Saturday, December 5, 2015

Sri Lankan Fulbright journey: Places without cars

We went to a coffee shop in a posh neighborhood in Colombo yesterday. Ramya, who is a poet, sent out a note to all the Fulbrighters about a poetry circle that was to meet there. I've been writing a bit of poetry and it's always fun to check out a new part of Colombo, so we figured why not? 

The muggy walk past Havelock City and north along Fife Street was unendingly filled with motor exhaust. On some narrow parts of Fife Street traffic was reduced to one way as SUVs rumbled along the walled pathway, their mirrors almost taking us out. 

At the cafe we decided to sit in the corner and sip our coffees. And it was a good idea. One of the beauties of the Fulbright is that you can slip in and out of conversations, situations, and commitments. We didn't want to have to participate in this one, especially once the words started flowing. 

Not to diss anyone's work but. Well. The poems were kind of sappy. Highschoolish comes to mind. Pretentious might be another term. One young man in a clever turn recited his poem made with "found language" (did I say pretentious?) by stringing together phrases from signs he reads on his bus ride up Galle Road through Wellawatta. Should we name him the national bard because he has sat on a bus through this vibrant part of town? Or should we, as I was tempted to do, ask him nicely to characterize the energy of Wellawatta in his poem, rather than highlighting the freak show of its English. 

I was troubled by his poem as I was troubled by the group, a high intellectual slice of Sri Lankan life that felt it their place to reduce experience here to a few poorly chosen words. Maybe that's for me to do here in my posts!

But a dream that awoke me last night paid dividends on my afternoon anomie. I dreamt of Wellawatta again as a place without cars. The raw energy of the place, its built environment, its people and their activities stood out in high relief. I dreamt of Wellawatta as it might have been 100 years ago. Tightly packed, filled with sound and people. But no cars. 

It's hard to imagine there's an almost car-free Sri Lanka outside of the congestion here in Colombo. But that's exactly what we saw in almost every place we visited from Point Pedro in the north to Batticaloa in the far east, to Vavunia in the center of the country. The wealth or the will to own private cars is mostly missing in these places. And the landscape everywhere is different for it. The landscapes we are permitted to see in these places tell us more, in a more direct way, about Sri Lanka than we can detect here in Colombo. 

Hard for us to imagine from our American experience where roads and cities and landscapes have been so largely designed for the car. The car above every other human endeavor.  (I just wrote two non-sentences. They highlight the strangeness of our own landscape, shaped around the automobile). Maybe I've been reading too much Coomaraswamy!

Speaking of Coomaraswamy I had a great discussion yesterday with my friend and colleague Janaka Wijesundara, the architect-teacher I'm commissioned with more or less officially here in Sri Lanka. Janaka is a devote of Coomaraswamy and told me how he asks his students in vain each year to read his work. An earlier discussion with Janaka yesterday afternoon was about the government rescinding the benefit to its employees to buy foreign cars with lowered duties. 

The car here is a symbol of wealth and prosperity, just like it was in America 30 or 40 years ago, before cars became a necessity, several to a family. Take away the low-paid government employee's ability to buy a car and you take away his dignity. This was the gist of our conversation that I took away. 

So personal choices like driving influence the landscape. An idea that's as patently obvious as the theme of a bad poem, but one that resonates deeply in a landscape in transition like Sri Lanka. As more cars are introduced here, as they inevitably will be, the physical and human landscape of Sri Lanka will change. Health trends will change. Obesity, diabetes, respiratory ailments, and traffic deaths will rise. The built environment will change, as we've already seen it, as roadways are built and widened, infrastructure priorities changed, and public transportation wanes. All these trends we have seen in the United States. Is it presumptuous to ask this society to take a critical look at their relationship with motor vehicles?

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