One of my greatest challenges in Morocco was transportation. My village wasn’t actually served by any licensed, official, reliable form of public transport – just a couple of guys with old station wagons who made a few runs into town each day. When I did manage to catch a ride with a labziwi, as the locals called our “taxis,” this often meant sharing a ride with up to 14 other individuals, or, say, 12 people and a large ram, or (my personal favorite) 10 people and two large rams. At some point, the powerlessness and lack of control I experienced waiting, hoping, praying for a taxi to show up as I shivered outside my house in the pre-dawn dark became too much. Something snapped and I swore off taxis, instead opting to propel myself by bicycle over the 10+ miles of hilly, bumpy, rocky road any time I had to go into town (“town” was not an especially fun or glamorous place to visit, by the way, but it did beckon me at least once a week with allurements like mail, vegetables, diet soda and cheese).
Remarkably, my stubborn streak lasted almost six months, throughout the hottest months of the year and Ramadan as well. And I have to say, whether it was taking charge of my own movements at the most basic level, or the fresh air and scenery, or just the endorphins, I really think it made me happier.
In any case, I mention it because in a way, it’s one of the habits that really has stuck with me here in the U.S. Charlotte is not a particularly walkable city, and it’s not always the most bicycle-friendly either, but my aversion to city and suburban driving has pushed me out the door on foot more the past few weeks than in my first 22 years of life combined. I can’t believe I ever drove myself to my gym (2.3 miles away) or even to the grocery store (a beautiful 15 minute walk, which is really nothing unless you’re shopping for a party). And I’m still totally tickled every time I hop on the local light rail to see something downtown. It’s not out of self-righteousness or conviction or principle that I’m driving less…it’s just that I find it absurd – literally, simply absurd – to drive to anyplace within a few miles these days.
Which has led me to contemplate what our transportation systems and habits say about our culture. I love walking around this city, in part because of the joy of rediscovering the places I grew up and in part because taking it all in at a walking pace, instead of a driving pace, and with the advantage of the fresh air and the immediacy that walking affords, makes all the difference when you’re trying to see a place with new eyes. I like passing people walking or running or biking down the street, looking them in the eye, and saying hello. I like the sense of being completely in charge of where I’m going, even if I choose to go slowly, and the deliberate feeling of placing one foot after the other. Cars, on the other hand – especially our huge cars, with just one or two or three people inside – transport us from place to place without removing us from our own private, climate-controlled, surround-sound worlds.
It’s totally unlike my typical car experience in Morocco, wherein necessity requires that the strict social norms prohibiting public physical contact between the sexes go out the window – they have to, because in order to fit a dozen people in a station wagon, you have to sit on top of one another – literally. And it’s hard not to strike up a conversation with the stranger whose lap you’re sitting on. On the less-regulated roads of Morocco, I even get the sense that even though driving speeds are faster and perhaps more reckless than American norms allow, drivers pay more attention to the road – to pedestrians and to bikers and other cars too – than they do here, because everything is just less predictable.
Driving around America I find it’s much harder to see other people, literally and figuratively. We put on our music and switch on cruise control and zone out. The first time I drove on the interstate after a two-year hiatus, I was struck by how easy it was to merge, gliding in and out of the many, many, many lanes…and also by the suspension of reality interstate driving requires. I’m serious. Suspension of reality. Question: why would you ever agree to operate heavy machinery at lethal speeds just a few feet away from total strangers who are doing the same? Answer: you have to get somewhere that’s most conveniently accessible via the Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.
As much as I do love driving (I am gearing up for a road trip next month that will prove to be epic, I’ve no doubt), our way of getting around does give me pause. America seems full of busy people rushing from place to place in a way that can’t help but be isolating. In Morocco, whether I was cycling through the countryside or crammed in a communal taxi, it seems I could never escape a series of daily conversations with strangers; here, it’s just the opposite. I frequently hear Americans (especially Americans in the Peace Corps) gushing about the wonders of driving, saying things like “I love being alone in my car, where I can just turn up the music and get away from it all.” I’m no less guilty of harboring such sentiments than the next person, but since getting home I keep wondering…what exactly is it that we’re getting away from?