The South of Mumbai podcast series rambled into the busy and bustling city of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, where we were immediately emersed in the topic of mobility. On one particular afternoon we went to visit Manikandan at his office where he told us about the history of Coimbatore, the impact of growth and the strong tradition of manufacturing. The centerpiece of our conversation, a project close to his heart – the Spero E-Bike. Listen in as we talk history, mobility, awareness, sustainability, industrial hemp and yes.. bicycles!
In the final and perhaps odd chapter of the middle east- north Africa journey, I ventured home to the state of my birth, to see my family, friends, and continue editing audio from the trip. Naturally, being back in that part of the world only a few months since the massive storm turned many lives upside down, I went with my family to visit the Jersey shore and see what is happening in many of the communities there.
To begin with I have to mention what a strange juxtaposition it is, like so many tragedies in this world: while some live through terrible ordeals and struggle to satisfy basic needs, others in the exact state are living normal lives and of course- as it was the holiday season – exchanging gifts and enjoy themselves. There is nothing new or alien about this idea, it is the way of the world, so why not- even in New Jersey where many people still have no home and no idea how they will afford to rebuild their homes as a result of the storm. It is the type of situation where I can even be a tourist who drives in from a part of the state where things are fine and in 30 minutes I can be standing between piles of rubble and vanished coast line.
But there they were- one after the other- as we drove along Ocean Av, the typical street name in most NJ shore towns- massive construction vehicles moving and creating piles of sand. Pushing the soggy beige powder out towards the sea while also building tall hills that will serve as a line defense. There is little to no sign of the old lines of defense. All there is is half-shells of former houses, a few miraculously untouched properties, empty space, and piles of wood where long stretches of previous boardwalk once stood. The gigantic machines look like ants in comparison to the vastness and nearness of the ocean. Their work looks flimsy, like at any time it could be wiped away by one massive wave or another round of flooding. But still they work, as do many homeowners and carpenters, stabilizing houses that are leaning one way or another, houses that might be missing their ground floor, or the kinds that are missing sections of their roofs.
Many along the route look eager to rebuild. Like the construction vehicles pushing sand, they’re counting on being ready for the all-important summer months, when the weather is beautiful, life feels relaxing and the tourist dollars flow. Future hurricanes? Unlikely, their actions seem to say. Several residents assure me that such storms only come around every few decades so its certainly worth rebuilding and getting back to life as usual .
Along the route we come upon my most favorite Jersey Shore town, Asbury Park – a city long plagued by economic depression, corruption, and a past marked by social conflicts. Even when their was no storm the place that brought us Bruce Springsteen and the Jersey Shore sound looked like it was barely getting by. But now even the weathered yet proud old structures that survived that re-development wrecking ball, looked critically wounded. A series of fences and police guided detours lead the public away from the destroyed boardwalk, the centerpiece of the city that is supposed to be on its way back.
It may be a small story in the grand scheme of this world and all its acute problems. Or maybe because it happened in the US, in a state where some people live very comfortably, it does not seem like it could possibly be that bad. But even if people around the world are recognizing the scale of the tragedy that has struck this special place, what remains unclear to me is whether or not people in New Jersey see the big picture of what is to come. Driving through proud shore towns that have their traditions and ways of doing things, it was hard to tell if they will do anything different in an effort to deal with future challenges that may even be worse than this one.
You’ve heard about the islands in the Pacific Ocean that are disappearing due to rising sea levels. But have you heard from the people there? Have you listened and watched as an entire culture faces extinction or mass displacement? Will traditions and identities survive in the face of such a crisis?
Briar March spent many months working on a film about one such island community in Papua New Guinea and looking at all these questions. The film is called “There Once Was an Island” and it presents the very real story of people who are faced with the decision to stay in their home which may soon disappear, or be re-located and start over somewhere else. She joins me for this podcast interview.
Full details about the film and film screenings are here.
You can also read the film’s blog
As I pushed open the big red door at the back of a very average looking church, I made my way quickly up the stairs to avoid questions from security or random people in the hallway. Several steps and doors later, I see the sign I’ve been looking for: HacDC, Washington DC’s first hacker space. As I reach for the door I picture a huge room with computer parts everywhere, funny robots designed by creative minds, and a few people hanging out on a Thursday afternoon typing away on their laptops. But after attempting to push he doors opened and knocking, it became obvious not only that the place was locked, but that no one was home.
A text message from my friend from HacDC: I’ll be right there.
Rushing over from his job, he’s glad to see us and unlocks the doors, turning on the lights and revealing a good sized room with a long table, and indeed, plenty of computer and machine parts scattered in different corners of the place. He explains to us what usually happens on the average week at HacDC and that there aren’t typically people hanging around working on projects during the day. “We don’t have students, unemployed or self-employed people like you might see at other hacker spaces in the US or in Europe. Here in DC all our people are very busy with their jobs and they don’t hang out much unless for a specific event.”
I thought about those words and what I had seen of the DC world over the few days I was in town. As someone who visits here only every other year for the past decade, I’ve long noticed that people in this town are among the busiest people I know. Even when they’re relaxing in a café or chatting at a party late at night, they’re talking about what they are busy with during the day. A pretty big different from other cities I know where people work as freelancers or consultants and take time during the week to do something completely different or simply relax in the middle of the day.
While I watch all the busy Washingtonians getting on the metro with their heads already buried in their smart phones, I think about the Climate Change Conference going on in Copenhagen at that very moment. Here we sit on a comfortable and efficient metro system, while out the window I can see traffic jams and parking lots. Hardly any of my good friends in DC have cars, and if you ask them about the Climate Conference, they’re concerned and quite informed. But as I watch everyone inside and outside the train, busy in their hectic work worlds that seem so demanding, Copenhagen and climate change seem pretty far away.
Writing this several days later, I now know about the “deal” world leaders reached at Copenhagen. Naturally, opinions on what the results are worth, vary. The critical and experienced voices on the ground at the conference are talking about the deal as coming up well short of what is needed to stave off the severe effects of climate change in the near future. We needed a strong and comprehensive deal, that goes for those us on the metro in Washington or those working the fields in Thailand, but our leaders came back with something less than what we needed.
Lot’s of reasons can be and are being listed to explain why they came up short in Copenhagen. Myself I think back to my Washington visit, and all those busy people. Surely I don’t know everyone’s story and I can’t know what they’re really worried about. But when it comes to the Climate Conference of 2009, like many places around the world, the nation’s capital that I observed seemed to have its focus elsewhere.