It can strike you everywhere, in just every situation. For instance you just walk along a busy, or not so busy street without paying particular attention to anything around you. Of course you observe what’s going on in the street, but you do not project your mind’s focus on anything particular. But suddenly you stop cold, both in the outside world and in the inner universe of your trailing thougts. And there it is, this nondefined feeling of something being wrong. Just about half an hour ago this very feeling struck me like lightning when I strolled along the street. I had to walk to the office, as the tramway again is interrupted. Workers have ripped open the asphalt and are busy on the steel tracks. One of the rare occasions when the true metropolitan infrastructure surfaces and one realizes that there still is rough hands-on work to be done in order to keep the whole system up and running. My stride came to a grinding halt and I started to look at the workers with uttermost concentration. Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what, I didn’t even know what exactly to look for.
Very slowly data from the deep-down drawers of my memory storage crept into active consciousness. Memories dating back nearly two decades, when I for the first time travelled along the Karakoram Highway, up to northernmost Pakistan and finally passing the Khunjerab and diving down into China. When still inside Pakistan the more north you get the more daring a construction the highway is. Hardly space for two trucks to pass each other, a bleak rock wall to the right and a seemingly bottomless abyss to the left. At one spot a wider space had been blasted out of the Karakoram’s tor, space for a filling station. The station’s technological infrastructure consists of rows and rows of rusting barrels, containing diesel and gasoline. It was the task of our driver’s assistant to refill the vehicle’s tank. No pump around, a rubber hose is stuck into a gasoline-barrel, other end in mouth, sharply sucking twice, and here we go down the siphon. The assistant crouched beside the tank asian-style, paying attention to the filling process, the sand beneath his sandals well soaked with gasoline, the air billowing with explosive fumes. Not quite healthy all of that, but perfectly usual, all right in this context. Alas, there also something was wrong … in the corner of his goddamned mouth a lit cigarette was dangling.
When today my mind movie reached that frame I instantaneously knew what was wrong with the scene of the men working on the tramway’s tracks. Back then in the Karakorams, once the sight of the cigarette had succesfully reached my daytime consciousness, I undertook a 300 meter dash along the highway, leaving the perimeters of the impending blast well behind me. But today I was somewhat paralyzed and just had to watch. Right in front of me one of the workers was uncoiling the tangled hoses of a welding unit, lit cigarette in mouth. Hoses finally unknotted he in a relaxed manner went on opening the valves, took the cigarette and ignited the acetylene-oxygene melange by means of the cig’s shimmering embers. I didn’t even know that it was possible that way. “All right,” I thought, “so, you want to scare the shit out of an anthropologer, brother?” I took a step closer, donned my shades in order to be able to watch the welding, acquired a decidedly cool stance, and carelessly lit a cigarette. I so much hoped for a bit of a glance at me, and maybe a faint smile when seeing my cigarette, some little sign of acknowledging esoteric brotherhood. He didn’t even take notice of me.
Bottom line: You just have to realize that this kind of nonchalant handling of potentially lethal technology is by far not an absolute monopoly of those roughing it the hard way in the so-called remote corners of the world.
Within my wider acquaintanceship situated in rural Bavaria this nonchalance is to be found as well. Some weeks ago a farmer’s wife boasted proudly about her son being an expert labourer with the chainsaw. Not with one of those electrically powered toys, he handles one of the real monsters driven by a combustion engine. “He goes out in the forests alone,” she told, “and cuts wood all day long.” Her daredevil son is ten years of age. Somewhat startled I replied with a question which now seems to me to be quite off the mark, but nevertheless harvested an enlightening answer. I know how professional woodworkers are equipped when they are wielding the chainsaw deep down in the forest: Helmet with visor, gloves, armored shoes, and trousers with integrated steel protection-plates. Plus a jacket—a jacket just like from the knights of old. So I asked in my best native drawl: “Are there actually protective garments available in his size?” “Oh,” she laughed, “he is such a virtuoso, he doesn’t need those.” “But what the hell are you going to do if he has an accident?” I enquired, just having regained my countenance. Instant reply of hers: “Well, we’d say that his father was with him and had lost control of the chainsaw for a moment.” Her first thought raced to the insurance company, not to her kid’s health. The brave woman’s very neighbour already has lost three out of five children that way. Nonchalance.