Borrowed Car, Borrowed Time

February 5, 2010

There’s a certain resilience that comes with poverty; a “make something out of nothing” attitude that fills the moneyless gaps. This translates into things like: newspapers, magazine pages, or product labels being used for wallpaper to decorate the would-be-destitute walls of a shack in a township, or making meals feel more filling by a huge pile of starches and little to no meat, or like when underprivileged children turn any random found object into a toy that can entertain them for hours, days, months even. Money is stretched for weeks longer than it should be, and saved in areas thought impossible. Resources, considered rubbish by those with “more”, become useful parts of every the day life of those with nothing. I have grown to admire, appreciate, and learn from this buoyancy, adopting it when I myself am pinching penny’s to squeeze out a dollar.

One day I called my friend and he told me he was walking through the aisles of a store, trying to do a week’s worth of grocery shopping with only 30 Rand (Roughly $4.00 U.S.). “Let me guess what’s in your trolley,” I said. He seemed to like the idea of an impromptu telephonic game. Game on. “Eggs, a loaf of bread, and two-minute noodles,” I said with absolute confidence. At this point I think he looked around and over his shoulders for a few seconds before answering, “Are you in here?” I laughed and said I wasn’t at the shop, but I knew that line-up well, and had just lived off the same supplies the week before. People who have always had more than enough would be surprised to know how cheap it actually is to have enough.

A material resource can be stretched until the elasticity of that resource is absolutely compromised. But as I took the thirty-minute walk from my flat to the train station yesterday, I thought about one thing that cannot be stretched, manipulated, or messed with: time. Sure, one can learn how to manage it, using every second for the most productive outcome, but those seconds can neither be frozen, lengthened, nor made shorter. With time, you take what you get, and you have to learn to work with it; one has to learn to budget it, and work around it, because it will not work around you. So yesterday, as I walked and watched car after car whiz past me, the drivers turning my thirty-minute walk into a mere five minute drive, seemingly taking their comfort for granted if only in my mind, I realized (maybe for the first time with such an epiphany) that another aspect about poverty is it can be incredibly time-consuming.

Luxuries like cars, microwaves, and hot water from the tap, things seen as “basic needs” in most of the developed world, shave minutes, even hours, off of daily tasks. The twenty-five-minute drive I take to work when I have a car turns into an hour-and-forty-minute journey when I am without; a thirty minute walk to the train station, a forty minute train commute, and another thirty minute walk to my place of work. My mentioning this is far from a complaint, but merely an observation, because I realize that millions, if not billions, of people all over the world live in this constant reality, and rarely, if ever, complain. I mention it because I know how easy it is to take these luxuries for granted; I fall into the trap of becoming ungrateful when they are at my disposal.

For instance, the other day when I borrowed my friend’s car, I popped in here and quickly stopped there; conveniently forgetting that merely one of those stoppings or poppings, taking five minutes out of my car-graced day, would have taken me an extra hour on a day I’m on a taxi-train-foot mission. I was again humbled, and brought back down to reality, when I dropped the car back off at my friend’s, and began my twenty-minute walk home, realizing it would have been a one-minute drive. But I know that I am not alone in my subconscious adaptation and ungratefulness in times of much. I see others around me who blindly take the wonderful luxuries of life completely for granted, and even worse, people who are merciless when it comes to dealing with others who do not have those valuable things.

It is for this reason I am angered to the point of fighting and spitting when I hear a rich South African “Madam” of Constantia complaining that her Domestic Worker from Khayelitsha is late every now and then, the Madam most definitely unaware of the efforts taken and the challenges overcome to even get there at all; the Domestic Worker, coming from a township conveniently placed far from the eyes of the rich, has to wake up around 4:00AM, to boil water for her own children to wash and get them ready for school, making sure they are fed and out the door before she can begin her first walk, or taxi ride, to the first train station, to get on a train that travels for thirty-minutes, taking her to another station where she gets another train and rides for twenty-minutes, to then board a taxi which takes her twenty-minutes and drops her at the outskirts of the wealthy suburb, where no minibus taxis are allowed in. There she begins her thirty-minute walk to the Madan’s mansion.

By the time the Madam is groggily sipping her first wonderful mouthful of coffee, made by the Domestic Worker, she is blissfully unaware that her employee has already been awake for more than four hours. One would argue that the Domestic Worker should not complain because “at least she has employment and it’s her responsibility to get there”, but the complaints I hear do not come from the Domestic Workers; they come from those who have more than enough, if not way too much, and they are insensitive, ignorant and non-empathetic complaints at that. The Domestic Worker is not asking for the right to be late all the time, or for pity or patronizing attitudes, but rather a little understanding when the trains are not running properly, or the taxis are striking, or when her shack is broken into; happenings often perceived as “lies” or “excuses” by many-a-madam.

Cars, microwaves, and hot water from the tap are conveniences of life, not obtainable to all. Conveniences have the power to turn hours into minutes and minutes into seconds, but convenience has a price. Those who cannot afford it have to learn to manage the time, that will not bend for them, and make do with what they are given. I am not saying it is better or worse to have or not have; that is up to the individual to judge for his or her self. But what I am saying is no matter how little or how much we have, it is an important exercise to look around us, taking stock, and being grateful for what we do have, whether great or small, because just as we can count on time to remain the same, predictable, steady force, we can equally count on life for being the unpredictable, unreliable, and mysterious force that can take something and turn it into nothing, or take everything away with one fell swoop. It does us good to appreciate what we have. Because what we have today may indeed not be there tomorrow. An time… it will remain steady, and keep on ticking. It waits for no one.