Monday, December 12, 2011

Driving Ms. Daisy, Crazy

Dear readers, while on my adventure to rejuvenate my rants, I would like to start off with a topic that is not only close to my heart, but also something I regularly experience, at least twice a day. I'd like you to note that it is a matter of anxiety for me and everyone I know.

On my 18th birthday, the one thing I had looked forward to the most was getting my driving license. My father promised that I would be allowed to take the test once he was satisfied with my driving and road sense. The first day he (almost) took me out for my first spin, I mucked it up because I forgot to release the handbrake. It was a '94 pickup truck and they have one of those handbrakes that you pull towards you from beneath the steering wheel. We never left the driveway because my dad just got out of the car, having only given me one chance to get the car out. Obviously, I had been driving for sometime already, but kept from my father's vast book of knowledge. I figured, even if I get nervous with my dad next to me (only the most intimidating person to know on the road), I'd still manage to at least get the damn car on the road. It's actually sadder that I have a vivid recollection of this moment 14 years later.

Eventually, it all worked out. A few days later, I mastered the art of handbrake release and convinced my dad that I am road-ready. Please keep in mind that he's a retired fighter pilot and doesn't take even the smallest mistakes very lightly. Lesson learnt, registered and administered. Only issue was that I had to keep someone with me at all times for the next ... years. The timeline wasn't predetermined; unlike an open airline ticket that you know has an expiry date. This limited liability statement came with a VERY open clause...

Moving on a few years, I'm in college and junior year somehow managed to stroll along. I managed to get my US driving license, partly thanks to a friend who lent me their car for the test. The lady taking the test (known for her lacking sense of humor) managed to compliment my parallel parking, saying that it's the best job she's seen in her 18 years of test taking. The kind of moment you wish your Dad was there to hear her say it. I passed the first time around with flying colors. I wish every test was like that.

My buddies insisted that I need a car, but not just any car. Mine had to stand out and still manage to fit into the budget extended to me by dad. The funny thing about this (and I digress) is that I was always taught the value of money, but never that I would always only be given enough not to buy the worst option, but also just below the amount needed for something decent. Catch 22. I was spending my time looking at Honda's and Toyota's, but the young college buck in me asked for something more powerful...something that I should be seen driving. 

I ended up with a 2.8 Audi A4 and with no regrets until my first visit to the friendly German-American mechanic, who didn't believe in discounts or shoddy work. Regardless, my solo driving career began and I made a sincere effort to obey traffic laws, learn how to be a polite, considerate and noise-free driver (horn and exhaust alike). 

Somehow, due to severe financial constraints, I had to rid myself of the white stallion. In all, I ended up sinking a lot more with this investment (or complete lack thereof) with bank charges, financial loss during sale and the copious amounts paid to my friendly German-American mechanic. Keep in mind that with all this money, time and effort, I have not been in a single collision, despite a few small fender scratches here and there.

Fast forward another few years and we end up in modern day Islamabad, Pakistan. It's 2011, the year politics has infused our vast youth with energy and vigor never before seen. Prices are higher than ever, there's a complete absence of assurance in our country's future as some fight with the US, some with the militants, some with banks and others with themselves. You would think with all this, we'd be more careful on the road and with our lives and try to use all the power we possess to preserve whatever little bit of humanity we have left.

But alas, as the title suggests, everyone on the road is Ms. Daisy's crazy cousin Sid, who is always running late for a medical emergency at the hospital across town due to a severe memory loss caused by the previous time he had to make the trip and ended up in a near fatal situation with another Sid-like person.

With a nice 'Chuck Norris-like roundhouse' we come to the foundation of my rant; what's up with the way people drive in Pakistan? Especially in the more civilized (questionable reference) cities I have lived in. While Karachi maintains the record for highest number of vehicles on the road, an obvious conclusion since they have the most fertile and sexually active people residing there, Lahore trails behind with a few million less, followed by Islamabad the Green City where I currently reside. Some say education is the foundation of a civilized society, but I've managed to find that even basic academic experience may not be the saving grace of the very rampant virus that is un-monitored driving. Even the traffic police is like "Fuck it". 

With scores of people pouring in from various cities around the country, so do driving habits, each of them unique and correct for their place of origin. For example, in Karachi, I learnt, red lights indicate 'GO', while green represent the opposite. Amazing you say? I say it's just another day in the city by the sea. Lahore is just a notch worse with fast-moving cars, bikes, vans and pedestrians everywhere. I mean, blind-spots aren't even a thing there...just a need for circular mirror's giving you a 270 degree view at all times. Islamabad is just that nice little town I grew up in that everyone around the country learnt about and decided to migrate to. Some 30 years later, it's a conflicted city with every language and corner pocket of Pakistan represented, each with their own terrible driving habits.

I write all this as I return from a quick road-trip during lunch time, where I managed to trail a traffic police officer in his police car as he senselessly steers into my lane from oncoming traffic, swerves back to the slow (left) lane and continues accelerating until he's well over 90 (i was over 80 in a 60 zone), switching lanes with no indication whatsoever. At first I thought he was chasing someone because his lights and siren were not on. Apparently they only put them on when they are driving slowly in the slow lane - dangerous and distracting, but a sheer lack in logic.
If the traffic police isn't watching the way they drive, how the hell are the rest of us supposed to manage? The next time I get pulled over for talking on my phone or not wearing a seat belt or speeding even, I'm going to rip the cop a new one. It really grinds my gears (no pun intended; credit to Peter from Family Guy during his one off appearance on Channel 5 News) when the guys who are supposed to be moderating the crazies on the road are the ones who crazies look to for inspiration!!

I learnt how to drive in Pakistan, took my experience to the US, where I got a license and an accolade, as well as a lot of very insightful traffic habits and rules. I bring them back to Pakistan, along with all the knowledge I went to 'acquire', thinking I am going to make this place better. Instead, my wife is now uncomfortable driving with me because it's unsavory the way I drive. ACK!

In trying to be the solution, I have slowly become part of the problem.Our ability to take the little good we have and turn it into a complete and utter mess is amazing. Driving is just one of those things...

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