow. But it was worth it (and, to assuage the nerves of my surely cringing mother, I was only going about 30 mph- without gears the bike couldn’t go much faster).

I often have this realization of the freedom that comes with personal transportation when I go home to Scranton for a while and am sitting alone in my car. I really hate driving. I make my sister do it whenever we go somewhere together. But I do appreciate what it awards to those fortunate enough to be able to afford it. At its core, personal transportation is a good thing. The problem is when driving a car becomes necessary to having a livelihood (as it is in Scranton and most US suburbs). And someone told me yesterday that the average speed in the US is 4mph… just about that of an ox cart.

The ruined city of Vijayanagar. At one time this society had been huge and beautiful and flourishing. I could tell that much from walking through the outlines of what had once been homes with spacious courtyards and tall columns. Even now some buildings remain- I climbed to the top of a guard post with Islamic arched windows wide enough for me to lie down on the window seat and nap while a strong wind cooled my body. Nearly everything is gone now. Only with my imagination could I see the marvels and wonders of this city. With my eyes I saw its ruins. It made me think of the post I wrote yesterday, and of a book I read called The World Without Us. I bet the people of Vijayanagar never thought that some day a white, slightly sunburnt, girl from a place called the U.S.A. would sit in one of their guard towers and stare out at the empty, rock strewn desert where their great city once stood. Great civilizations have fallen before us. So maybe it could be that we will too.

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