Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Thoughts on South Africa, the U.S. and Buses

There's nothing like going to another country to make you think more deeply about your own. My recent trip to South Africa has me pondering a lot of things here in the U.S. from a slightly different angle.

Economic disparity. While in South Africa, the biggest contrast between haves and havenots that I saw was in Cape Town. We didn't go inside any of the lovely mansions high on the hills hugging the coastline. But it was easy to imagine what they must look like inside.

Just a few miles away on the Cape Flats, at sea level, we visited Dunoon, one of the poorer neighborhoods, where the majority of families love and work and play in crowded metal shacks. They have basic sanitation--public outhouses--and electricity. But in many cases cooking food or washing clothes still occurs over open fires.

Not surprisingly, fast-spreading fires are a huge problem in these areas. As is flooding, given the location. The week after we left, Cape Town was hit by four big Atlantic storms in a row, causing a lot of devastation. Other problems include high rates of tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases, crime, the lack of economic and educational opportunities.

What do the folks living up on the hills owe, if anything, to the people on the Flats? Even the middle class have their rewards, a comfortable life, food on the table, a car or two. Do they have anything in common--other than their humanity--with the people on the Flats?

Now back to the other side of the Atlantic. You see tremendous contrasts every day in New York City, which is my home. They may not be as great as in Cape Town, but they are most assuredly there--at least until they start seeming familiar and disappear from consciousness.

And in the past few days in Cambridge, Mass., this great bastion of higher learning and privilege in the U.S., I'm struck by the contrasts.

Just one anecdote about buses to make the point. I have a whole theory about buses and what riding buses can tell you about a community, which I may expand on in another post some day.

Anyway, Harvard provides a shuttle bus from the university campus to the medical school and school of public health. The service is free to those with a Harvard ID. So yesterday, after I got my ID (I'm starting to feel more official now), I tested it out by taking the shuttle over to the school of public health.

I didn't think much of it at the time, but everyone on board looks very serious and pre-occupied, checking out their Treos, reading books, studying texts, listening to iPods. All very professional-looking.

Later in the day, I took one of Cambridge's public buses, along Massachusetts Avenue. There was a much greater mix of people and the French-speaking couple in front of me--possibly Haitian--were clearly none too sure exactly where they were going or which stop would bring them closest to their destination.

No great conclusions. It was just a flash, an impression of contrast while riding two different buses. But it made me wonder, What, if anything, would ever bring the passengers on these two vehicles--the shuttle and the public bus--together. What, if anything, do they owe each other?


Unknown said...

Welcome to Harvard! I'm a grad student here and I take both the local MBTA buses and the Harvard shuttle to the medical area, from time to time- just realized that I probably look just as preoccupied with my books when I'm on the MBTA bus as I am on the shuttle. . .

Christine Gorman said...

Thanks. I'm sure I'll be pre-occupied soon enough as well.