Thursday, October 06, 2005

White Woman Driving...

I'm driving. Not alot, and not alone, and not very far, but I'm driving. What's the big deal, you say? Ha!

I didn't have trouble
in Australia driving on the left side of the road (and right side of the car) because they have traffic laws . Not so in Ghana. I mean there are laws, but they are just for show. In Ghana, in ANY accident, the person who does the hitting is at fault- a good rule, on the face of it. Now think about who would hit whom if someone a) pulled in front of you at an intersection where you have a green light and they have a red one? or b) the person in front of you decides to merge into your lane while you still occupy it, but he's ahead of you, so you are the one who "hits" him? It's dicey I tell ya.

Taxis and tro-tros are the wild cards of driving here. An empty taxi will troll slowly along the street looking for a passenger or two, blocking traffic and generally driving badly as he looks around for customers. Once he has a fare, he does a 180 and becomes Speed Racer, laying on his horn the moment a light turns green, passing you on the shoulder, pulling out in front of you at intersections and changing lanes three or four times in each mile just in case the new lane moves faster. Two or three of every five cars on the road are taxis. Now tro-tros are a different kind of hazard. They are large vans- like 15 passenger commuter vans, but fitted out to hold more people. They are never less than 30 years old, belch black smoke, sway alarmingly when they change lanes, and are always full to the gills with hot, tired people trying to get to work or get home. (a "tro" is the small coin used to pay the fare) There are regular tro-tro stops and most have a 'conductor' who will wave his arm out the side door (often left precariously open for the trip) in a palm down calming motion as the tro-tro moves across three lanes of heavy traffic in less than a hundred feet to reach its stop. Once its passengers are loaded and any gear stored (this could be giant bags of yams, a live goat tied to the roof, or just ordinary piles of stuff), the tro-tro re-enters the traffic flow with little hesitation- remember, if he pulls out and you run into him, he wins.

In addition, other vehicles are just the beginning of the traffic hazards. This is a country of pedestrians, bikes, and free range livestock. You have to always be alert for random pedestrians darting across the road and goats, chickens, and cattle wandering the streets in search of yummy stuff to eat. Sometimes in herds, sometimes all by their lonesome. No matter when or where you drive, the possibility always exists that a motorbike will zoom past you in the space dividing you and oncoming traffic. It happens at least once a mile, so be prepared. :-)

Lane markings are just suggestions here. If traffic is heavy and your lane isn't moving (and you are a taxi or tro-tro) simply move to one side and blaze a new trail. Two lane roads often become highways in this manner- three lanes going one direction, one lane going the other, occasionally obstructed by someone trying out a fourth lane in that space. Once the taxis and tro-tros break ranks, expect the vehicles with diplomatic plates to follow close behind. These are usually giant LandCruisers with snorkels that have never seen anything less urban than the dirt road in front of their houses, driven at breakneck speed by people who consider their time much more important than the rest of us non-diplomats.

It's not total anarchy- there are stoplights at most of the major intersections, and they are, for the large part, obeyed when they are functioning- which is also most of the time. People generally stay in their own lane when they are traveling in the opposite direction. And many drivers are very courteous about letting you merge into heavy highway or roundabout traffic or on a tricky left turn in bumper to bumper conditions. There is a complicated set of courtesy signals- flash your headlights if you wish someone to let you turn in front of them, or flash your headlights if you will allow someone to make a turn in front of you. If someone does you a good deed and you end up in front of them because of it, turn on your hazards for a few seconds as a thank-you.

And never forget your horn. It's called "hooting" or "popping" here. Your horn is your #1 car accessory. You toot to warn pedestrians that you are driving up behind them (even if they aren't in the road), you toot to warn people not to pull in front of you, even if they show no signs of doing so. You toot at taxis and tro-tros because they are unpredictable and anyway, they are tooting at you. Make sure you watch the traffic signals so you can toot the instant it turns green, as a reminder to the less astute drivers in front of you. And toot the guards at every gate so they know to let you in (often without checking to see if you are supposed to be let in...).

So into this breach, I have driven. But only in a sissy kind of way. Ted drives everywhere, even at night, which on the surface doesn't sound so special until you remember that very few of the streets in Ghana are lit at night- light poles being rare and reserved for major thruways. He knows his way around town, knows all the pitfalls and dirty tricks, and at this point in time just plunges into the demolition derby without hesitation yelling "Look at me! I'm Ghanaian!" as he swerves and hoots and flashes his headlights.

I, on the other hand, practice on Saturdays when traffic is lighter, and Sundays, also known as "Obroni Practice Driving Day". You will never see as many white faces driving cars in Ghana as you do on Sundays. The relatively empty streets are busily cruised by pale nervous white-knuckled people intent on a specific destination. I flatter myself that I'm not that comical, because OPDD is a piece of cake with much of the taxi and tro-tro randomness removed, so I cruise along pretty confidently with my San Francisco, L.A., and Houston driving skills tucked firmly under my belt. One of these days, I'll have to venture out on a weekday though, maybe even at night. Look out Ghana!