June 26, 2009
As most people reading this can attest to, I am a big city girl. Born and raised in New York City I feel comfortable walking city streets and darting across busy intersections. Or at least that’s what I thought until I got to Ahmedabad. I really thought I knew what traffic looked like, how it sounded, the general feel of it, as you probably know by now, I am about to tell you just how wrong I was.
My first day of work, Mirai and I went in by rickshaw. Without even looking out my open side of the vehicle I could tell it was different. The horns didn’t stop. It was a very terrible symphony of screeching. One group passing in front of you would stop and the ones behind and in front of you would start up. Motorcycles honked as they wove in and out of rickshaws, rickshaws did the same as they wove in and out of bigger cars, and the big cars knowing they were being passed honked to let you know that they were in fact still there and larger than everyone else. “They honk just to let everyone else know they are there,” Mirai told me as I took it all in. I guess that explains the words “horn – please – ok” painted on the backs of many of the trucks and rickshaws in Ahmedabad.
Ok so there are some horns, yeah its bad, but I can manage. What I didn’t realize is that the reason people use the horns so much is because they often don’t follow basic traffic laws. As I have already mentioned, on my first day Mirai sent me across the street in a rickshaw, rather than have me walk it. Since then, I have crossed alone, but seldom without fearing that I will be run over by an onslaught of motorcycles that decide to cross just after a pack of rickshaws have passed in the other direction.
As a native New Yorker I am starting to wonder if my breed has become too complacent in our jaywalking. In New York if you step off the curb at the right time with the right attitude, cars will stop for you. They don’t want to hit you and, perhaps more importantly for my story, they expect you. Sure they may curse at you or mumble rude things to their mothers sitting next to them, but at the end of the day their foot is poised, ready to make the switch to the brake. In Ahmedabad it is a different story because they are not expecting pedestrians.
Though it is a big city, Ahmedabad has very few sidewalks. Where sidewalks do exist they are more commonly used as a street peddlers home than a space for walking. It seems that during the day, the only people that engage in walking around the city are the very poor. Looking at the make-shift shelters that are created on the small bits of sidewalk and in small lots behind or next-to buildings, I wonder if the city government does not build more sidewalks in part because it does not want to create more spaces for the homeless to set up camp.
In my first few days here I began reading a book by the founder of SEWA, Ela Bhatt. She notes that when the rural poor make the trek into the city for employment opportunities the first thing they must contend with is finding a place to sleep. Bhat writes that this is “not an easy feat in cities where even sidewalks are spoken for.” I am still reeling from the implications of this statement.