The day I arrived in Pune, I made two trips by auto-rickshaw. That night, my throat hurt.
I didn’t notice the bad air in Mumbai. For one thing, rickshaws aren’t permitted in South Mumbai, city center. For another, I was staying with a friend who has a driver on retainer. As his guest, I myself suddenly had a driver, who deftly transport me in a comfortable, air-conditioned car.
Here, three-wheeled, diesel-burning rickshaws are the primary mode of transport if car-less. So, getting around means breathing a strong brew of exhaust from these three-wheelers. (See the video above for an informative primer on Pune’s rickshaw culture.)
I chose to come here in August partly because air quality is significantly better during monsoon season. (Other major factors were my work schedule, high season at RIMYI, and weather.) When I found the Maharashtra Pollution Control website, I saw hard evidence of the atrocious RSPM (respirable suspended particulate matter) levels from November to April/May, with the worst numbers from December to February.
The World Health Organization’s prescribed limit for RSPM is 60 micrograms per cubic meter. In winter, levels in Pune average 150 to 200, sometimes spiking to 250 or 300. From July to September, levels drop to 40-60 on average–levels that would make front-page news in the US or Canada!
People assume that the cleaner air in monsoon season is due to the rain. That’s one reason, but another factor is the divergence between day and night temperatures in winter. Cool night temperatures create an inversion layer that traps pollutants.
Of course, we cannot base our adventures on air quality (and we’re all going to die anyway), but I like getting my facts straight.
Those who regularly come to Pune in winter advised me to wear a mask. My I Can Breath mask arrived the day I departed. Perfect timing. It’s quite effective (and almost stylish, don’t you think?) I highly recommend bringing a reusable mask or disposable 3M ones.
Mental map of Pune
In an unfamiliar city, I enjoy studying a map–to get my bearings, to create a mental map. In Pune, this has proven impossible beyond a few streets near RIMYI. On my handful of times in a rickshaw, the driver takes a seemingly haphazard route, going this way, going that way, with a bunch of near misses along the way. There are few street signs and I cannot trace our path on a map.
It was easier to orient myself in Mumbai, where two railroad lines run north-south across the city, where I could name neighborhoods and landmarks along those paths. From my friend’s high-rise in Mahalaxmi, looking either east or west, I could see trains and, farther away, the sea. Here, there’s a river snaking through the city, but its circuitous route is no help.
My favorite way to orient myself is by walking (and by public transit to cover more ground). Once, when I visited New York, I walked all the way from my Upper West Side hotel to Ground Zero and Lower Manhattan. I rode the subway to a bunch of yoga studios around town. Since streets are numbered and set on a grid, I quickly formed a mental map.
Pune is too spread out and too polluted to walk beyond one neighborhood. Around RIMYI, I walk only to buy food and household necessities. I might sound critical, but I don’t really mind: My life is centered around RIMYI. I avoid too much going out, too much socializing, too many rickshaw rides. There’s only so much time in a day.