We all descend on the intersection at seemingly unsafe speeds, some come in looking to intimidate the others into stopping, others hoping for a tiny window to safely pass through un-contested. All of us alert, looking around for police, listening for the whistle, that tiny sound from the side of the road that makes your heart drop.
The streets of Addis Ababa are much like that of many developing cities around the world, full of drivers who have recently obtained their drivers licenses driving on streets crowded with people, pedestrians unaware of the physics involved in stopping a three ton hunk of metal.
It all sounds treacherous, and if you have had the opportunity to navigate these streets for yourself you likely agree.
But I disagree, I think its beautiful music driving these roads. I know, sounds crazy, but before you refuse to get in the car with me for a drive across town, let me explain.
Traffic here is like water, it goes where it can, it fills the tiny cracks and gaps on the side of the road when things are backed up, and flows freely when there are no dams up ahead. When you step back and watch it, when you look at the way things flow and take note at how actually organized things really are, you see that it’s not the chaos that it appears to be, things work with incredible efficiency and smoothness.
I know, I know, you are not following, you likely rode in a van while visiting here or some place like this and were freaked out by how many near death experiences you came up against. Your heart was racing and the van felt like it was more of a coffin than a vehicle. I get that.
Bear with me for a second here, because I used to be in the same camp, I used to think that we almost died every time we went out for groceries. But then, after I simmered down, after I started to look at the faces of the drivers, I began to notice something. They are calm, they are collected, and yes your car might have just come inches from theirs, but they brushed it off and were willing to move on, it’s the only way things can happen around here in a country the size of Texas with nearly 90 million residents. We get close, we get comfortable rubbing shoulders in line, and when we drive we only need a few inches around the car to get through. There is just no other way.
Often when we come back to our parked car we find that it has been blocked in by several other cars. At times as many as four or five driverless vehicles have been parked behind ours. In America this would be time for a nuclear war, we are taught to get frustrated about these things… But here, we simple have signal to the parking guard that we want to leave, he makes a few calls and alerts the drivers of the need to move their cars. And like magic, within a minute the first of them starts to emerge and we begin a sort of puzzle dance.
One car moves forward allowing ours to scoot a few feet, another moves into the now unoccupied space in front of us and another performs a perfectly orchestrated 6 point turn opening up a small space behind it, one just large enough for us to slide through and out onto the street.
No drama, no frustration, only happy smiling people who were more than happy to cooperate and make room. We have to in a place with this many people, when this many share the same roads and parking spaces.
Call me crazy, but I like driving here, I like how it feels, I like how social it is, and I enjoy getting that close to other cars. It’s fun, and despite how it seems when you first arrive I think it’s actually pretty darn safe.
Yeah you might see a fender bender or two, but even those are not cause for a fight, you get out, you shake hands and figure out who caused it, that person pays a little for some paint and you both go on your way.