09 May 2014


Driving in the third world is not difficult but it does take a lot of patience and there can be some heavy gasping; balancing offensive and defensive driving is an art. Speed limits are rarely posted and even when they are, no police people are around to enforce the limits so speed is anyone’s game. Traffic lights are even sparser than speed limit signs and people pretty much utilize the lights as suggestions.

When one major intersection shaped in a T had its three sets of signals fail for no fewer than three consecutive days, it was anyone’s guess who actually had the right of way. Basically, everyone had the right of way so everyone pushed their way into the intersection until each car – much like a bumper car scenario – made its way out of the cluster.

Roundabouts or traffic circles predominantly indicate major intersections; there are large and small roundabouts. Some roundabouts have names that indicate the neighborhoods like 5 Mile, 8 Mile; others have names for the businesses located on the roundabout: the Mobile Roundabout, the Courts Roundabout.

Most cars are tattered, either beat up from loose road rocks or from local misconduct. Cars are dented, scraped, keyed; windows and windshields are shattered or missing. Today we saw an SUV boasting a back windshield lined perfectly with even duct tape layers that blended in with the metallic exterior.

Since we are in the third world even cheap vehicles are hard to come by for many of the locals; more than half the population is unemployed. Those who do not hold day jobs often do what they can to earn money by selling goods in the markets or on the sidewalks. Some even get paid to sweep dust from the streets. When the streets are either covered in dust or actually constructed of the dusty terrain, Paul doesn’t see the point.

Because most people in the city do not own cars, they walk. They walk in and out of traffic, sprint or jog across the freeway and bring a whole new competitive level to the game of Frogger. So when someone gets close enough to my car to knock on my window while I am sitting in morning third-world rush-hour traffic – alone – fear, terror and a whole lot of anxiety hit me all at the same time. Then there’s the confusion regarding who would be tapping on my passenger window and why and what the heck and I going to do about the situation to which I am about to turn my attention and my eyes….

Yesterday Paul had an appointment to have our car serviced. Instead of leaving our car overnight, I promised Paul that I would wake early so that we could have the car at the shop before its 8 a.m. time slot. We were amazingly on time/early. I drove our vehicle while Paul drove a friend’s behind me.

Before we left the compound, I drove down the hill and stopped short of the security gate to mess with the CD so that I could have the right music for my cross-town journey. I was hoping for some Carrie Underwood but Blake Shelton beat her because my husband beeped at me from behind. Slightly aggravated, I let the song play and moved myself toward the gate. Impatient, party of one.

Makeshift roundabout on the right

Just on the other side, before turning onto the main road that is still under construction and apparently now boasts a roundabout made of orange cones right at our entrance, a large heavy-duty SUV was approaching. Our lane is not wide enough to have two vehicles advance through the gate, so I went first and pulled far to the left in order to get my husband through and allow this person to enter. My phone rang.

“Hey,” Paul says. “You have my license.” Now, in America, we like to have our driver’s licenses on hand even though the law states that we have something like 30 days to show proof of licensure. In PNG if we do not have a license, the traffic police can fine us or put us in jail.

“What do you want me to do,” I asked, “get out of the car and run it back to you?” With street people on my left and my right and people in the approaching vehicle, abandoning my running car did not seem like the best idea.

“No, I guess not.”

“I tell you what – if you get pulled over on the way to the dealer, I will just pull over as well and we can figure it out if we need to.”

“Yeah, O.K.”

O.K. then. I hate driving and speaking on a phone, so I hung up and progressed into the traffic flow.

At 7:45 a.m., there was more traffic approaching the Mobile Roundabout than I was anticipating. With Blake singing to me through my car speakers and my speed not more than 10 kph, my mind began to wander. I was thinking about third-world traffic and how to describe it to friends or in a blog.

Beat-up cars, SUV tanks made for jungle exploration and construction vehicles all vying for a position in the roundabout’s center while villagers brace themselves for a race across the cluttered roadway. The trees behind spraypainted block walls offer a burst of green against the reddish dusty clay terrain, dirt filling the air with every wind whistle and tire rotation. While my mind was drifting, I was startled – scared sh*tless, actually – by the sound of knocking coming from my passenger side.

Who was knocking on my window? Why would a person be knocking on my window? I didn’t see anyone approach me. Is this person going to have a gun? Am I being carjacked? Should I look or drive on? I am in traffic so I can't exactly drive on. All in the span of two seconds.

Eyes wide and mouth in a terrified position, I grasped the wheel and turned my head to my left. My stupid husband had pulled his vehicle into the left lane and had driven close enough that he could reach out his window and knock on mine.

What the hell are you doing?!” I yelled at him as I put down my window. “I was terrified!!”

“Give my license,” he casually replied, smiling, and stuck out his arm.

This is sooooo not the time, Paul……

Trying to not be distracted by my imprudent spouse, I focused my eyes on the road and scanned for anyone who could now do things to us in our open windows (we have been warned to keep windows up in crowded areas; on this day the sidewalks in this particular area were pretty vacant). I used my left hand to finger through the middle console in search of his license, first grabbing his work ID, then my license before finally finagling his. People behind him honked their horns because he had more room in front of him than I did.

Angry at him for scaring me and for foolishly making me do this in the middle of PNG, I darted my arm toward his, passed him the ID and put up my window before he had time to apologize.

I calmed down by the time we reached the dealer but that didn’t stop me from sternly warning Paul, “Don’t ever do that again.”

He apologized and that was that.

On our way home from the dealer this afternoon we encountered a bit of traffic on Waigani, one of the main roads through town. I was again driving our vehicle while Paul followed in our friend’s. Paul called me (he really doesn’t seem to understand how much I do not want to talk to anyone while I am driving). Because I wasn’t exactly moving, I answered. He told me that he had just done a test drive with a dealer representative, that a previously under construction road was again open to the public and that the lack of traffic meant that we would easily be able to bypass the upcoming intersection and get home quicker.

I broke my own rule while again sitting in traffic to confirm the route and then made my way onto the side road. At the end of the road, third-world confusion set in. Let’s see if you can picture the scene.

We drive on the left side of the road here, so picture a line of cars in the leftmost lane, followed by a line of cars approaching from the right lane. As I near the intersection, my road ends and joins another much busier road at a T. While the cars on the street ahead of me quickly move in opposite directions, some are also filing one by one into the oncoming traffic to my right.

So I have my lane on the left side of the road and oncoming traffic to my right. The next thing I know, I have a couple big, bad, tank SUVs driving up onto the sidewalk to my left, coming at me from my left and then merging their way across my lane, one squeezing between my vehicle and the one to my front. Sure! I will just sit here praying you don’t scrape my car with your awesome dog caged SUV. Why not? It’s not like I’m going anywhere at the moment.

A sign to my right indicated that only one lane was open ahead. While other Land Rover and Land Cruiser vehicles decided to push straight ahead onto the sidewalk four or so inches above ground, I didn’t want to put my Kia up to the challenge unless absolutely necessary so I waited for an opening and then I moved into the lane to my right and indicated my intent to turn to the right, across one lane of traffic. Let’s just say that nobody else in the vicinity liked my idea. People from both directions wanted into the lane that I was now occupying. I pretty much held traffic and made everybody hate me. I was going to cause accidents. I should have caused accidents.

Luckily, I used my confused white girl status to my advantage and some very nice local men in a construction truck guided me to what I thought would be my new lane. Not so. I found myself upon layers of gravel, above street level, approaching another intersection that had one street leading off to the left, oncoming traffic approaching to my right and absolutely no lane for people in my direction. I was literally faced with two directions and neither was the way I needed to go. I sat there for a moment trying to figure out what I was supposed to do, totally forcing vehicles behind me to sit while I pondered my options and my sanity.

I made the van driver behind me very angry. All I could think to do was get out of the way so I moved forward, carefully sloped back down to the road and made the left turn. I did not feel comfortable pulling to the side of the road so I drove ahead, made another left and pulled to the curb. Paul saw me, obviously figured I was in distress and a few seconds later pulled behind me. I called him, half frantic.

“What am I supposed to be doing?”

“Sorry,” he replied. “There was no traffic when I was here a little while ago. We didn’t have to fight for a lane.”

We chatted for a minute, checked Google Maps for an alternate route and I quickly realized that we were an inclined plane wrapped helically around an axis. (If you don’t get the reference, Google it.)

“We need to make a U-turn and go back,” Paul advised once back on the phone. “Can you handle it?”

“Only if I don’t have to drive on any more sidewalks.”

“You’re going to have to drive on the sidewalk.”

Picture pursed lips, furrowed eyebrows and eyes that seem to say I do not like this.

“Fine.” There was no other way out. I was going to have to drive on a sidewalk. Again.

I followed Paul to the T intersection and decided to snap a few photos while I was not moving.

This is the gravel patch on which I drove. Picture that black SUV on the right as myself with about six cars stopped behind me.

This is me preparing to climb the curb.

Squeezing between pedestrians, who actually belong on the sidewalk, and the oncoming traffic, just hoping I don't do anything more stupid that what I am already doing.

Like a painful shot, my trauma only lasted a few seconds. I had actually driven the Kia upon a sidewalk last month when the road flooded so I knew the car could handle the terrain. I just didn’t want to do it. My Kia man handled that elevated curb on the second attempt and gracefully descended back upon the road as if I had never left it – O.K. that’s a lie. The car was completely wobbly for the next few kilometers – and I was definitely relieved once we vacated the area.

Life in the third world is definitely easier than it was when I first arrived last July but I don’t know that I will ever get used to driving on sidewalks. Then again, I never expected that I would be O.K. with a lot of things that are now part of my daily life. Such is life in the third world. 

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