Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Traffic Jams and Meditations on Mortality

At home, traffic flows in neatly segregated channels. The roads belong to the cars, and sometimes, in a begrudging concession, to cyclists rolling along a narrow bridge of bike lane. Any pedestrian forays into the territory of vehicles are tightly controlled with lights and stripes and sloping curbs. There is The Road and there is Not the Road. There is A Place for Vehicles and A Place not For Vehicles.

To live in developing countries, or at least the ones I have lived in/traveled to, is to accept that everywhere is The Road. You come to know the intimacy of traffic as it constantly rushes whisper fast past the soft flesh of your body. It is to be the rock in the middle of the stream, to have it flowing around you on all sides, to know that it slides past your vulnerable, capable of death self with nothing more protecting you than a bright hope and perhaps falsely placed faith that you can trust someone not to kill you with their weapon of choice vehicle.

And so you walk in the street and learn not to jump rabbit wary when you hear a motor coming behind; you step out and expect motorbikes to swerve around; you pay no attention to cars coming at you on sidewalks because who are you, mere pedestrian, to lay exclusive claim to a sidewalk? A parking space is wherever there is space to park, and the definition of space is widely expansive even when that actual space is not. A traffic light is a valiant effort but in practice is little more than a barely tolerated novelty. A stop sign is a suggestion made in a conciliatory “If it pleases you” tone, and the threshold for pleasing is usually unattainably high. Painting lines on anything should be seen as pure artistic expression and not as anything meant to enforce ideas of traffic flow- come on, it’s just paint. Are you going to let PAINT boss you around? I thought not. A one way street is constantly having its high ideals of order crushed, and should probably just give up its unreasonable demands on direction. There is no reason to clutter up a perfectly good construction zone with cones and lights and directions as to how to avoid dropping unceremoniously into a hole. Figure it out, do what you need to do, get where you need to be. 

To be fair, traffic here in Vientiane is far, far less shocking than in Albania; it’s just that the popularity of scooters creates a whole other bag of what in the fresh hell moments.  Something about a scooter lends itself to even more flagrant violations- you convince yourself “Oh, it’s kind of just like I’m on a bicycle, but... with a motor... but I mean, not a big motor... so I can totally go the wrong way for just a moment, pull up on this sidewalk, drive around these tables, and park right here.” The justifications are endless, but honestly, even calling them justifications implies that these actions are outside the bounds- but they aren't, because there are no bounds, and it’s just a Tuesday afternoon or a late Saturday night and you’re just driving on The Road, which is Everywhere and All Places.

You can, as you might imagine, get dangerously used to this kind of freedom, and the quickness with which I took to driving my motorbike and sliding in and out of tight places and shrugging off close calls would have shocked me if I could be shocked at this point. I have to thank Albania for inoculating me against any kind of traffic fear, as a driver or passenger. Nowhere before or after has provided as much catastrophic potential in the form of roads or traffic. I loved every minute of those road trips, even as I white knuckled and gasped my way through the early ones. Never mind driving, though- simply walking was my first hurdle, to be specific about it. The first week I lived in Albania, I was crippled with heart stopping anxiety every time I had to cross a street. See, you just crossed a street- by that I mean, there was no look both ways wait for traffic to stop look at the light and then go. You just crossed, and in the act of crossing, you signaled to traffic that you’d like them to cease barreling towards you. Crossing a street of several lanes was an exercise in total blind acceptance of whatever might befall you, because if you couldn’t, on some level, just give up that reptile part of you that screams DO NOT DO THIS, YOU WILL DIE, you would be waiting on the corner of the Zogu i Zi roundabout until you did, eventually, die, because you could wait there for years while the endless swirl of cars fought round and round in a circle of diesel dust and blaring horns. So you just take a deep breath and jump in and trust the process.

Exposure training is how I think of it, because at some point, you just can’t be afraid anymore- you literally cannot produce that much fear in your body, and it gives up, and you just accept it, and then suddenly your threshold for "NONONO, WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE” is raised exponentially. You level up into a new realm of lack of concern for this meat suit that lets you walk around. It’s liberating. There’s really no way to say it without sounding far too heavy, but living in developing countries really goes a long way in mitigating your garden variety excessive fear of your own death*. Something truly serious has to be happening to register on the meter, when you’re so constantly surrounded by dangerous practices, contaminated water, buildings with no safety regulations or fire alarms, potentially rabid stray dogs, mosquitoes who have the power to seriously screw you up, and underneath all of it, the knowledge that you have no hospital to whom to place an emergency call if shit does, finally, get real. You don't have time to sit and ponder remote possibilities when you don't really want to ponder close possibilities that aren't the greatest.

Some days, I get on my motorbike and start to drive and am struck with the absurdly out of context realization of "Oh, I forgot to put on my seatbelt!" Then I actually laugh out loud, because I can't remember the last time I wore a seatbelt in a car anyway. For a second, this realization starts to slide into trepidation. But then I shift through my gears and rattle down my road to take my place in the clattering crowd of scooters and just as quickly forget. I'm a soft little rock, choosing to live in places with traffic that wants to know me and live next to me, and I just have to trust everything will flow around me just so.

*I’ve spent the grand majority of my life obsessing over dying, and being terrified of it, in ways that I’m fairly certain are highly abnormal and unhealthy. People often tell me that I am brave for living overseas, or traveling alone, or other such things, but the secret is that my baseline brain function is to live a lot of my life in anxiety and fear. By pushing myself completely out of my comfort zone to a point where my corresponding fear is untenable, and it exhausts itself, I am finally free of that anxiety. Your mileage may vary.


  1. Something about the traffic in developing countries seems more natural. I think the way that it flows is the way that it's supposed to flow...until you hear the stories and statistics. But even then, I suppose the accident rates can be brushed off as a natural, "Survival of the Fittest" sort of process, right?

    1. I was thinking the same thing, the other day, when I realized that when someone is trying to make a left into traffic from a stop sign, and you are trying to make a left out of traffic onto the street from which they are coming, they go *in front* of you, and you slide behind. In most western countries, they would sit there and wait for you to swing around and go left and then they pull out. There are other examples, but I feel you.

      And yeah, just ignore the statistics. Safe, inland road. Safe, inland road. Repeat until you believe.