Adventures in War Zones and Disaster Areas for Journalists and Relief Workers

Category Archives: Indonesia

Driving in Four World Cities–Eyes Clenched Shut


City-of-Calgary-Skyline_thumb1I cannot remember the last time in Calgary that I used my car horn. I am not even sure that it works. I do know that if I did use the horn here it would be taken as a deadly insult worthy of gestures and incoherent rage.

This is in horn-less Calgary. Elsewhere, things are radically different.

One morning in Tirana Albania  I went to get into my hired car only to be told by the Albanian driver; "Sorry Mr Rick, car broken."

"Oh too bad. What’s the matter with it?"

"Horn broken Mr Rick."

And that was it, the vehicle was off the road until the horn could be fixed. So essential is the horn in Albanian traffic that you cannot, must not, drive without it. Just as bats navigate through a forest at night by bouncing a constant stream of ultrasonic pulses off objects as they fly, so too does the Albanian driver.

There’s no great technique to Albanian horn use, you start the vehicle and hit the horn, and keep hitting it, until it is time to turn off the engine again. This is done regardless of whether there are even any nearby vehicles or pedestrians.

Jakarta - Welcome CircleJakarta is similar although the Indonesian drivers speak a much more subtle horn language. A light tap of the button means, "Here I am, over here." a sharper double tap means, "I am passing you." rapid pulsing means, "Move over you cretin I have to get by."

In Kabul Afghanistan it is a little more complicated and I cannot claim to have figured it all out.

First off, as in Jakarta, no one ever looks to their left or right as they drive. You are responsible only for the vehicles you see in front of you. Anybody to your sides or behind is at peril unless they look out for you. So, tapping the horn when you see someone creeping closer to your side is a polite way of saying, "I am just a little bit in front of you so I have right of way and you better back off."

The horn is absolutely vital on the main route out of Afghanistan, the Jalalabad Highway. For  six months, several times a day, I drove back and forth over a 20 kilometre section of it.

There’s been a widely seen documentary of the Jalalabad. It’s that long car chase sequence in the second Matrix movie, the one where every third vehicle crashes or blows up and indiscriminate machine gun fire peppers everything.

That scene is exactly what travel on the Jalalabad Highway in Kabul is like.

Dusty Jalalabad road east -- typical driving conditionsThe traffic on the Jalalabad Road usually includes the following; Pakistani trucks carrying loads that can reach a tottering thirty feet, Milli Buses with people hanging off every conceivable handhold, tonga drivers squatting on their carts full of leaking human waste, lashing away at their arthritic horses, Afghan Generals pedaling Chinese bicycles, blacked out Land Cruisers rushing at near sonic speeds to a drug deal, every piece of NATO military equipment, and lets not forget herds of goats and sheep, packs of kids running across the road, and Kabul policemen sitting on kitchen chairs in the middle of intersections, chatting with passers-by, oblivious to the hurling traffic six inches on either side.

Without a horn to warn people off, to let them know I want to pass, or to part the bloody sheep herds, I would be immobile.

At night things are hellish which is why I simply stopped driving at night.

Like the drivers I encountered in East Africa there is a belief that overuse of headlights is bad for the car or soul or something so they are only turned on when the driver wants to see something. It really is frightening when out of the pitch blackness ahead of you a set of headlights springs on for a second, headed toward you on your side of the road, and then flicks off. If it is a drug dealer or a warlord the vehicle will have been fitted with up to three or four extra sets of lights you’d swear had once been laser intensity 747 landing lights, all permanently set on Hi-beam, and aimed at eye level

During the day the other essential for driving is a never bending arrogance. You never allow space to develop between you and the other vehicle. If you do then some bright yellow Corolla taxi packed with scowling faces will push in and unless you are quick another two or three will dive right in behind.

The same thing used to happen in Jakarta except there the drivers are more skilled. I’ve seen semi trailers force themselves into into a couple of car lengths of space at over a hundred klicks an hour. Indonesians don’t get nearly as worked up about tailgating as we do in Canada. They regularly ride with six inches of clearance from your back bumper.

At intersections in Kabul everything goes. There is no right of way. It is everybody for themselves. This leads to all sorts of interesting near misses, screaming tires, and of course horn honking. But you must not let up or you will never get through. As for pedestrians, well, they are on their own and safer for it too because they can pick their moments and edge through the ebbs and flows in relative safety.

If the traffic is blocked it is perfectly okay to swing out and drive down the wrong side of the road. You are under no obligation to get out of the way of oncoming traffic. It is a matter of nerves, the old game of highway chicken beloved of Hollywood 1950’s teen movies.

Frequently this personal lane building leads to gridlock. When all the traffic in one direction has spread to cover the whole road it brings all traffic to an utter standstill.

Personal lane building is a necessity on the Indonesian highways. The traffic density in Indonesia is so high that valuable space such as road shoulders cannot be allowed to go to waste, and neither can the space between lanes. On four lane divided highways, just about identical to the Trans Canada through Alberta, I have been in traffic screaming along at 120 klicks an hour spanning five lanes of vehicles where we would have just the two. It really is something to have a semi trailer six inches to the right, another six inches to the left, and one front and back at six inches.

Somehow it all works.