Saturday, May 4, 2013

Yangon Drivers Beware

I love many things about living in Yangon: amazing, special friends; lush, green foliage; gorgeous wild orchids and other flowers. There are even smiling faces greeting you almost everywhere … except on the road when driving. It’s as if all the calm, placid veneers brew with aggressive anger and driving is the conduit –the release – of all pent up frustration and anger.

Traffic is an increasing problem. Over a year ago, there were few cars on the road. Though the lack of driving skill was evident, drivers weren’t aggressive and rude. They didn’t honk their horns. All that rude and frankly –downright selfish – driving behavior was left to the bus drivers. Now it has infected nearly everyone.

Driving here is something I don’t love. I’d wager you’d be hard pressed to find someone who actually enjoys it. It is stressful and filled with unexpected twists and turns. Literally. This afternoon we barely swerved quickly enough to miss workers that were randomly on an accident-prone section of the road without any hint or warning they were there.  You know: like a warning flashing light. Or a “Slow” sign prior to the construction zone. So that the front of the car didn’t smash up the person in front of us, a quick, hard swerve was required. We nearly hit several cars that were straddling the lanes next to us.

Straddling lanes – lane ambivalence, as I like to call it – is rampant. No one seems to drive in one lane and just stick with it. No choosing their course and moving forward. In a straight line. Too much commitment maybe? Instead, car after car, truck after truck drives between the dotted lines as if they were never painted there. Swerving, tailgating, and extremely aggressive drivers barrel down the street, laying on their horns, barelybarelybarely avoiding a bus, a car, a truck, a pedestrian, a cyclist, a pushcart, a rickshaw.

Shocking, yet everyday occurrences
I watched a van driver bolt down the three lane road narrowly avoiding other speeding vehicles, cars traveling around 20 mph, and those making abrupt stops in the far left hand lane to do U-Turns across oncoming traffic. The van sped past us, barging into the far right hand lane, only to zip wildly without abandon, right back over to the far left hand lane and … you guessed it: slam on their breaks and do a U-Turn. My under-the-breath muttering became louder and louder. We were only half-way to our destination.

Later, an extremely impatient driver nearly hit the driver’s side of our car trying to pass it. On the left. Into three lanes of oncoming traffic. A taxi followed suit. They weren’t heading the direction of any hospital. I wondered what the emergency could’ve been. Surely, there really wasn’t one…

It’s not just the drivers
Well-meaning parking attendants insist people reverse their cars into every parking spot. Every single parking spot has a car backed up into it. This makes no sense to me. There can’t be a law that says you must reverse park into spots. I refuse. Flat-out refuse. Call me a rebel. As I refuse, I try not to run over the parking attendants who seem determined – no matter which business you go to – to stand right in the spot you need to be.

Mutter-muttering grows louder.

Traffic Police. Wait. What?
Sadly, the traffic police occasionally exacerbate problems. They’re often seen hanging out in some little police hut on the corner of the road, sometimes even when there’s an accident.

They can be seen in the middle of the road, too. Abruptly stopping traffic, causing squealing breaks and skid marks. (Yeah, the kind that could even end up in your pants from fright!)

Back in the day...
The once slow, rambling go-cart style driving has been replaced with an outrageous amount of absolutely rude, reckless driving.  It’s infuriating. I’ve never been much of a road rager, but my goodness … I turn into angry Medusa. Or at least I wish I did. Then I could turn cars into stone. Make them stop. 

It’s not like I haven’t lived in places with aggressive, rude drivers. Nairobi is notorious for its craziness. And the notorious rumors are absolutely true. It’s so bad, that when we visited New York City, we scoffed at their idea of traffic. (Traffic? What traffic? People are driving in an orderly fashion. There are no baboons or matatus or craziness!

The difference between Nairobi and Yangon is that in Nairobi, drivers actually have driving skills. They use those skills to take ridiculous risks … but they can drive!

I know I’m sounding incredibly rude and jugdy. It's not nice to say a very large group of citizens don't have driving skills. But I'm not telling you a fib. They really, really, really, really ... really don't. Really.

I don’t usually write ranting blog posts. I also try my utmost to be respectful of all-things Yangon. I can’t lie about how stressful, illogical, unnecessary, and flat-out dangerous driving is here, though. 

Thankfully, I’m in good company, as my friend writes here, but from the harrowing perspective of a commuting cyclist.

One sweet, forgiving friend said that in Yangon, it’s like Zen driving. Bless her. There’s nothing Zen-like about driving here. Nothing calm. Nothing peaceful. It’s raging, obnoxious, rude, blinding, and completely without skill. It’s opposite of any Buddhist-like stereotype you could conjure up. The exact opposite.   

A year ago, you could’ve said that. Not now. 

There are beautiful things about this city. Many things I will miss. 

The driving? 

Oh, hell no. 

I will not miss the driving. 

P.S. Requiring driving tests prior to obtaining licenses would be a good place to start improving things here. Just a thought. Crazy. I know. 

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