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Jerk Night in Vientiane

I copied this from my page “The Daily Commute” just in case you don’t read that page. (It’s on a tab at the top of the blog.) I’ll post from there occasionally if I think it’s interesting enough to cross post.

Tuesday, June 23

The traffic seemed quite a bit heavier than normal going in this morning, but there’s really not much to say. At night, however, the jerks were out in force.

First, I stopped at a major intersection to wait for the light to change to green. The drivers coming from the right side had the right of way at the time. Somebody in a large black pickup truck or SUV (couldn’t quite tell) pulled up behind me and after about 10 seconds or so, began honking his horn at me. Right then, there was no traffic from the right, but our light was still red. He kept insistently honking, so I kind of threw my hands up in a “what the heck do you want me to do?” gesture. I knew he wanted me to run the light or to pull over so that he or she could run through it. He kept honking until I swiveled my head around to get a glance of whoever it was and I pointed to the light. “It’s red, stupid.” I turned my head back around just in time to see a car speed through the green light. If I had tried to cross the road illegally, I’d have been wiped out. When the light changed, I purposefully took off very slowly. The black vehicle (it was a shiny new pickup) passed me on the right and turned right at the next light. Jerk Number One.

Jerk Number Two was waiting for me a few blocks down. This time I was on another major one way road and there are stop signs on the left and right at the intersection I was approaching. The traffic on both sides had stopped to wait for the line of cars and motorbikes to pass. I was near the end of that line when suddenly some fool came speeding from the left. He kind of slowed down when he came to the stop sign, but he didn’t stop. He was desperately impatient to cross the road, traffic be damned. He nosed his way into the first two lanes of the road, forcing a car to stop and causing a few motorbikes ahead of me to veer sharply out of his way, and kept on coming toward my lane. I had slowed down quite a bit by this time, but I was curious to see how far he would push the situation. (Don’t worry, I was quite prepared to stop if he didn’t.) I came right up to his van as he finally stopped half way across my lane, and as I passed him by with several feet to spare, I gestured at him in a vague way (I really wanted to flip him off) and gave him (or her) a “drop dead” look.

There was only a single motorbike not too far behind me, so Jerk No. Two decided to wait. This guy would have had to wait about five seconds to cross the road legally, but that was too long for his convenience, I suppose. That’s one of the biggest problems with truck, car and motorbike operators here. They are extremely impatient. Another problem is that they seem to only think about themselves. “I’m going nowhere, but I have to get there NOW!”

Jerk Number Three didn’t involve me, but I had a front row seat to a nearly calamitous collision. I was waiting at another red light, an intersection that is notorious for vehicles disobeying the light. From the left came a motorbike full blast through his red light while a car with the green light (it’s a four-way stop) came speeding toward Vientiane. I thought for sure this was gonna be horrendous. The bike passed right in front of the car with only a few feet to spare. This jerk was lucky tonight, but how long will his luck hold out?

I made it back safely to The Farm. Another successful ride. Any ride that I survive is a success.

Another Death in the Night

Four wrecks and, after last night, three deaths in four days of commutes into and back from Vientiane. I normally only ride that route on Tuesday and Thursday nights, but I’m filling in for another teacher this week. One more night to go.

Last night’s victim was the mayor of the village where I’m staying. Apparently, a car hit the motorbike that he was driving and, perhaps, another. I rode through the scene of the accident and saw two motorbikes down, after I had seen an ambulance racing toward Vientiane earlier. I didn’t know that anyone had been killed until Nai told me this morning that the “village boss” (mayor) had been killed right where I had ridden the previous night.

Utter insanity on the roads here. You can read more details of last night by clicking the tab at the top of the page — The Daily Commute. More later (hopefully, not more accidents).

Slaughter on the Streets

motorbike wreck

This is not my photo, nor is it a picture of what I saw last night. It was taken in Vientiane, and it is typical of an accident scene here.

Riding my motorbike back to The Farm last night, I came across two traffic accidents. The first one was horrendous–two covered bodies lay in the street down the road from Wat Si Muang, near a traffic light, though the accident occurred away from the light. There was a very large police presence and dozens of gawking onlookers. I noticed the bodies as I rode slowly through the crowd, but I didn’t see what kind of vehicles were involved. Perhaps they had already been removed or maybe the bodies were those of pedestrians. The traffic light ahead was red, so I continued to ride slowly toward it. All of a sudden, a teen-aged boy on his motorbike, who I had seen as one of the gawkers, raced past me and ran through the red light.

That’s just insanely stupid, especially after the scene he had just witnessed. But, it’s a normal occurrence here; a huge number of motorbike riders routinely ignore all traffic laws. They run through red lights and stop signs, they operate their bikes without headlights, they don’t wear helmets, they exceed the speed limit, and when they turn onto a larger road from a side street, they rarely look to see if another vehicle is approaching. They also drive drunk. Put ’em together–teen boys, booze and motorbikes–what could possibly go wrong?

Another law that people ignore is riding on the wrong side of the road. This was the most difficult abuse for me to get used to. They do this because they’re too impatient to wait for traffic to clear so that they can cross into their proper driving lane. So, they ride along the side of the road, against traffic, peering back over their shoulders to see if there is any oncoming traffic behind them, and when the proper lane is clear, they’ll cut over to that side of the road. This can be terrible at night, when a speeding biker wearing black clothing and having no headlight comes at you all of a sudden out of nowhere, forcing you to swerve out of his or her path. This has happened to me on more than one occasion.

They do this as if they had special permission to turn your lane into their own legal avenue to get to the proper side of the road. At first I used to yell at them and swear and honk my horn, to let off steam. Everybody, and I mean everybody, does it, including foreigners. I’m one of the very, very few riders who will wait until traffic clears before I cross into my proper driving lane. Because of the relatively huge number of cars that the new middle class is buying, Vientiane is totally unprepared to handle all the traffic, so there is very little legal parking. People park their cars on the road, effectively cutting one of the driving lanes in half. It’s when motorbike riders going the wrong way come around one or more of these parked cars that it gets really dangerous, especially if there is heavy traffic next to you in the other driving lane. What do you do–swerve into the other lane and hope the drivers notice you and give way, hope that the other motorbike rider will use a little common sense (usually in short supply) or do you veer off to the right side of the road toward the parked car? I’ve usually been able to (cautiously) get into the other driving lane. It’s a scary proposition, just one of the many frightening things about riding a motorbike in Laos.

I don’t mean to single out motorbike riders, because drivers of other vehicles disobey the traffic laws and drive drunk, also. They, too, drive down the wrong side of the road, speed and generally drive like idiots. I would estimate, roughly, that 80 percent of motorbike riders and at least half the drivers of other vehicles would not pass a driver’s exam. Most drivers here, I’ve heard, don’t even have a driver’s license. Not surprising.

Anyway, I rode out of Vientiane toward The Farm. Just past the new U.S. Embassy there is a final traffic light. As I approached it, two ambulances raced screaming from the other direction and turned right at the light, heading toward a hospital along that particular road. I thought that there might be another accident further along. Sure enough, as I neared my turnoff, there was another large crowd of gawkers and police surrounding a scene that included a tuk-tuk that had a severely smashed-in front end. I didn’t see another vehicle, so again I don’t know that a motorbike was involved. I kind of doubt that there was, due to the magnitude of damage to the tuk-tuk. I continued on, hyper aware and extremely cautious.

It seems like every couple of weeks there is an article or letter in the Vientiane Times deploring the carnage on the roads of Laos and demanding that something be done about it. The authorities repeatedly say that they are going to crack down on those who drive drunk, speed and flout other traffic laws. However, nobody appears to be doing anything to change the situation. And the slaughter continues.

Adventure Walking

Santo Domingo has to be one of the most pedestrian-unfriendly cities I’ve ever walked in. You definitely need to use the eyes in back of your head (and on the sides). If you don’t have eyes in back of your head, stay home. The drivers here, for the most part, have absolutely no respect for people on foot. Crosswalks are a joke and crossing streets with the light in your favor always involves risk. After the light changes from red to green, I always wait for about 5 seconds to cross because there always seems to be someone barreling along, not paying attention or else trying to blast across the street before the right-of-way traffic blocks the road entirely. I’ve almost been hit more than once, but, luckily, I was able to avoid the idiots at the last second.

Here’s a case in point from yesterday. The avenue that runs through the Parque Mirador del Sur is shut down to traffic from 4 p.m. to about 7 p.m. That’s when I do my almost-daily jog, as do hordes of others out exercising, roller blading, or bicycle riding. I got an early start yesterday, at 4, and the road was pretty much deserted of any other joggers. I ran for about half an hour then turned around and headed back to where I had started from. All of a sudden, a white car followed by a motorbike came racing down the avenue towards me and passed about 5 feet from me doing around 30-40 mph. I shouted out “estupidos” to them, but I’m sure they didn’t hear me. They weren’t police or security people; they looked like ordinary idiots trying to take a short cut through the restricted zone. If either of us had been a tad bit less aware, I’d have been plastered all over the avenue. You really, really have to pay attention as a pedestrian, no matter where you’re walking or jogging, even in a “safe” zone.

Walking on the sidewalks can be an adventure, too. Because of the intense traffic jams, motorbikers will avoid the delays by using the sidewalks. Also, more often than not, people can’t find a place to park on the street–no problem, just park on the sidewalk. At times, I have to walk into the street to get around the parked car(s). Like I said, it’s one of the most pedestrian-unfriendly cities I’ve seen.

It’s been raining since early this morning, several hours now, but not a very heavy rain, more like a continuous light shower. If this were Montana, we’d have 3 to 4 inches of snow on the ground by now. Lucky for me, it’s not.