Rules of the road

UNHCR lent our project three Land Cruisers, prompting me to finally overcome my irrational aversion to driving in developing countries. I had no idea what I was missing.

While my 60-year old father teaches performance race driving, I am barely able to change a tire. Driving is not my strong suit, and so I’d avoided cruising the crowded, chaotic streets of Uganda and Liberia till now. It helped that my wife was a pro with a Land Cruiser, and naturally took the wheel. But Jeannie has a new position at IRC in New York, and so I found myself at my field work alone. It was time to become self-sufficient.

My main trouble has been figuring out the rules of the road. There is precisely one stop light in the city and it hasn’t worked for ten years. Stop signs are unknown, with nary a roundabout in sight. Pedestrians, motorbikes, insane taxis, noxious trucks, and more than a few farm animals fill the road. My Liberian friends proceed on instinct, and haven’t been able to articulate the conventions (should they exist).

As far as I can tell, two maxims rule the road: every man for himself, and might is right. Basically, the big vehicle goes where it wants. Bikes beware, and pedestrians must scramble out of the way or suffer the consequences.

In my monstrous white Land Cruiser–the modern day pith helmet–this means I am only outclassed by trucks and the shocking number of Hummers in town.

What frightens me most is the ease with which I’ve adapted to the Liberian norm: blasting through groups of pedestrians with horn blaring. Initially I held back, which only confused everyone and led to a number of near misses. One man cannot break the tyrannical equilibrium. I am now a part of the problem.