Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Tues, Aug 20: Traffic

Joel:  Traffic here is well, to put it mildly, interesting.  To put it less mildly, stressful and requiring skilled drivers with nerves of steel.  If traffic in the US is like a strict dance, with rules and roles, Malawian traffic is a multi-party negotiation.  Pedestrians don't look out for cars, because they know you'll stop.  Traffic lights are often out of order, and rarely if ever heeded.  (See Eric's comment below about traffic lights.)  Man, are those minibus drivers aggressive.  Then, there are the goats, dogs, chickens, ox carts, and frolicking donkeys.  On the way home from school today, (the day after our minibus adventure,) Mom was driving here for the first time.  Imagine our shock when Dad suddenly starts and yells, “GOAT!  GOAT!”  Mom hit the brakes, but we all lost a year off of our lives, I think.

Eric: Joel's back-seat position prevented him from seeing critical details here – I yelled when the goat decided to dash headlong across the road in front of us and an oncoming truck. Halfway across the right (far) lane, it engaged it brakes and last we saw it was skidding on all four hooves across the road toward the side of our car. We didn't hit it, but we don't know if it survived the oncoming truck or not – if it turned around after stopping it likely ended up a mess on the front of that truck.

Andrea:  For the record, I DID see that goat even without all the histrionics from the passengers.  Actually my first time driving was this morning, after the Bunda bus broke down.  After yesterday's misadventures Eric went to talk to the Bunda College traffic supervisor, who was very apologetic.  He had told some, but not all, of the drivers that the kids are to be let off at the roundabout near their school, and was very sorry that he had forgotten to tell yesterday's driver.  So, reassured, the kids and I set off on the bus again.  We weren't even off college grounds when the bus broke down.  So I called up Eric again, and he came driving up.  Then he handed me the keys and said he thought I ought to get the hang of driving here.  Fine, I'd been planning on it – but now I had an audience, because someone else who'd been stranded by the bus came over and asked us for a lift.  I hadn't been planning on that.  But it didn't go too badly on the way in.  The goat incident didn't happen until the way home. 

The major challenge in the countryside dodging quite a lot of miscellaneous things on a very narrow road; there's surprisingly little vehicular traffic.  The shoulder is dirt and often several inches lower than the pavement, so you don't want to drop your wheels off. (Eric: In some cases it seems like the shoulder might actually be  a double-digit number of inches lower than the pavement, and the edge of the pavement is wildly sculpted, with fjord like inlets forming potholes in the road). Which is easier said than done, because the edge of the road is not very straight.  In the city the major challenge for me is the other traffic.  As Joel mentioned, figuring out who's going next is not determined by rules but, as Eric puts it, by negotiation.  You just work your way into the intersection and eventually someone will let you in, and you let people go in front of you sometimes too.  Major intersections are set up as roundabouts, which take some getting used to in their own right.

Overarching everything is the strangeness for me to drive on the left side of the road.  This left-lane travel spills over even into how you get past people on sidewalks and go through doors.  The revolving door at the bank was almost too much for me.  And of course in the right-hand-drive car, you shift with your left hand – but after 20+ years of left-hand-drive I keep trying to do it with my right, end up turning on the windshield wipers by mistake, and then have to figure out how to turn them off while not hitting that guy standing between the lanes trying to sell fried dough balls.

Eric: Traffic lights do seem to be respected here when they are functioning, which is seems to be less than half the time. Some lights seem to function more than others, and of course a light may be functioning but not all the bulbs are functioning. There also seem to be different ideas about where to stop – one morning after dropping the kids I was coming back to Bunda, and was the first driver to stop for a red light that was functioning. I stopped where I could see the light (on a short pole on the left side of the road before the intersection. The car behind me just stated honking and honking, so I thought, “Maybe I'm not supposed to stop?”, so I inched forward, and just “negotiated” my way through the intersection. As I was exiting the intersection a white-gloved policeman appeared and scolded me through my window as I drove past. Now that I know that intersection better, I think the problem was that I was straddling the “straight” and “right turn” lanes, but in my defense, they aren't marked at all, and are both narrow enough that unless you know there are supposed to be 2 lanes there you wouldn't guess.

I'll try to post some photos tomorrow.  

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