Saturday, May 29, 2010

Road rules

Still more thoughts as I prepare to leave the developing world for a first world country. This time my thoughts are focused on transportation.

Plane, train, bus, car. You name it, I've taken it in the last eight months. Rickshaw, tri-shaw, tuk-tuk, pedicab, bemo, moto. There are a million variations depending on what country you're in. One thing's for sure. The rules of the road are a world of difference compared to the U.S.

Let's just have it be said right from the get go: Sometimes there are no rules. Complete chaos reigns supreme. Lane splitting. Babies not in car seats. Needing to walk in the road because the sidewalk is used for motorcycle parking. Regularly seeing vehicles going the wrong way on a one-way road, even on on and off ramps. I think you get the idea, but let me give some specific examples, as well.

Remember my 29 hour train ride from Mumbai to Varanasi? I don't believe I ever shared what I witnessed right before I got on that train. Passengers were forming a line on the platform. Men that I assumed to be police or security were yelling orders. They began to check tickets and then all hell broke loose. Batons came out and passengers were beaten. Women with babies were yanked from line and tossed aside. More yelling, more physical abuse. I had no idea what was going on and was just trying to stay out of the way. I asked a man what was happening and he explained that those were general seating passengers. General seating costs about $2, consists of hard, wooden benches, and the ticket was a number. People were supposed to be lining up according to number, but apparently there's always some line jumping in an attempt to get a better seat. Hence the aggressive police/line monitors. For comparison purposes, my ticket was at the complete other end of the spectrum, 2AC. It cost about $16 and consisted of a soft bed with blankets and pillows in a semi-private, A/C room. As the man explained it, these general seating passengers were poor, stupid, and needed to be beaten (!). I'm paraphrasing, but yes, that's essentially what he said. I've never seen anything like it before or since.

Sometimes I'm convinced that public transportation is a major feat of clown car engineering. There have been many bus rides with every seat full. That should be that, but usually even more is crammed in. From crates of chickens or eggs to huge bags of flowers, the aisle is always good for transporting something. If it's not saleable goods in the aisle, it's people. Minivans should accommodate 8-12 people. Figure in bags and luggage, however, and the comfortable max is eight. There are never only eight people in these things. Usually it's closer to 14 or 15.

Then what about the number of people on a motorcycle? The most I've seen is six, three adults and three kids. But I've also seen one man and two dogs on a motorcycle, so that has to be some sort of human/canine record.

It's not just people and dogs that overcrowd motorbikes. They are a main source of transportation and I've seen them loaded down with everything from plastic bottles bound for recycling to huge piles of cut down vegetation. I'm no longer surprised when I can barely see the motorcycle under the load it's carrying.

The state of the roads themselves makes for long, bumpy, often uncomfortable journeys. Add in super curvy roads like those in Mae Hong Son, Thailand and you get to deal with motion sickness, too. What? You don't think being jammed in with puking people sounds like your idea of a good time?

Red lights don't mean anything and there's no qualms against passing whenever the driver feels the urge, even on blind corners. Horns are used so often they start to sound like ducks with sore throats. Dying ducks with sore throats. A regular game of chicken is happening on roads around the world as people drive straight at each other, veering off at the last possible second.

I've said more than once that if I don't think I'm gonna die at least once during every trip, then it hasn't been a trip worth taking! Because, you see, a lot of this lunacy could be avoided. There are executive, VIP buses and private cars and fast ferries. All of these cost more, of course, but plenty of travelers opt for them. I choose not to, and not just because I'm a cheap sonofagun. I go with the option that most locals take. After all, I didn't come all this way just to spend most of my time with other foreigners; I want to experience what the locals experience. And I gotta say. Some of the nicest people I've met and some of the kindest things I've had done for me have taken place on public transportation, regardless of the craziness of the journey that led to those meetings.

Australia's next and I have a feeling that my experiences on the road are going to ease up a bit. Only time will tell. While part of me will be glad to leave the madness behind, the other part of me will miss it. But just a tiny bit. :-)


  1. I would have to opt for the executive/VIP option. I couldn't take all that other stuff. Ew. Being stuck in an 8-passenger van with 8 people, one of which was a crying toddler no one even attempted to shut up, was Hell on Earth enough for me!

  2. Gosh, I complained when on a long flight I had a fussing baby next to me who kept losing his pacifier and Daddy was asleep. Put me in with the executive/VIP's, and someday you will want to be there as well. Have a great flight to Australia. Love ya

  3. Holy hell! six people on a motorcycle!
    Have a nice flight to Australia Sweetie.
    Love ya!