Saturday, May 31, 2008

Rules of traffic

More intimidating than days of relentless heat, or overwhelming storms of dust, is the traffic in Khartoum. It is often said that traffic in African cities has no rhyme or reason. But this is often the observation of a newcomer, terrified by unknown patterns, unused to the liberating use of the horn and struggling to understand a less ordered universe than the docile roads back home. In fact, although subtly different in each city, the flow of vehicles has its own intricate rhythm. If you learn how to move by this, driving can almost be a relaxing experience.

In Khartoum however, these invisible rhythms have been manhandled into an aggressive wave of metal, where whoever has the most, wins. It is best to follow this or you will become one of the victims to beaten front wings, broken lightbulbs or total write-offs lining the roadside. The law is the law of the sea – the biggest fish will always eat the smaller ones, who accordingly run for their lives or wait respectfully while their betters glide past. The regular buses are only too aware of this, as they barrel along, across and through roads that seconds before were full of other cars. These have beaten a hasty retreat, unsafe in the knowledge that firstly, they will not win in any collision and secondly, one more dent on the bus will make precious little difference. A hole in your door will take time and effort to fix.

Into the hands of a kamikaze minnow

Second to these are the Khartoum tractors with shiny trappings that try to put a gloss on the bully beneath. Making expert use of width, noise and large tyres, these tower over the puny saloon cars, taking their lunch money and throwing the ever-present sand in their faces. When we first arrived, we had the use of one. What at first sight appeared to be a free-for-all quickly broke down at the approach of our walrus. Size matters.

And so on down through the species and sub-species of vehicular life, to the teeth-cleaning fish at the bottom. Tuk-tuks (three-wheeler motorised rickshaws) are a traditional sight in many cities of the world. Tourists peer hopefully out in downtown Bangkok, happy that they have plucked up the courage to go local, while wondering if their driver really did know the name of their hotel. In Khartoum, the expression on most passengers faces is one of panic, as they realise that they have put their life into the hands of a kamikaze minnow shaking its fist at a gang of sharks encroaching on its turf. For all cars, lorries, buses and so forth will inevitably regard the tuk-tuk either as non-existent, or as having the responsibility to leave the area the moment something more important arrives.

And tuk-tuks in turn respond by squeezing into the most improbable gaps to gain precious seconds on their hated fellow road users. Even if those gaps involve pavements, or spaces between the tyres of a juggernaut. They also sport as many decorations as can be fitted on without overbalancing. Flags (any country’s will do), felt, and road signs are all acceptable. But the most popular embellishments are clearly Boadicea-style wheel hub enhancements. These can take the form of the swords the warrior queen added to her chariot wheels, simple spikes or even three-deep spinning ‘Pimp My Ride’ style alloys. All in plastic, of course. Not only do they look good, but they also serve the useful purpose of damaging the tyres of those who dare come too close, and crippling unwary civilians. The Government in its wisdom has decided to ban tuk-tuks from the centre of town, probably for their own good.

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