When I was 18 months old, I caught polio. I wasn’t alone. It was the worst outbreak ever experienced in the United States, with some 60,000 victims, coincidentally in the same year that Jonas Salk first tested his vaccine against the disease.
“Island! Island!” I thought the kids were shouting, running after our car, hands outstretched in the endless clouds of dust we kicked up—paved road or not. If countries selected a defining air quality, like they do birds and national anthems, in drought-prone Ethiopia, it would be declared ‘dusty’.
I think everyone wants to revisit their childhood, where they spent their early years, and where so much took place that they will always carry with them. For me that was Algiers. I had memories of it that would flash like the sun on the whitewashed walls of their origin.
I boarded the train at a way station north of Madras; and it was still called Madras then, not Chennai. I had managed to avoid buying anything resembling a Madras shirt—those myriad colors swirling in soft fabric worn so ubiquitously by the Sixties flower children.
Most people cannot remember a world without the ease of chugging from a plastic bottle when no other clean water was available. It meant treating whatever came out of the tap—mud and bugs included—with iodine tablets and waiting thirty minutes before brushing your teeth in the “purified” reddish bitter liquid that resulted.