Friday, April 11, 2008

Stark Reality

As I rode on a comfortable bus into the city upon my arrival in the Middle East four days ago (Has it really been only four days? It feels like a lifetime), I gained a new perspective on what makes living in this region so incredibly different from living in the West. It's the proximity of reality.

I sat directly behind the bus driver and watched as his seat literally bobbed up and down, up six inches and down six inches, over and over. And he just drove, apparently indifferent to the defect in his seat that made his ride so bouncy. Out the front window I saw families on either side of the highway enjoying makeshift picnics: amidst the sounds of engine motors and the scent of exhaust fumes, they sat around gas burners which they used to make tea and keep themselves warm. A nice afternoon out. There were also men standing on the side of the road, waiting for buses or rides or something. The Middle East is a hitchhiker's paradise, I suppose.

All these things engaged all the physical senses, in both pleasant ways and not-so-pleasant ways. The bus driver enjoyed a smooth highway literally with bounce. The picnickers basked in the cool spring evening air while enjoying delicious cups of tea - all the while experiencing what to a Westerner would be a hyped-up (or incredibly simplified) roadside rest stop. The hitchhikers walked, waved and chatted with other hitchhikers as they got along with the simple business of getting where they needed to go.

This contrasted vividly, I thought as I gazed past the bouncing seat at the cars up ahead, more developed nations, where we have the means of sheltering ourselves from reality, from the stark unpleasantries of reality. Do we realise that by airconditioning our houses we lose the unparalleled joy of enjoying a picnic on a gorgeous spring evening - even if it is situated among trucks and pollution? Do we realise that having our own cars and well-scheduled public transport systems may rob us of the thrill of finally catching a ride, the excitement in waving down a bus and running to catch up with it?

In the last four days, which have consisted of missed and rescheduled flights and events, long border waits, and driving aimlessly through neighbourhoods trying to rediscover without a map the highway I'd just left, I feel like I've done as much living as I did in two months in the U.S. Of course this isn't true - the calendar tells me otherwise, and my emotional barometer tells me time is actually passing much faster here than it was before this trip. But my senses have been reactivated and I have come once again face-to-face with reality; I don't have clean air and a comfy home and television faithfully sheltering me from living. I'm getting dirt under my fingernails, both literally and figuratively.

So I now ask, Do I want to live life fully with my eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin? Or do I want to take it slow, venturing out into reality only when I feel real and truly ready? But then again, every moment in the U.S. was precious as I had the freedom from distraction to think and process and grow - perhaps that is in fact a deeper, albeit more distant, reality than the stark reality I experience in a less-cushy part of the world like the Middle East.

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