On the Road Again: Reflecting on Climate Change, Community, Safety, Traveling Through Southern Asia
For the last four weeks I have played tourist, traveling through southern Asia—Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and then for the last ten days, India. For all the economic gains we hear so much about in Asia, the differences between that part of the world and ours remain stark. I’ve only begun to digest what I have seen. I’d like to share observations on a few things that stood out especially strongly:
Climate change. One of the biggest surprises to me was the intensity of the heat, everywhere in southern Asia—generally between 90 and 100 degrees, with the humidity hanging heavy. Even on the ocean at night, I doubt it ever got below 85 degrees. Only in the 5-000-foot-high mountains of the south India state of Kerala, in the late evening and early morning hours, did the heat abate, to perhaps 75 or 80 degrees. In Mumbai, along the waterfront in the evening, when thousands crowd the boardwalk, a sea breeze cools things slightly.
I met at least half a dozen experienced tour guides, and without exception, they feel strongly that global warming is upon us. One pointed out that Mumbai just had its hottest day within the last two years last month—42 degrees Celsius, which is 107 F. And remember, most buses and trains, along with cars, and apartments, aren’t air conditioned.
The huge economic gains being made across southern Asia make the climate situation seem ever more daunting. Mumbai is a case in point. Its population has swelled to 18 million. Because it is situated on seven islands, some man made,space is limited and a subway system in such a wet environment is out of the question. So most transport is via gas-burning vehicles. The traffic is brutal, and even in the middle of the day or late at night, main roads are backed up for miles. There is little in the way of open space like parks. It’s a pulsating city with wonderful art galleries, restaurants, and architecture. But the scenes made famous by the movie, “Slum Dog Millionaire”, aren’t difficult to find, even if the tour guides mostly avoid them. As dynamic and exciting a city as it is, it’s difficult to imagine how people can survive if it gets even a little warmer. I couldn’t wait to get out
Community. While cities like Mumbai are highly westernized, it was out in the country that I saw inspiring examples of how closely-knit communities routinely come together for the sake of food production. While driving through one village, our tour guide stopped the van when he noticed perhaps 100 bicycles and motorcycles parked near a river. We walked through some woods, and there were several hundred villagers bent over in shallow river waters dragging small nets through the waters. Each month, according to the lunar cycle, villagers take a day off from their regular work and gather in a community fishing celebration. I worried I was intruding, but villagers were proud to show off their catches of small sardine-like fish. It was like that in other places as well, including in the seaside city of Cochin, where, as you can see in the photo, I was invited by good-natured fishermen to help in the ongoing routine of the day of pulling ropes that bring nets, and hopefully a few fish, out of the waters.
I came across a similar scene around six one morning walking along a seemingly deserted Arabian Sea beach. Suddenly, dozens of villagers began returning from their regular night fishing, mostly carried out on single-person floats that can’t be said to qualify as boats. They carried their rolled-up nets, with fish still visible in the netting.
Safety. At movie theaters, government-sponsored public health shorts warn and advise about problems well under control here. For example, prior to a Bollywood movie I attended, one short segment warned about malaria, while another dealt with glaucoma. I was glad as I watched the scenes of mosquitos hatching in still water that I had decided to take malaria-prevention pills.
The safety-related theme I experienced up close was on the transportation side. I wound up covering a lot of miles around southern India, and all I can say is that I’m glad I didn’t have to drive. To describe the traffic as chaotic doesn’t begin to capture the situation, especially in smaller cities, where cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, motorcycles, and the ever-present tuk-tuk three-wheel taxis compete for turf (along with cows and goats, for good measure). There’s lots of horn-honking, but little in the way of the angry aggressiveness that typifies most American urban areas. As for safety, you’re pretty much on your own.
Most taxis have no working seat belts for passengers. Entire families ride around on motorcycles. No one wears helmets, for the most part, except in a state like Kerala, where the driver (usually the dad) is required to wear one. Tuk-tuks designed to hold maybe four people sort of comfortably routinely carry eight or ten people, and I saw a few cases where probably 12 or 13 people were crammed in.
In Mumbai and other cities, the commuter trains are so packed, the doors aren’t closed. In the Indian scheme of things, suffocation is counted as a greater threat than an occasional passenger losing his or her grip and falling out going around a curve.
The priorities are a lot different in a developing country of 1.2 billion versus a well developed country of 300 million.
As for the food, I loved nearly all of what I ate. I generally avoided street food, figuring I probably am not ready for some of the bugs I would encounter. But I found myself eating raw fruits and vegetables, despite warnings I had received before the trip, and came out okay. Nearly without exception, I found the food to be more flavorful than most Asian food I’ve had in the U.S., and I’ve long been a big Asian food fan. The spices seemed to carry more oomph, more subtleties, than what I am used to.
Finally, on the subject of pathogens, there was one bit of fascinating irony I came across while touring a Jain) temple in Mumbai. Like many devout Buddhists and Hindus, the Jains are very respectful of human life, so much so that devout followers where white kerchiefs over their mouths…to avoid killing both good and bad bacteria we harbor.
As fun and fascinating as the trip was, it sure is good to be back home.
Finally, I want to say how blown away I was by the guest posts that appeared during my absence. Informative, provocative and well written. Many thanks to Dave Milano. Pete Kennedy, Scott Trautman, Bill Anderson, Steve Bemis, Joseph Heckman, and Ben Hewitt. Ongoing, there’s no reason this blog can’t include guest posts at other times, as well…all by way of saying I’m open to ideas and suggestions.