Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category

The Big Mac Index

September 15, 2009

In An Alternative Big Mac Index, The Economist cites a report by UBS bank which states that workers in Nairobi must toil longer than works in any other city on earth to earn enough money to buy a Big Mac. This is undoubtedly true, given that a worker in Nairobi would have to buy a plane ticket to reach the nearest McDonald’s, probably somewhere in the Mid East or maybe South Africa.

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Transportation Expectations

February 20, 2008

I had done some traveling in underdeveloped countries before my two years in Madagascar. I had learned to accept a reasonable degree of deprivation and discomfort. Still, I admit, when it came to buses, boats, and all other modes of transportation, I always took the tourist option when available. It was never anything luxurious, but it was also never the most basic way to get from one place to the next.

Madagascar has no tourist option. There, I was forced to cope with transportation in its most basic forms.

In the United States, we have very different expectations than people in places like Madagascar when we buy a ticket to get from one place to another. We expect to leave at a certain hour, travel in relative comfort for a specified amount of time, and arrive as scheduled. In Madagascar, people expect only to get within a reasonable distance of their destination, eventually. We have schedules that we most often manage to follow. In Madagascar, the bus leaves when it fills, whenever that happens to be. What is considered legroom in the United States is space for another family of passengers in Madagascar. In the United States, attendants serve us food when we travel. In Madagascar, wise travelers carry their own food in case the bus breaks down and they get stranded in the desert or jungle for hours or days.

Of course, you pay for what you get. In Madagascar, I paid all of three dollars for the bus ride from my small town to the nearest city. It was about a hundred kilometers, and it took five hours in the dry season when the roads were good, ten hours in the rainy season when the dirt turned to mud.

Once, I got to the bus station early in the morning to claim a good seat. I picked my spot and sat down with a book, ready to defend my personal space from the hordes to come.

Several hours later, I still had a suspicious amount of legroom. I looked up from my book to see all the other passengers piling into a different bus, a giant ten-wheel Mercedes truck with a bench along either side of the back cabin, two more down the middle, and a tarp draped over a frame to cover the whole passenger cabin. The driver waved me over and told me that they had needed to change trucks because of some mechanical trouble with the first one. A toothless old man smiled at me from my preferred seat. As I yelled at the driver, all the other passengers settled into all the other decent seats. I squeezed in somewhere between a spare tire and a wall of rice sacks. The malarial old woman on the floor in front of me drifted into my lap as she fell asleep. Late in the afternoon, too late for any hope of arrival before dark, we left.

We bounced along at the usual slow pace for hours and hours as it got darker and darker. I felt the hot and sweaty flesh of everyone near me. The stench of body order filled the cabin. A cloud of bugs thickened throughout the day; I inhaled several with every breath.

A few kilometers short of our destination, and well past dark, the driver stopped the truck and refused to continue. The rain and mud, he claimed, made the road impassable. In absolute darkness, and pouring rain, we had to hike through foul, slippery mud laced with painful thorns.

Everyone else seemed to expect something of the sort. They had provisions, like food, water, raincoats and flashlights. I had a bulk bag of curry, my toothbrush, and a change of underwear.

“But I have waterproof, gortex hiking boots,” I thought to myself and snickered at the unfortunate fools around me who stepped barefoot into the mud. Then, a few steps from the bus, my heavy boots disappeared deep below the mud.

I was stuck. With the added resistance of the boots, and with nothing nearby for a handhold, I had no hope of pulling myself free. I floundered in the mud, the rain, the darkness, my arms swinging wildly to keep my balance as I tried to lift one leg then the other, as I tried not to fall into added humiliation.

Azafady,” I called to the points of light already well ahead of me. “Excuse me, a little help please.”

A few of the other passengers came back and snickered themselves. With a couple of shoulders to hold onto I managed to pull one foot free. Of course, I had nowhere to put it. I let my foot drop back into the mud while we worked on another plan. I had to reach into the mud and unlace my boots; I pulled my feet free with relative ease; then I stood there in my socks and fished my boots from the muck.

Like everyone else, I walked the rest of the way barefoot.

What little patience I have, I developed in Madagascar. I learned not to care about departure and arrival times, about the time it takes to get from one place to the next, about the schedule. If unforeseen delays happened along the way – and the unforeseen always happened – I considered it more time to read my book. Even if I had to get to my destination in time for something important, I learned to accept delays with a shrug of the shoulders. I never stressed over the schedule.

When I went back to the fast pace of moving and shaking in Kentucky, I noticed an immediate return to the hurried life. Suddenly, I had somewhere to be and a certain time to be there. I rushed to maintain my very important and very tight schedule. Red lights, slow drivers, traffic jams – they infuriated me. I cursed, fidgeted in my seat, and sighed with frustration.

Of course, I never have anything very important to do, wherever I happen to be. Very few of my activities require any sort of punctuality. Travel was fickle and erratic in Madagascar so I learned to accept a certain unreliability. But in the United States, we expect order and efficiency so, when there, I get impatient with any degree of disorder and inefficiency.

It happened the moment I got home from Madagascar. My mom picked me up at the airport. She asked if I wanted to drive home, my first time behind the steering wheel of a car in two years. We left the parking lot and came to a red light at a busy intersection. She was bombarding me with questions about Madagascar, my flight, my health. I didn’t answer.

Instead, I stuck my head out the window and glared at the persistent red light. “Change, damnit!” I urged.