Monday, November 21, 2005

Traffic: Michael Totten, on driving in Lebanon.
When I first arrived in Beirut I thought Lebanese drivers must be among the worst in the world. They don’t stop at red lights. They drive the wrong way down one-ways. Seat belts are verboten, and the concept of lanes is utterly alien. Speed limits? No way. Traffic circles are unbelievable clusterfucks. Stop signs are suggestions that translate into “slow down just a tad if it’s not too much trouble.” The soundtrack of the city is an unending cacophony of blaring car horns and screeching tires. Busses take up two lanes by themselves, and trucks pass slow cars in oncoming traffic around blind corners. It’s terrifying at times and maddening the rest of the time. Driving on icy mountain roads in January must really be something.

Then something new happened. The whole system just clicked. Rent a car and drive these streets yourself for a while and all of a sudden you can predict what first seemed like deranged and psychotic behavior. Behind every seemingly-crazy driving maneuver is a purpose. The key to predicting what other drivers will do is to ask yourself what you would do if there weren’t any rules and you were guaranteed not to hit anybody. Then you can relax and play the game.

This is all true, to a point. The full-bore Eastern mindset is required, though. I'll give you an example, in the form of one of the stories one of my Mediterranean friends tells. He and some buddies had hired a cab to take them from Cairo to the Red Sea for a weekend, and the driver was hauling ass. On the way, the fog got really thick, to the point where they quite literally couldn't see the road five feet in front of the car. My friend said to the driver, "Don't you think you ought to slow down a little."

"Insh'Allah," said the driver -- "It's in God's hands."

I'm no stranger to fools behind the wheel -- I have been one at times. But that kind of fatalism I can't handle, and I think it factors heavily in how the Middle East's traffic workings developed.

How Latin America's developed, I have no idea.

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