Sunday, November 20, 2011

Rules of the Road

The first time I drove a car, I was fifteen-and-a-half and in my parent's wood-paneled minivan.  I had just gotten my temps ("permit" for non-Ohioan readers) and was enormously excited.  Excitement that quickly turned to terror as the speedometer crept past ten, past fifteen.  I felt like I'd never traveled so fast in my life.

I got over it pretty quickly - learned to drive a standard so I could take my brother's pick-up to school and, by the time I was nineteen, I'd earned my first ticket for going eighty in a fifty-five... in the snow.  I considered making the argument that I'd heard had won in court in Ohio once, that my speed was appropriate for the conditions, but the snow was going to make that a hard sell.

Fast-forward another seven years:  I'm in Kenya and I feel like I'm going through the same process of fear turned to reckless irresponsibility.  Some might compare driving here to skydiving - it's terrifying until you take that leap.  Then, it's exhilarating and you get a great view to boot.  But, I'd argue that it's much more like a prolonged game of chicken.  There's a mixed-up feeling of anticipation, anxiety, and antagonism from whoever happens to be coming toward you.  All the while, there's a palpable sense of impending doom.

To mitigate my dread, I've devised a few "Rules of the Road" that I chant like a mantra whenever I find myself behind the wheel (it's true - I'm pretty sure my Kenyan colleagues think I'm crazy):

1. Don't hit the people.
     This is a bigger challenge than you'd think.  On foot, on bike, on motorcycle or pulling carts, there are more people than cars at any given moment.  There are actually dirt walkways on either side of most roads, but from toddlers to the elderly, walking on the tarmac with the cars and trucks is somehow vastly preferable.

2. Stay on the road. 
     Staying on the road might seem painfully obvious, but it gets tricky here.  First off, the edge of the tarmac is more fjord-like than anything else, plunging up to two feet.  Plus, cars and trucks pass each other so haphazardly that it's not uncommon to find yourself in an actual (rather than metaphorical) game of chicken.  In those cases, I throw this rule out the window and leave the road quite happily.

3. Avoid roadway obstructions.
     Obstacles are a special part of the driving experience in Kenya.  Leaving aside people, animals, and vehicles, obstacles are often pot-holes but can also be tipped-over trucks, patches of missing tarmac, and police checks complete with tire spikes.  All of these require deft steering, but only under the rarest of circumstances do you ever consider actually stopping.

4. Swerve left or, more generally, ignore all instincts.
     Ignoring your instincts is key.  This applies not only during close encounters where years of driving in the US has taught me to swerve right, but also includes much more pedestrian things like: go ahead and pass on that hill, don't turn off your car while fueling up if you've been having trouble getting it to start, and for goodness sake, take that key, start that car, and enter the roadway... even when every fiber of your being tells you not to be a fool and just stay home.

Happy Trails!

Another roadway obstacle: tarmac waves!

1 comment:

  1. These rules can also apply to the Dominican Republic.