Over the next few days I intend to record my thoughts and experiences in Rio as part of the 50+20 delegation attending the Rio+20 UN Sustainability Conference. I’m not sure how regularly I will be able to post my impressions, given that my laptop seems unwilling or unable to find local wifi networks, while my phone refuses to fraternise with the local telecommunications networks. Nevertheless, here we go…]
I should have known that the taxi driver at Rio airport was not the sort of chap I’d normally choose as my temporary guardian and guide. For a start, a saw his jaw working on a piece of chewing gum at about eighty to a hundred revolutions per second, grinding away with an alarming, almost maniacal enthusiasm: a trait reflected in his driving style with startling accuracy.
As we shot along the highways leading into central Rio I unwilling considered the occasions on which I experienced the greatest measure of fear. As our taxi hurtled past a car in the process of changing lanes and screaming abuse (and alternately shouting encouraging words at the prostitutes we passed) I quickly convinced myself that the three most fearful moments of my life all involved public transport.
Perhaps this is no coincidence. Public transport requires a surrender of control, an implicit agreement with a unknown individual that we will collectively reach our destinations in one piece, instead of many.
The first and easily most terrifying experience may be grouped under ‘Andes’ — a series of bus and minibus journeys conducted at high speed through the Peruvian hinterland. At least three dogs died on such a journey; I heard their mortal howls as the driver slammed into them, evidently preferring to increase his road kill quota rather than break sharply to avoid the dogs, which (I assume) he did to avoid the risk of skidding that might culminate in a terminal projection over a precipice.
We screamed through the darkness, tearing over rough gravel roads. The villages in the valleys far below sparkled like starlight. I couldn’t stop staring at the lights. It seemed the heavens were beneath us and hell was here, in the mountain passes. That said, listening to the History of Philosophy on my MP3 player helped me make my peace (thank you Spinoza).
Next, I distinctly recall a journey between Mahdia and El Jem on a Tunisuan louage — also a in minibus. Ideally, I would gladly enhance my post with descriptions of the countryside — except that I didn’t see it. Our speed was too high, the traffic too heavy and the passengers too many. Never before have I witnessed such adventurous overtaking strategies. The locals must experience more head-on collisions than hot dinners.
The third most unpleasant automobile experience was the above-mentioned trip to central Rio, which elegantly leads me to my initial impressions of this distinctly twenty first century city. I use the term ‘twenty first century’ with good reason: modern cities in developing nations share similar traits: overwhelming wealth surrounded by endemic poverty, batteries of satellite dishes, the hurrying masses (the hopeful, the hopeless, the winners and losers), the stench of traffic fumes and press of humanity; and the endless snarls of telecommunications cabling, writhing through the vegetation and between buildings like snakes, whispering analogue and binary promises of a better life for all.
“This is the time. This is your chance” the snakes say, “The money is here: the cars, washer/driers, the five hundred television channels, the bandwidth. You were taught that such measures of wealth equate to happiness. Well, it’s true. It must be — everybody else wants the same things and you can’t all be wrong. What you must do, “ the snakes continue quietly, “is to take what’s yours by right, preferably before your competitors do the same and leave you with nothing but massive debts and a medical condition. So get going.”
No doubt some city dwellers searching for general improvement in their lives actually achieve it. A few may even attain a measure of contentment through such successes — but certainly not all.
The spectacular growth exhibited by the BRICS is undeniably impressive — much like watching a taxi driver as he points his car in a general direction before pressing the accelerator. Negotiating that traffic was like watching a WW2 dogfight from a first person perspective.
What really bothered me was that I had no control in that taxi. I had surrendered my freedoms willingly. Similarly, none of us control the cities that blithely throw us into a lifestyle that seems custom designed to keep us unhappy, driving us to madness. Before we know it our bodies are ragged from the stress, our souls poisoned with empty promises whispered by the snakes.
Still they keep whispering. “Money is power. This is what you want. In order to succeed you must meet the enemy in the city, where your treasures lie hidden. Keep going. Do not stop, or all these glorious things will be denied to you forever.”
I try not to listen — but it’s hard.