"I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult." E. B. White

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

(Lack of) Rules of the Road

Let’s talk about driving in Nepal for a minute.

I’ve already written about the roads and the terrible lack of paving. But I haven't shared with you the way people handle themselves on these roads.

The basic rule is that people drive on the left. Sort of. There are no marked lanes (I suppose painting lines on dirt would be an exercise in futility) and people drive on the left, in the middle, or on the totally wrong side of the road depending on traffic.  The cars don’t bother to stay in any sort of organized line, they just pile onto the roads and drive wherever they see fit.

If the car in front is moving too slow, it is totally acceptable to drive on the wrong side of the road to pass. Drivers will stay on the wrong side of the road for extensive periods of time and only swerve back onto the correct side seconds before causing a head-on collision. Giant trucks and motorcycles appear to play chicken as common practice. This is particularly alarming driving along the edge of a mountain, as we experienced over the weekend.

The driving on the wrong side of the road to get around other cars becomes increasingly problematic because of the traffic in Kathmandu. There is always traffic. Always. And when cars move around each other to try to pass in traffic, they end up blocking cars on the opposite side of the road. The other day, Anna and I sat on the bus for 30 minutes without moving a single inch because of a traffic jam in which dozens of drivers tried to move around each other, effectively creating a parking lot in which cars were stuck on both sides of the road facing both directions. I have seen some bad traffic before, and I have never seen anything like this.  

The other rule of the road to which I am yet to fully adjust is that all drivers honk constantly. They honk to notify that they will pass on the left. They honk if they will pass on the right. They honk to let you know they are close behind or turning corners or anything else you can possibly think of.  The honks can mean “hello,” “be careful, I’m passing,” or “get out of my way.” With so many vehicles on the road at all times, the honking is constant. It never stops. Ever.

There are also thousands of motorcycles that follow the same driving rules, but also take the liberty of driving on sidewalks, in pedestrian alleys, and narrowly missing my toes by cutting as close to people as possible. The drivers tend to wear helmets, but their passengers riding on the back, including extremely young children, do not.

And remember the busses I wrote about? They are generally designed to fit maybe 10 people. Anna and I were crammed in a bus the other day and counted 30. 30 people standing, leaning, sitting on other people, and all of them totally unphased by the lack of personal space. We have resolved that we have to get used to people touching us on the bus - there is no way around it. They grab our arms for balance and knees (if we are lucky enough to find a seat) as leverage to move to the back and front of the bus.  It was alarming at first because we would never dream of touching complete strangers in this way back at home, but we’re not at home anymore and this is the way things work around here. It is quite the adjustment.

Did I mention that there are no traffic lights? I haven’t seen a single light in almost two weeks, including in this big city. Without lights directing traffic, intersections become very challenging places to navigate. It is all of the chaos I just described, times two.

With all of that said, now that I have become used to this...interesting...traffic situation, I have noticed that drivers are actually very accommodating of one another. Despite all the honking and aggressive maneuvering, which at first appears like a severe case of cultural road rage, the truth is that drivers make room for the cars that honk to pass, give each other notice before making sudden moves, and always seem totally calm in spite of being constantly cut off and stuck in the craziest traffic jams I have ever seen.

That’s all for now. I’m off to the orphanage and hope to have pictures to post soon.

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