Sunday, August 3, 2008

The South East Asian Microchip

The ubiquitous golden calf of this part of the world is the petrol engine. Really it's like the pinnacle of development and sophistication. People in possession of one are part of the upper tier of society over here, just a motorbike with a trailer translates to a livelihood for many people. And nothing about any trip is wasted. We've been transported in the back of pick up trucks, tuk tuks, buses and boats and not a single area of space in one of them wasn't put to use. In Kho Pha Ngan for example our pick up truck from the pier to our hotel stopped three or four times to pick up bird cages or electric fans or chickens from some local shopkeeper or farmer and stack them on our bags or us and transport them down the road. Well we're making the trip anyway, they're thinking, I'm sure, we might as well make as much money as possible. What do you mean the people who agreed to pay us to take them somewhere might not fancy driving miles out of the way or being lumbered with random bric-a-brac?

The thing is though, it's so ingrained in the culture over here that it's completely normal to see vans filled to the brim with people thundering along with the back doors open, legs hanging out inches above the dirt road beneath, and every space between the people inside filled with boxes or tightly wrapped packages of black plastic and duct tape. And that's just the inside, of course the roof has a rack with more luggage and at least two people sitting there, their faces conspicuously devoid of the hey-look-no-hands expression that anyone in a situation as dangerous as that ought to wear. In Bangkok they have motorcycle taxis that people use to get to work. In eight lanes of traffic at rush hour I've seen a woman sitting, side saddle, on the back of one using both her hands to rummage through her handbag; find her compact and apply makeup with an infuriating calmness on her face. Why, I thought, isn't she freaking right out? But they don't care. Adam remarked to me in a taxi in that city a couple of weeks ago that even though the traffic is 100% insane while still managing to be more sane than the people driving in it, we hadn't seen a car with any dents in it. I presumed he was implying that they mustn't have that many accidents to which my response was 'You know why? cos if anyone has an accident on these roads at this speed it's goodnight Irene.' There wouldn't be anything left to be dented.

Even on the islands the long tail taxi boats all have huge exposed petrol engines powering what looks like a table fan on a pole. I swear to God they'd put petrol engines on toothbrushes if they could.

Still this thought was in my head waiting to be kicked into life and that kick came in the form of the buzzing and weirdly magnetic city of Saigon (I hate calling it Ho Chi Minh city). I have NEVER seen more vehicles in one place moving. The ratio of scooters and bikes to cars is about 1000:1 and they roar and beep their way around the city like torrents of water gushing from a burst dam. If a car or pick-up stops on the road they flow around it, every space is filled just as it's created with a trickle of scooter traffic. Crossing the road became, after the initial terror, a bit like a game. You just have to walk out into it maintaining pace and trust them to judge your position and avoid you. My first attempt had a bit of a false start where I got separated from Adam who was laughing from the relative safety of the pavement opposite but a local who saw me dancing back and forth just slapped me on the elbow and walked out into it mumbling what I presume translated as 'come on, you coward'. Not a bother to her. After that one it was hard not to fall into paroxysms of laughter at the willful stupidity of walking onto one of those roads and hoping it would all work out.

Also no discussion on the transportation around this part of the world would be complete without a short diatribe on the proliferate misuse of the horn. We've had a six and a half and a twelve hour bus journey in the last week and for the duration of both the driver honked (though honk is too light a word for the aural rape that is perpetrated on passengers by this demon device; the sound seems to be custom engineered to commit maximum damage to a human's well being) relentlessly. He leaned on it whenever he passed someone (and there are bikes everywhere so he's always passing someone), drove along a bend or saw someone he wanted to show off his horn to. The short video above is just a snapshot, a single minute and is representative of the whole trip. Not to sound reactionary but I still HATE the driver of that bus.

The tiny little beds we had in a train from Saigon to Nha Thrang from where I'm tapping out this post, wounded and hungover, unable to walk properly and still reeling from a triple dose of mugging. Tune in next time to find out what I'm talking about.

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