There’s a saying in the Philippines that “if you can drive in Manila, you can drive anywhere.” Anywhere in the Philippines maybe. Manila has the worst traffic conditions in the country. There are simply way too many vehicles for the available road infrastructure. And the nightmare is compounded by the utter lack of discipline shown by everybody, but specially by the drivers.
Cars are parked illegally, further constricting the already narrow roads. Public utility vehicles stop in the middle of the road to pick up and let off passengers, and many times refuse to move forward even if the stoplight has turned green. Motorcycles dart in and out of traffic, drivers blithely assuming that the other cars will brake hard when they cut them off. Drivers think nothing of getting caught up in traffic in the center of intersections, even when the road ahead is obviously not moving. The resulting gridlock forces the drivers to drive on the opposite lane. And the pedestrians. They cross wherever they like, even just below footbridges. Authorities put up steel barriers to prevent jaywalking but pedestrians just climb over these.
But if you think that this is chaotic, try going to most cities in India.
Imagine the worst of Manila traffic conditions. Then add cows roaming on the street. And that quirky Indian habit of honking like crazy. Unlike in most of the world where blowing your horn for more than a split second will invite a display of the middle finger or worse, this is actually encouraged in India.
As you can see, they even politely say please.
During a trip in Lucknow, I was with a group of professionals in a minibus and the driver was just mental, trying to get us to a meeting on time. Vehicles were literally inches (or less) from each other but he was driving fast anyway. He kept weaving and cutting off the other cars, while us passengers were basically being thrown off our seats. The clincher was when we reached a congested bridge, and the guy simply went to the opposite lane and drove into oncoming traffic. Just like in the movies. While I had my eyes closed and prayed, the other Indians were just grinning. It’s a wonder that the bus didn’t even get a single scratch.
By the way, traffic in Dhaka, Bangladesh is as bad, but surprisingly drivers also manage to keep their dilapidated buses intact and dent free. Vietnam has a multitude of motorcycles, which gives the impression of chaos. But look closely and there is some sort of ballet choreography going on with all the driving and pedestrians crossing the roads. We didn’t see a single accident during a weekend there. Reader’s Digest named China as the most dangerous place to drive, what with a toxic mix of the American propensity to “play chicken” combined with the oriental compulsion to avoid losing face at all costs. But my few trips there were all smooth and accident free.
And then there is Cairo. Serendipity brought me and my wife to Megahed, who drives his own “tourist” car. He spoke decent English and was enthusiastically telling us all the sights along the road from the airport. So we hired him to bring us around the following day. At first we noticed that he was driving a bit too recklessly, like tailgating at more than 60 kph, but things got worse as the day went on. Megahed showed extreme impatience with slow drivers and even pedestrians, and tried to pass everyone else on the road. At least, in Manila and Lucknow, cars were inches apart, even in the most congested roads. In downtown Cairo, the cars sort of overlap, so overtaking means side mirrors will regularly scrape against another. Bumpers and fenders do what their names suggest they are for. Megahed’s driving style seemed to be the norm, turning the streets into a bump car playground. That was when we noticed that all cars in Cairo, without exception, had dents all over. Side mirrors were either badly scratched up or were barely hanging on.
Noticing that I kept moaning and whimpering in the back during the trip, Megahed repeatedly looked back (while the car was moving) trying to calm me down by saying alternately “Relax. Don’t worry. You are in Cairo. The last accident place in the world.” He probably doesn’t realize how much the last sentence scares me. Granted that he’s not a native English speaker, so what does he mean exactly? Are we about to meet the last accident of our lives, in Cairo?
Anyway, during the day trip to the pyramids and downtown Cairo, Megahed had five fender benders and even ran over one pedestrian while backing up. But what really amazed me is that every time cars bump into each other, the drivers scream what must be expletives at the other guy, and then go on their way. Megahed explained that as soon as one of the drivers apologizes, then everything is fine. In Manila, something like that happens and out come the guns.
Unfortunately, in the last accident we had, the other driver refused to apologize, resulting in fisticuffs and police. Here’s Megahed, about to tear the other guy’s head off.
By the way, on the trip back to the airport, obviously we hired another driver. This guy was a bit more careful, at first, but near the airport he got a call on his cellular phone. He then morphed into another driver from hell, blowing his horn continuously at the driver in front, who he probably found to be driving too slowly. Just before he let us off he deliberately crashed into the car in front, then jumped out. We thought he was going to strangle the other guy but he simply hurried to open the trunk to get our bags. He got our money then left immediately. The other driver? He took like 10 seconds before he got out of his car, looked at the bumper, shrugged, then drove away.
Manila drivers are wimps. Cairo drivers are the worst in the world.