The Sway

 

In Ecuador I keep seeing a trace of 17th Century handcarts known, at one time, to have carried Confucius.  But now we’ve come to think of rickshaws, and pedicabs, and even trescyclos. Or take the legendary tuk tuks that commonly ply the side streets of Bangkok.  Their technological cousins maneuver as moto-taxis in San Vicente, a town just a few kilometers from where I live [see image 2].  Further, in our city of Bahía, men wait by an open-air market for the next passenger with a limb of green bananas [see image 1] while their counterparts put their weight into pedaling red-canopied rickshaws down the hutongs in Beijing.  The only variation seems to be where passengers sit—up front or in the back.   You might not imagine that actual rickshaws would reach South America but the numbers have always included the impoverished, the pullers who do the heavy lifting, who carry the day.  The rickshaw prototype may go back to the wheelbarrow but, at any rate, on the coast of Ecuador, trescyclos make their way—regardless of new Toyotas with a V8 and all the options.

Image 1: Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador

 

Image 2: San Vicente, Ecuador

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Meanwhile, the iconic rickshaw has lost ground back across the Pacific. Early in the 20th Century, according to David Strand in Rickshaw Beijing, “Sixty thousand men took as many as a half million fares a day in a city of slightly more than one million…one out of six males in the city between the ages of sixteen and fifty was a puller. Rickshaw men and their dependents made up almost 20 percent of Beijing’s population.” But most hand pulled rickshaws were eliminated in China after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 because they were considered demeaning to the working class. More recently, high-ranking leaders in South Asia (remember the movie “The City of Joy”?) have joined ranks, concluding that hand-pulled transportation is, despite how quaint the Western tourists find it, too grueling for their pullers and must end, hopefully with e-ricks taking their place.   Even cycle rickshaws and their motorized version have been outlawed for good in the hubs of Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei, and Singapore [see image 3].  Ecuadorians, in contrast, never had the practice of pulling loads by hand, and they can’t be bothered with unenforceable regulations.  Remember that the meaning of mañana is “not now” and that lack of urgency allows for locals to work when they want, on their own terms.  Either way, in the Far East and way south, roads with their elbows and shoulders are only human, and the wheel itself keeps re-inventing us.

                                                                    Image 3: Taiwan, “No Pedicabs”, Sign P9

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If the rickshaw could talk it would utter beguiling facts. But many inventions or discoveries have multiple beginnings. Three scientists, for example, have convincing claims to the discovery of oxygen.   So I was not surprised to find, according to Tony Wheeler of Lonely Planet Publications, that five people claim credit for the invention of the rickshaw.  Most often a nod is given to one W. Gable, a missionary in Japan who apparently “devised a rickshaw for his frail wife” to get around Tokyo.  However, roughly the same year, in 1870, the Japanese government gave their “seal of invention” to Izumi Yosuke, Suzuki Tokujiro, and Takayama Kosuke—thereby allowing them to build, sell, and operate rickshaws.  So much for living in a world of separate entities.   Instead, we have brainstorms and perceptions that “well-up” to the like-minded as they toy with great purpose at their different workbenches.  Let’s just say that the rickshaw made its name not only because of our Yankee know-how, despite The New York Times in 1877 announcing, “…no boon conferred upon any foreign country by an American [is] equal to the jinrikisha” [jin=human, riki=force, sha=vehicle, shortened to rickshaw].

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Our Western narratives have continued to champion the riding of rickshaws, beginning with an early Rudyard Kipling story titled The Phantom Rickshaw (1885), and more famously in Pearl S. Buck’s famous 1931 novel The Good Earth (whose hero, Wang Lung, leaves his rural home to become a rickshaw puller to support his family). Fast forward another 50 years and movie goers are thrilled by auto rickshaws in a James Bond film Octopussy. I have unearthed no such parallel with South American trescyclos or motos in their folktales or novels or memoirs.  This is unsurprising since the written word in rural Ecuador is often limited to paperwork, registration forms, and bank slips.   Here, the three-wheeled equivalent of the rickshaw is nothing legendary, just useful.  That’s it.  Ecuador’s no India, and battery powered rickshaws that would radically reduce noise and air pollution remain unheard of, as unlikely to see here as a plate of dim sum.

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Fortunately for pullers and pedestrians alike, some cycle rickshaws have outlasted policy makers and keep their trade, for example near The Forbidden City [see image 4]. However, the majority of Asian cities recoil at the pre-industrial image of man-powered and not horse-power transportation. Asian urban development has been the centerpiece of their national conscience, whereas Ecuador’s continued status as a “developing” country doesn’t keep people awake at night, or even after a big lunch. No, in Ecuador there seems to be no second thoughts about its three-wheeled transportation, and no lingering impulse to keep up with the Joneses.  They favor the trescyclo and motos because of their work-a-day contribution to cheap travel.  Local officials have little or no concern about the burdensome life of Ecuadorian men who are pulling more than their own weight.

Image 4: Beijing, China

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My own backstory to rickshaw travel began in Yogyakarta one July evening, 1989, after I read a flyer advertising an Indonesian Ballet. I showed it to an idle rickshaw puller who glanced at it knowingly and gave me a nod. I still remember the folk art on the back of his rickshaw, two volcanoes, a lake and some trees—not the usual renderings of Donald Duck or the Golden Arches. Next we trundled through the street dust.  Happily not asthmatic, I was transported in several ways, intentional and otherwise—sitting on creases in the red vinyl seat, eyeing shopkeepers who leaned expressionless against their door jams.  I was lost immediately, but thankful that I’d memorized the name of my guesthouse.  I was taken by the roll of that rickshaw as any boy might have at Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair, when Joe Blow was shown the ancient, exotic, Far East.   As I was gliding along, the rickshaw felt so sure of itself and I wanted nothing else: no peeling out, no wheelies.

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As my rickshaw was peddled toward a place not advertised, what I saw of Yogyakarta from beneath that canopy held so much data that I can now rattle off almost no details. I am like an archeologist standing before a midden heap—no, trying to remember standing before a midden heap. This much survives: the rickshaw put on a ballet of its own, pulled off by an Indonesian with a torn T-shirt and wiry legs peddling a dry chain.  We arrived in the right place to him who spoke Bahausa, the wrong place to American me—at least in terms of Javanese Dance.  In my confusion I was guided to the door of a large multipurpose room where I paid for what resembled a raffle ticket used in a State Fair.  Once inside I sat in a folding chair alongside eight other tourists, each sipping a warm, complimentary Pepsi.  We glanced once at each other and left it at that.   Eventually a trickle of musicians appeared from back stage and took up their Gamelan instruments, at first sounding like school children at recess in a band room, fiddling with sizable gongs and cymbals.  As though joined at the fingers they kept loosening up, the tones and notes and rhythms slowly combining into a session.  I grew transfixed. They made the later fanfare of the Javanese Ballet seem over-done.  The art of warming up, the delicate emergence of the unforeseen, their music traveling, to borrow from Yeats, like lake water “in the deep heart’s core.”   Even now, the instruments resonate in me, the once-heard notes hovering in my otherwise tin ear, finding out  what no flyer can promise.

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And forget the study of Knowledge Management, a field that began with a manuscript saved by the Polish philosopher Tatarkiewicz in 1944 after a German soldier threw it into a gutter. With later KM software applications that help make accurate predictions, especially in the Sciences, we can have greater foreknowledge about how the world performs, and improves. But for those of us traveling within cities like Agra in India, it hardly matters [image 5].  Instead, we have to merely chance along.

Image 5: Agra. India

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The Asian evolution of rickshaws as a reflection of progress meant, initially, employing the illiterate (celebrating man-power) then adding efficiency (with bicycle pedals) and finally speed (by adopting engines). Most recently “modernity” is about environmental sensitivity—through e-ricks or battery powered rickshaws (as seen in Noida, India) or auto rickshaws running on CNG (concentrated natural gas) that are more fuel-efficient. In the opposite direction, the survival of rickshaws is in question, as seen when Kolkata city officials confiscated and destroyed roughly 12,000 rickshaws in 1982 to rid the city its pre-industrial look.  Even so, by 1992 twice that many rickshaws continued to operate illegally, and as of 2005 this sizeable fleet thrives because their Rickshaw Puller Union resisted prohibition.  Simply enough rickshaws remained necessary, especially during the monsoon, to safely transport school children, minor officials, and tired mothers over short distances.  For others in the dry season, rickshaws can suddenly act as emergency vehicles taking the injured to a hospital (meanwhile in Ecuador our local ice cream company uses three wheeled cyclos to reach vacationers on the beach).  It just depends.   The makeshift function and design of the rickshaw means that anything goes.

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The rickshaw can be “embarrassing” to some Asian sensibilities in their bid for international standing, but this means little to those badly in need of transportation and to men who are broke, migrating without a trade into urban areas. The lifeblood of the exotic rickshaw is sustained, as well, by foreign tourists dying to get a ride, as part of their story to tell—having seen the Orient. Although rickshaws have been eliminated in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, a number of traffic engineers have studied the street flow of motorized vehicles (MV’s) and the slower, more “out dated,” and dangerous cycle rickshaws.  They conclude that both types of transportation are ideal, and remaining countries should allow the continued use of rickshaws.   It’s one long road even in parts of the US where municipalities weigh the benefits of cycle rickshaws, pedaled by buff grad students (at odds with fleets of Checkered Cabs whose drivers come from India).   No hungry farmers are finding employment in Raleigh or Atlantic City as rickshaw pullers, no passengers are in a panic to reach the nearest Emergency Room, and no two-stroke engines are giving off their blue smoke.

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Many cycle rickshaw pullers in South Asia have to work 12-15 hour days. Often you can see them sleeping at midnight in their rickshaws. In response to such hardship, I have urged myself to walk instead, but that can mean a puller goes without—albeit a slave’s wage [see image 5].   I feel stuck in a colonial scene, circa 1920.  Especially the one time that I rode in a rickshaw pulled by a man on foot.  It felt so wrong.  Me, an able-bodied man, transported by a stick figure?  It reminded me of a less satirical version of that Banksy painting of an over-weight Caucasian couple taking a selfie while a diminutive “puller” looks at us with consternation under a baseball cap on backwards [see image 6].  To view the painting is to be in the painting, so neutrality is not an option. I cringe at seeing the two passengers, so pleased with themselves, as the puller cringes at me—displeased as I would be earning so few damp rupees or faded baht.

 

Image 6: Banksy “Rickshaw Kid”

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As the circuitous road goes, I came upon the 1707 painting “Les deux carrosses” by Claude Gillot who renders a Paris crossroad with two man-pulled coaches (advanced versions of rickshaws working a street in Tokyo, circa 1888) in the midst of a disagreement over who has the right-of-way, while a calm figure of authority observes and two wealthy passengers point accusingly at each other, each sporting headgear, on their way, evidently, to a masquerade party [see image 7]. How readily rickshaws without borders were known for their fashionable servants in a tête-à-tête and later on celebrated for underweight pullers traveling across bridges faster than you can say Akishima.

Image 7: Claude Gillot, “Les Deux Carrosses,” 1707

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Evidently, the French chapter of rickshaw history went from its fanciful way to a reach an evening gala to its practical usefulness in their now former colony of Haiti—where the dock workers are more donkeys than men [see image 8]. The chariot reverts to wheelbarrow, then a breakthrough follows, of mobilizing a Civil War stretcher for invalids in Tokyo (or so the story goes).  Meanwhile, just as we dropped the demeaning language of coolies for Japanese men with the ability to pull for hours at a pace that would kill most Caucasians, may our next innovation end the glib use of the terms, “hourly” and “temps.”

Image 8: Haitian puller

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According to Walker Percy in his essay “The Loss of Creature,” we can recover authentic experience through a rupture in plans, by a kind of happenstance that saves us from the familiar, from the predicted. Our experience is usually pre-formed by what we have been told or by stories heard and books read. But when traveling in a stray rickshaw, the moment need not conform to this “symbolic complex” which will exclude one’s own possibilities of “wonder and delight.”  To get beyond that layer of familiarity, we can leave the brochured-route although such avoidance itself can turn so common that we end up shoulder-to-shoulder with others trying the exact same maneuver.  If we, instead, follow along with a degree of remove, at even a slight distance from others at their remove, by taking the backward step—as Zen students are told to do—we can stand psychologically “behind” ourselves, and not be hemmed in by clusters of sightseers with “their picture taking and busy disregard.”  Or, as a kind of gift, there can be a breakdown in the structure of a must-see place, for instance during a collapse in the tourist trade which was the case when I flew to Bangkok in 1992, a day or two after a coup.  With burned vehicles in the streets and bloody handprints on storefront walls, the capitol had stopped functioning and was as still as a temple.  For once in Southeast Asia I had the downtown area almost to myself.

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A micro-approximation of that Thai political collapse took place the evening I was rickshawed through Yogyakarta, when the unexpected took over, so that I listened to what I had no intention of hearing—having no prior knowledge to come between me and the musical “warm up.” I am not really saying that I experienced “it,” the unspoiled

Indonesia—unorchestrated. I certainly didn’t have “the experience in the bag,” as Percy puts it, beyond some “Platonic ideal of the Quaint and the Picturesque.” But the occasion was enlivening, then as now, and leads me to think Percy is right about the two traits of an authentic moment: 1) the experiencer comes upon a place, not as a consumer trying to get something from it or out of it (no captured photos for a travel guide, no grad student doing research on social unrest), and 2) there is open-endedness to a setting (even a famous museum or monument resembles a type of “multipurpose room”).

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“So much depends on a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain,” writes William Carlos Williams in his landmark poem, and now I see that so much may depend on a sinewy man free to peddle his un-oiled Indonesian rickshaw down a perfectly uneven street. So much just depends, prepositions aside, because places are a loose weave and the world is hardly solid or continuous. We navigate according to our recognition of patterns—not individual variations—and by doing so human experience gets reduced to a line of thought, straight as a drinking straw used to view the night sky, or like a necklace that’s all string and no beads—not even those unbecoming beads of sweat forming on a puller’s neck.  His neck, for they are always a   Meanwhile, as Lao She explains in the Chinese classic Rickshaw Boy, “No matter how hard you [pullers] work or how ambitious you are, you must not start a family, you must not get sick, and you must not make a single mistake!” Contrast this emic Chinese portrait with the Western view of the rickshaw puller as “noble savage,” evident within that initial 1877 New York Times piece that describes the local Japanese as “powerful fellows” who enjoy their rickshaw work and can cover inhuman distances.

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Practicalities and fascinations come and go, suggesting that the past was no less complicated than the present, and no less humane. As ever, countries will have their mutation of the rickshaw, technically bringing us together while tensions are built in; the ride sways us, those resting easy and others working hard. As my father who is in his 90’s used to say, It takes all kinds.  But just as nothing much in Asia gets perfected, nothing really tries to be in Ecuador.  In this catholic country, tolerance is all about getting along and getting by.  Our coastal rickshaws are popular, the streets are flat, the pullers are not in rags and never terribly busy.  There is no hurry: no hay prisa.  In full contrast, I remember being rickshawed around Nepal, to various sites near the Buddha’s birthplace where nearly every denomination of Buddhism has a memorial or devotional temple.  The puller confided in me that he paid off his debt and now he owns his own cycle rickshaw, after 26 years.  He seemed enlivened by that accomplishment, and so I smiled despite a glance at his front wheel that was badly out of true.  Everywhere there’s evidence of The First (and lasting) Noble Truth, namely that suffering informs life, perhaps especially when a person transports another, in a fireman’s carry, or when soldiers piggyback their wounded, or a parent cradles an injured daughter to their front porch.   There is an intimacy about it.  A kind of radical likeness of helping now after being helpless earlier.   Or maybe doing for others what they’ve never known to do.  From boon to boondoggle and back again, the rickshaw design helps us to function and merge, without our mind over-riding what’s right there before us.