Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Kabul Driving

Driving in a new country is always a little daunting.  When I was 18 and in Scotland, my host family thought it would be a good idea to let me drive their little Renault after visiting the Electric Brae.  So, here I am, on the wrong side of the car, on the wrong side of the road, trying to maneuver the manual with my left hand instead of right, staring at the upcoming roundabout with much fear and trepidation.  Poor Erin M sitting in the back seat.  What must have been going through her head when our host mother, Christine, leaned over to me and said "Dear, you're driving on the wrong side of the road."  To which I responded, "I know!"  To which she responded, "No, you're driving on the wrong side of the road. . . the American side," as I looked up to see a car heading towards me in my American side of the road lane.  Needless to say, I didn't ever make it to the roundabout.  My driving privileges were quickly revoked.  Like I said, driving in a new country can be a little scary.

Driving in Kabul isn't just scary, it's like taking your life into your own hands.

Disclaimer for all the worriers that read my blog: I have never driven in Kabul.  I have only ridden.  There may be a time that I feel confident enough to drive in our neighborhood, but I will not leave its boundaries.  The reasoning for this will be touched on later.
Let's take a little look at some driving conditions in Afghanistan.

Exhibit A.  The Roads.  Paved roads are a luxury.  Gravel roads, also a luxury.  Dirty and dusty roads, that's the norm.  We have one paved road in our neighborhood.  We have a few semi paved roads.  A few roads have recently been re-graveled.  Our street is dirt.  And then there is the condition of these roads.  Just because a road is paved doesn't mean its drivable.  Potholes, bomb strike holes, giant speed bumps (that only cover half the street), piles of rocks; these are all things that are exceedingly common on our roads.  Drivers have to be very alert and ready to speed up or slow down.  Some roads also have a two ft across, two ft deep drainage ditch that can be dangerous.  These ditches have lots of muck in them and smell awful, but the smells of Afghanistan is a whole other topic.  

Exhibit B.  The Cars.  The three families in our home share a Toyota Surf.  It's like a 4-Runner, but diesel.  Our Surf, like many cars in Afghanistan, used to have the steering wheel on the right side of the car.  At some point, it was moved to the left side.  Therefore, the child window lock and automatic door lock are on the left side of the car.  There is no law about which side of the car the steering should be on.  Both are common.  Due to the conditions of the roads, the conditions of Afghan cars are dismal.  The lifespan of tires, shocks, engines, etc. is brief.  I've seen cars held together with rope driving along main roads at break neck speeds.  Oh, and most cars don't have brake lights or indicators either.  

Which brings me to Exhibit C.  Traffic Laws.  Or should I say, lack thereof.  There is no speed limit.  The limit is as fast as road conditions allow.  There are few rules governing who's turn it is to stop or go.  I have seen one stop light in Kabul that was being largely ignored by drivers racing under its blaring red "STOP!"  We have some traffic cops that direct traffic at roundabouts.  But really, it's survival of the fittest when it comes to traffic regulations.  Have I mentioned there are no lanes?  Well, that's not quite true.  A few roads have a white line down the middle, but that doesn't seem to indicate a lane and is often completely ignored.  The general traffic law seems to be, get where you are going as fast as you can without hitting other drivers, bikers, or pedestrians.  The car horn becomes a drivers closest ally as they dodge and weave through traffic.

Exhibit D.  Traffic.  At certain hours Kabul has awful, awful traffic.  Today it took us an hour to get someplace 20 minutes away.  I'm still a little dizzy from sitting behind an truck spewing exhaust (no emissions testing or laws).  And we're not just competing with cars.  There are cars, bikes, pedestrians, fruit carts, phone card carts, more pedestrians, maybe a herd of goats, maybe a horse and cart, maybe a man on a bike pulling a horse behind him. . . there's a lot of competition for road space.

And finally Exhibit E.  Passenger safety laws.  You'll never hear someone question if there is enough room in a car for all passengers in Afghanistan.  There's always room.  And if you can't squeeze every passenger into the cab of the car, some can ride in the trunk, or the truck bed.  If it's a mixed gender crowd, the women usually end up in the trunk.  On that note, women rarely ride in the front seat, and only if their husband, brother, or father is driving.  Women also do not drive.  Western women will drive in their neighborhood but not on the main roads.  In fact, the police will often pull women drivers over for no reason and hassle them.  I have yet to find out if it's actually against the law for women to drive (as it is in Saudi Arabia), but better safe than sorry, I'll stay in the back seat.  It doesn't matter if not everyone is belted in because, to be honest, no one is ever belted in.  Seat belts = another luxury.  Most cars don't have them.  And I sometimes wonder what Afghans would think if they saw Americans strapping their kids of all ages into various sized child seats and boosters.  We don't have those either, a lap seems to do fine. . . even on a motorcycle.   

As I said before, driving in Afghanistan is like taking your life into your own hands.  What with the awful road conditions, beat up cars, lack of regulations, and reckless driving attitude, it's a wonder we make it anywhere in one piece!  

This is one of those posts that just doesn't do the experience justice.  I've thought about trying to record it, but really it wouldn't be effective either.  If you want to simulate the Afghan driving experience, load your card with 20 people, switch the steering wheel to the other side of your car, or try passing someone on the shoulder.  Basically, you can't simulate it and keep your license. 

PS.  Joey thinks driving in Afghanistan totally makes sense.  Tune tomorrow for common traffic practices and public transportation.  

1 comment:

Intrepidity said...

Funny thing is, I don't remember the Scottish driving experience whatsoever! Either I was traumatized into forgetfulness or it didn't freak me out at all. :P