28 January 2009

Driving Lusaka

My favourite topic... driving in Lusaka... fraught with hazards, it's truly punctuated equilibrium in action... only the fittest survive to drive another day. It does keep you glued to the seat with both hands on the wheel at the 10 and 2 o'clock positions... just like the driving instructor said. There are multiple dangers and it is definitely not for people without quick reflexes. In fact, I'm about to market Lusaka driving as alternative training for table tennis and badminton players to improve their reflexes. There are multiple dangers on the road that anyone thinking of driving here has to be aware of, from the potholes to random people jumping in front of the car. I'll begin with the pothole.

Aaah the pothole, it's been a favoured sqatter on Lusaka roads since time immemorial. It was so ubiquitous that people avoided the roads entirely and drove on the sidewalks. It was such an example of the failure of government that the opposition used it in advertisements prior to elections. After the opposition won, they continued to leave the potholes in place just to remind the people how bad things were in the previous regime. And the opposition has won every election since, so I figure they have no reason, really, to fix potholes.

Minibuses... known affectionately as 'matatus' in Kenya and the harbingers of death in Lusaka. These contraptions, sometimes held together just by cello tape and faith, carry commuters throughout the city. They often have slogans on the back, such as "My lord does not sleep," "Jesus saves" and such-like. I used to wonder why they were so religious, but no longer. They really want your last memories in life to be those of God as you plough into the back when they make one of their sudden stops to pick up some passenger. The aforesaid passengers of course are too lazy to walk to the nearest bus stop which may be just about 400 metres away. (It may be noted that the world record for 400 meter sprint is 43.18 seconds, held by Michael Johnson of the United States). Of course if you don't smash into the backs of these buses, you may hit their nose. A strategy that works for the minibuses to re-enter the road after an unscheduled stop is to slowly work their noses onto the road as each car whizzes by. There comes a time when enough of the front of the bus is on the road that the next car driving by will stop to let the bus back in. It's also possible that the religious slogans are on because the bus drivers are saving the world. They do drive like they have to get to the other end of the city in the next 2 minutes to avoid major catastrophe. Picture this, a long line of automobiles waiting on the road for a light to change to green. We're sitting there, inside the automobiles, cursing the lights and the authorities who refused to make an extra lane to cater for the traffic. We're still patiently waiting even though we're late for an appointment at the Brown Frog or at Rhapsody's. Almost every single time, one looks to the side and sees one or more of these blue buses, the saviours of mankind, rushing ahead on the sidewalk. "So, are we stupid, waiting in line," pointedly asks my wife. I don't think she's convinced by my arguement that the drivers have to be somewhere in the next couple of minutes, or somebody will die. The other drivers all know this too, as they let the buses in at the head of the line... well, maybe it's just the nose-into-road technique. In short, if the traffic police got serious about having minibus drivers pay fines for violations, the entire Zambian budget could be balanced in about a year.

Pedestrians and cyclists - Automobile traffic in Lusaka seems to have increased every time I get the mini-minivan out (it's a Toyota Raum - yeah, I didn't know they existed until I got here either). This means that if you want to turn then you have a couple of seconds where there's enough time to jump on the road. Invariably, that's the time when pedestrians and cyclists will choose to cross the road right in front of you. They won't go around you so that you can turn, they will cross in front of you right as you want to move forward. It's common to see cyclists cycling against the flow of traffic. One would think if they cycled with the traffic, at least if they got hit, they would just accelerate forward. If they get hit head on, they'd just fly off the bike and crash into the car. Pedestrians at night... man... those are deadly. They wear non-reflective clothes and jump onto the road giving you just enough time to stand on the brakes or risk ploughing into them. And they won't even cross the road straight across... normally they do it in a diagonal fashion so they spend more time on the road than necessary. Are they asking for death? Who knows... I hope I'll never be the one to grant them their wish.

SUV's and other tall cars. Almost every government vehicle seems to be some sort of SUV. Pajeros, Land Cruisers rule the roost here. Most of the time, these guys will come stand right next to you so that you can't see the oncoming traffic. Now if you want to turn, you have to wait for both lanes to clear or risk being a pappadum on the road... usually if the SUV moves then you are safe to move as well. This is mainly a problem when you have to turn left... the right side is obscured by the big car and they wait for both sides of the road to clear before they can turn. The cost of 3 of those cars can pay for a 96-capillary sequencer.... which I could desparately use right now. Of course with SUVs the potholes are just gentle dips in the road... so why fix them?

I have found some Lusaka drivers to be extraordinarily well-mannered. They stop and let you through if you've been waiting for a while, they tell you to overtake them if you want to go faster, and flash their lights if you're driving with your lights on. They also flash their lights if they want to let you go through, and if they want you to stop, which gets confusing, but you get good at reading the context. I still have to figure out what some fool was doing last night flashing his or her lights behind me... the road was empty, my lights were working, and this person didn't want to overtake when I slowed down and moved into the other lane. Maybe someday the reasonw will come to me.

It just came to me, no wonder Satwant Singh "the flying Sikh" was All Africa rally champion eight times... he trained on Lusaka roads.