Saturday, July 12, 2008

Step out into the world… Leave your car behind

I had to send my car in for some body repair after I forgot about the side wall in my garage while driving out in a morning daze. (And that’s all I care to discuss about that!) Being without a car for over a week meant that I was getting around with the aid of my walking shoes, and what remains the most reliable form of public transport in Beirut – service taxis.

It has been a number of years since I was car-less in Beirut, and though I do not think I would ever give my car up willingly, I must confess that this week has reminded me of a world that I have missed. I didn’t have a car the first year I was in Lebanon, so I learned much of Beirut’s geography (and topography!) by foot, and learned heaps about my countrymen from taxi drivers. There are always horror stories, but what I remember are the funny ones – like the driver who kept asking for a word and would compose a short poem with it. I can say I was quite quite fortunate this last week in that there were no horror stories, but rather reaffirmations of kindness and a sense of community. A number of drivers would go out of their way to drop me off that much closer to my destination, or would go to lengths to reassure me that there was no harm done when I misdirected their route. Tiny acts of kindness that I was grateful for in these cynical days.

But what I truly appreciated were some of the social commentaries. In one of the earlier drives, my driving companion shared his confusion as to what people considered bargain-priced food. His argument was that everyone sought out the cheaper stores and restaurants, which were becoming so cheap that the food must be of sub-standard quality; “Do they know what they’re eating? Why pay any money for something bad?” I couldn’t agree more. Another one, a proud father of a new graduate, regaled us with his success in sending all five of his children to university, having always felt that education was much more important than leaving them a building or piece of property instead. And this in the face of a rising school drop-out rate… I could have kissed him. A third shared his theory as to the differences between inhabitants of different sections of our lovely city, no unnecessary over-analysis, just general observations, and he wasn’t far off. An economist, activist, sociologist and anthropologist in taxi driver clothing.

Aside from how much I gained from the actual trips, and how much I now saw of my city as a passenger rather than a traffic-focused driver, I have to confess I also really enjoyed walking around my city again, reacquainting myself with its twists and turns, and no-car alleys. It was certainly convenient that this all happened in an albeit hot summer, rather than our raging rainy season, and as thrilled as I am to finally have my car back, I’m going to try to remember to do this more often – to step out of our car bubbles and into the world.

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