Monday, September 26, 2005

traffic madness

The first and most immediately shocking piece of culture shock I have experienced here is the way people drive – it's almost indescribable. People are absolutely crazy – at least that is my initial reaction every time I see some amazing dare-devil move. I'm still getting used
to it all.

To start with, there are no lane markers – in some places you can see the traces of them, but they've all been blackened over, and not even the concept of a lane remains. It really is a free-for-all. Cars start, stop, back up, and turn all without the slightest warning to others. And of course, when there's an open road, people drive FAST. My personal favorite move is folks who want to turn left at a traffic circle; they just skip the circle and cut to the left the shorter way. Honking is also very popular here – constant and loud. It can mean different things like "do you want to get in my taxi?" or "get out of my way!" – potentially confusing, eh? The noise only diminishes on Friday, yawm al-jum`a, when everything is closed.

Accidents? I keep expecting to witness something spectacular, but all I've seen so far is the aftermath of a little fender-bender. People's confidence makes it seem like they are invincible to
accidents – but then I remember Basil al-Assad: This former president-to-be was killed in a car accident a while back. Now parks are named after him and he is featured in songs such as "Basil the Martyr:" A certain type of immortality, I suppose…

At the bigger intersections there are traffic lights, but these are never visible to pedestrians since they come before the intersection. What I love most about these lights is that they have little countdown numbers – not for the green light so you can prepare to stop, but for the red lights: This way, I suppose, you can rev your engine properly or, (more likely) honk at the car in front of you who has not yet revved his engine. There are also a good number of traffic police. I don't quite understand their language of whistles and batons, but they do seem to have a positive effect on the traffic – that is, when they are not chatting with their friends on the sidewalk.

Pedestrians seem crazy too, setting out to calmly cross 6 lanes of moving traffic – the truly amazing things is that they pull it off. That's the thing: despite the every-which-way free-for-all that is driving here, everyone is generally pretty aware of what's going on around them. The Lonely Planet (under the heading Dangers and Annoyances) described it as "chaos mixed with courtesy." Drivers do often watch for pedestrians, even if they honk their horns off. What's unsettling about this courtesy is that nobody (drivers or pedestrians) likes to stop – people just slow down and squeeze around each other. What's really scary is that I have begun to imitate all this behavior – what I have to remind myself for folks here, crossing 6 lanes of traffic on foot is almost in their blood – they've been doing it since they could walk. I am a mere novice.

Last night I saw an impressive example of this phenomenon of motor vehicles here: a guy on a little motorbike was speeding through the narrow souq in my neighborhood: vegetable stands on one side, clothes stores on the other, people strolling in between. I got myself to the side, and in front of me I saw him zip past a family and almost run down a little girl. To my surprise, however, he immediately screeched to a halt, stood up, turned, and took a few seconds to apologize to the girl and her mother. In an instant, he was back on his bike, zooming forward as fast as before.


Blogger RCC said...

It's funny: the evening after I posted this, walking home from the internet cafe, I saw the same guy on the same bike speeding along the same street. He passed me in the opposite direction, and I turned just in time to seem him collide at full speed with a man. There were a few shouts of surprise, but no angry words followed. He sat there on his bike for a minute or so, talking about something with the guy he just hit -- maybe they were arguing quietly? I doubt it. Then he drove off again. How wonderfully strange.

10:19 PM  
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