Cheating Death on Asian Highways

Traffic accidents are a key danger of expat life as we live in countries with hazardous roads and move around by car a lot. (Smug expats riding their bikes on the dedicated cycle-lanes of the Netherlands or Denmark can stop reading now.)

There are three startlingly clear moments in time when I thought that I (or someone I love) would be killed on the highway. I’m far enough removed to now have a sick fascination with these events, so let’s plunge in:

Bishkek in winter.

Zero visibility on the road from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Almaty, Kazakstan. On my first overseas trip as a new “development worker” I went along with whatever everyone else was doing. Everyone else decided that it was more convenient to fly in and out of Almaty, Kazakstan and drive to and from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: three and a half hours over a mountain pass in winter. Fair enough when we were all together and the road was visible. Maddeningly scary on a dark, snowy, very foggy night alone with the Kyrgyz chauffeur. As a former Soviet fighter pilot, he was touted as an exceptionally good driver. I can only guess that he was also highly skilled at “flying blind” and had every turn of that highway memorized, because I couldn’t see one foot ahead of the car in the snowstorm that we rocketed through. Today, I would have told him to turn back and have happily missed the flight. Then–young, childless, and on my first work-trip–I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep.

Wrong Indian state, but this sign should have been posted all along the "Grand Trunk Road."

Suicidal passing on the “Grand Trunk Road” within West Bengal, India. On another work trip a few years later, I found myself in West Bengal, India on a two-lane highway completely overloaded with colorful lorries, buses, and Tata Sumo SUVs. A significant fraction of these ill-mantained vehicles were driven by guys who considered it an assault on their manhood to either be passed or to not be continually passing others. I was in the car with my superior (whom, as a devout Christian, left his fate in God’s hands) and an ego-mad driver (whom, as a devout Hindu, probably also left his fate in Gods’ hands). As a Godless soul, I cowered in my seat as we played chicken with oncoming Ganesh-decorated, and heavily overloaded trucks.

This road in Zhuhai looks safe enough until you come across unmarked road-works at night.

Taut, chest-height metal cable across the highway in Zhuhai, China. I have Ma Siji (probably also Godless) to thank for saving my husband’s life. One dark night coming home from the factory, Driver Ma brought the car to a screeching halt. My husband, the workaholic he is, looked up after his computer flew to the floor of the car from the force of the stop. It was then, that he saw that laborers had secured a metal cable across the road at chest height. Seeing the VW Passat stop, one man casually walked out and lifted the cable high enough for the car to pass underneath; at the same moment a motorcycle whizzed by, the driver’s head just missing the now slightly elevated metal cable.

Stay safe. Miss your flight. Find a hotel for the night. Shower safe drivers with money and praise. If there is a seat belt, wear it. Drive defensively.

I thought it would be different (mis-anticipating destinations)

I once spoke to a woman who was moving to Layton, Utah from someplace in the east of America. She looked at the map, saw the giant lake (“The Great Salt Lake”) and thought that Layton would be delightful because it’s right there on the edge of that big lake.

The Great Salt Lake, is, as it sounds, a giant salt water lake. While it can be lovely from a distance and sunsets across it are startlingly beautiful, go anywhere near the shores and you are accosted by brine flies and the smell of dying brine shrimp. It is not a recreational lake. I still wonder what that woman thought when she finally arrived in Layton, Utah. I hope she took up skiing or mountain biking.

Both for the better and the worse, here are some of my own top wrong guesses:

For a moment, Europe was just as anticipated cow bells and all.

“Europe” is a muesli commercial. Before embarking on my youthful, cheap backpacking trip around Europe many years ago, I think my expectation was something like green hills, ancient cobbled villages, and young blond women with braids. Basically some muesli commercial I’d seen on TV. I did see plenty of “quaint” that trip, but I was also surprised to see that so much of Euopre is, like America, roads, big stores, and teenagers acting cool.

India: completely overwhelming

India is a romantic National Geographic spread. When I did the bigger, longer, even cheaper backpack around India, I thought, hey, maybe it will also be more like home than I anticipate, but with pretty saris and spicy food. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I have never been anywhere more different in all conceivable ways: showing your midriff is fine but don’t show your ankles or you’ll but called a slut on the street by a 10-year-old; take jam-packed, sweaty, smelly, buses and trains; haggle over everything until your head hurts and you’re afraid to go out again; look out from the never-ending bus ride at a countryside from 200 years ago; become terribly, terribly ill. Thirteen, mostly work-related trips later, I have learned to accept and enjoy India, but it is no less overwhelming and I know I will only ever understand it’s barest edges.

Perfect road in Zhuhai, China

China is an unknowable, frightening place. By the time I knew we were moving to China, I was relatively world-weary. I braced myself for the worst and was very surprised to find it easy. Hey, the taxi drivers use their meters! I can walk on the street as an individual woman and be left alone! I haven’t gotten ill from food! The roads are so wide and look ladies in straw hats are sweeping them! My expectations were so low, that I could only have been delighted (plus I moved to the relatively easy city of Zhuhai).

Australia is “Crocodile Dundee.” No. It’s almost exactly like Northern California (well at least the stretch from Sydney to Melbourne). Beautiful, dramatic coastline, wineries, laid back, beaches, etc.

Cambridge (UK) is just like college towns I know. To me, universities are open, welcoming places of learning. Fancy an afternoon using the library as a second office even though you’re not a student? Fine, no one cares. Wander wherever you like without question and lounge on the green lawns? Also fine and normal. Neither of these things are fine and normal in Cambridge and everyone cares very much if you try to do either of them. Colleges are guarded with big, imposing, wooden doors and stern porters. Don’t even think about asking to enter a library, well except the Wren Library and then only a few hours a day to see the original Winnie the Pooh book and you’d better be absolutely silent. And never, never walk on the college lawns, unless you want to be made to feel like a naughty child.

Bureaucracy and the bored Indian clerk

Two phones, office visitors, open notebooks, the possibility of tea (see the back corner), and still so very, very bored.  After watching this clerk stare into the middle-distance for quarter-hour or so, I snapped this picture while pretending to screw around with my camera.

He obviously needs a computer with an internet connection so that he can be more fruitfully non-productive like the rest of us.

Nearby stacks of files wait patiently for action. (Look closely and you can see the actual “red tape” that they’re bound with.)

Empire-building Englishmen

Roald Dahl (describing his sea voyage to East Africa to work for Shell) describes the “Empire-building breed of Englishman”:

“I had never before encountered that peculiar Empire-building breed of Englishman who spends his whole life working in distant corners of British territory.  Please do not forget that in the 1930s the British Empire was still very much the British Empire, and the men and women who kept it going were a race of people that most of you have never encountered and now you never will.  I consider myself very lucky to have caught a glimpse of this rare species while it still roamed the forests and foot-hills of the earth, for today it is totally extinct.  More English than the English, more Scottish than the Scots, they were the craziest bunch of humans I shall ever meet.  For one thing, they spoke a language of their own.  If they worked in East Africa, their sentences were sprinkled with Swahili words, and if they lived in India then all manner of dialects were intermingled.  As well as this, there was a whole vocabulary of much-used words that seemed to be universal among all these people.  An evening drink, for example, was always a sundowner.  A drink at any other time was a chota peg.  One’s wife was the memsahib. … Supper was tiffin and so and and so forth. The Empire-builders’ jargon would have filled a dictionary.  All in all, it was rather wonderful for me, a conventional young lad from the suburbs, to be thrust suddenly into the middle of this pack of sinewy sunburnt gophers and their bright bony little wives, and what I liked best of all about them was their eccentricities.

“It would seem that when the British live for years in a foul and sweaty climate among foreign people they maintain their sanity by allowing themselves to go slightly dotty.  They cultivate bizarre habits that would never be tolerated back home, whereas in far-away Africa or in Ceylon of in India or in the Federated Malay States they could do as they liked. …”

-From Roald Dahl’s autobiography, “Going Solo,” first published in 1986 and available here (US) and here (UK).

“Going Solo”: a delight from start to finish.  A book I was happy to stumble upon on a mildewed rack of books passed around by expats in Zhuhai, China.  Roald Dahl was himself a young expat or “third culture kid”, as a Norwegian raised in Britain who became fully British.