Bus Musings, Part I

06/16/2015 02:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

HONK.

Rectangular and red, the Karnataka State Transit bus tilted almost comically as it avoided a motorcyclist and thundered around the bend.

"Oh my god! Hurry!"

The driver made some unheard motions at us and the door cranked from partially open to open. However, it clearly wasn't going to stop completely. I shouldered my backpack and, huffing as I ran to intercept the crazy vehicle, caught the railing and hopped on.

Turning around, I cast out a helping hand, but the small Australian, already airborne, slammed into the stair next to me. We panted a bit out of adrenaline, then walked over and plopped onto two seats.

"That was fortunate."

"Definitely."

I looked over at her and we shared a quick laugh. I had made her acquaintance earlier that day. Guests of ADATS, an NGO,we both happened to be traveling to Bangalore together.

"So what's your story?" I asked her. It's always interesting to hear from fellow travelers.

She was a Masters of Social Work student, she told me, and was in her final year. She had decided to study development work in India, and so her college funded her to stay with ADATS to carry out a series of interviews. She was learning about hardships and improvements in the lives of new mothers in the rural setting. The knowledge that she gained would hopefully travel with her as she moved into a career in building counseling programs for rural populations.

She had an interest in climate change in addition to counseling, and as it happened, the bus drove past a random graffiti on a bridge.

"Climate change is real, it is happening to us," scrawled some red lettering.

It struck us both as typical of a surprising phenomenon: here, climate change seems at the forefront of people's minds. I find it ironic; climate change is certainly more academic than most phenomena in the popular consciousness. It's nearly impossible to point to direct results of climate change, and with a time lag due in part to the ocean's thermal capacity, most of the causes take hold decades in the future. Thus, while weather events themselves are easy to observe, decade long changes in average weather patterns, or a region's climate, is a subtle affair. Hence, I would expect a more educated population to have a better handle on what is, at it's heart, a statistical trend.

However, climate change here is more noticeable and more threatening. Almost all people here, my coworkers tell me, have livelihoods at most a step removed from the cultivation of land, and much produce is produced and sold locally. Therefore, the local region's economy is closely tied to the immediate region's observable weather. When an early rain threatens a bulk of the mango crops, as it did in the village I was studying, nearly everyone suffered from the ramifications -- not just the mango farmers. Meanwhile, in the U.S., we have large scales of food distribution systems that allow us to average the economics of the yearly farm yield across a much greater area. We have also basically created a different type of living environment, suburbia, in which we don't interact with farmers on a daily basis. Of course, a discussion of the climate change's social presence requires much more than a paragraph to delve into and untangle the many generalizations I've made. However, this is the first steps in an explanation of the U.S.' more academic understanding of climate change and rural India's more visceral and immediate understanding -- something I didn't expect coming in.

"Destination?"

The conductor came by. With the dubious gift of abundant labor, Karnataka staffs its public buses doubly, with one driver and one ticket distributor. It's a lot less easy to skip a person than a metro-card swiper!

"Bangalore," I said. The Australian nodded.

"Two hundred," he said as he turned completely to me.

The Australian and I each held out a one hundred rupee note. He motioned to me to take hers, then collected the money from me, typed into his ticket distributor and printed two tickets. Without acknowledging her once, he handed both to me, and moved on.

Little gestures like that one gives a glimpse at some of the deeper misogynist issues India faces. While I was in Delhi, a (very fair, in my opinion) documentary on the 2012 Delhi rape case was banned from distribution by the federal legislative body. In the villages, I have often seen crowds of women squatting en masse to avoid going to the bathroom alone and risk attack and rape. In the cities, female friends of mine tell me just how unsafe they constantly feel and how uncomfortable the leering can become when they go to a bar without a male escort. One even told me that once she and a male friend exited a gate of one of Delhi's premiere universities and met a gang that held her and her friend down while one member "ran at her with a raging boner" in broad daylight! Luckily, passerby approached, and they escaped.

Unfortunately, these, plus some stories I hear, is basically all I do know about the women issues -- especially those in the rural setting. It is almost incommunicable the difficulty I have in digging any deeper here. My work does not directly deal with women empowerment, so I don't have an excuse to interview women. Almost every woman I speak to is either incredibly meek, and ever since an incident early in the year when I attempted to fist pound a female colleague and was nearly expelled from my NGO, I have been extremely cautious in my social dealings. When the Australian told me of the raucous way women talked to each other in private, and the sisterly manner in which women of all ages braid each other's hair before leaving their houses, I was shocked. My observations indicated none of this to me. I was utterly unprepared for the gender separation that exists here; unfortunately, the society of Indian women is literally hidden to me.

HONK.

The bus slowed to a stop.

It was the halfway point in the journey, and time to disembark and grab some tea.