Ah, the streets of Tana! Abuzz with colourful chaos, market stalls selling everything from home-grown vegetables and hand-made baking tins in every possible size, to technicolour portraits of the Virgin Mary. Hawkers shoulder their golden stacks of fresh baguettes in handwoven baskets, and commuters queue at stalls for coffee and hot fried moufgas and menakely. Rusty cream Renault 4’s cluster at street corners waiting for fares, crowded minibuses swing in and out of the traffic, drawing swarms of passengers at every stop. Painted carts stacked high with hay, mattresses or building materials, are hauled up the hills by improbably small and wiry men. Pairs of zebu, the long-horned Malagasy cattle, draw other carts, plodding untroubled through the melee of trucks, scooters and Land Cruisers which fills the streets at all hours of the day and night. Pedestrians throng between the roadside stalls and the weaving traffic. It is an utterly bewildering jumble of times and eras: shiny late-model 4×4’s rub hub-caps with wooden cart-wheels carved by hand. Early sunlight angles through the haze of exhaust fumes, turning everything soft and golden.
It’s all so charming until someone gets hurt. Or climbs on a small scooter and joins the fray – which first time round feels like exactly the same thing.
Two weeks into my time here, it was time for my own wheels. Working at different sites across the city (teaching, supervising students on practical) means a lot of travel, and public transport is slow, complicated and bound by the snail’s pace of continual gridlock. Scooters are the only thinkable solution. Our NGO keeps several for work use, and after a two-minute tutorial and a couple of practice turns in our driveway, and I was considered ready for the road: first trip, the Monday morning ride into university. Anri drew me a small map, and off I went.
I have a fairly high craziness threshold, but even to me this seemed a bit nuts. Driving on the right-hand side of the road for starters (we are after all a French colony), and everybody driving apparently everywhere at the same time, to boot. I’m happy to report however that two weeks on, I’m still alive and intact, and so is everyone else.
While the roads look like complete chaos, there are in fact some rules. First, there are the lanes. No matter how narrow the street, there are always at least 5. One visible carriageway in either direction, sometimes a third in the middle, which can be used for overtaking by whichever side gets there first. The margin on each side of the road is populated by pedestrians, hawkers, and men pulling carts – who may at any point swing into the vehicle-occupied part of the road and take their place in the traffic. Upon which any vehicle behind them may pull out to overtake – indicating, checking of blind spots and minding oncoming traffic all entirely optional. Buses do additional stops, lane changes and overtaking for the convenience of their passengers. On a scooter, you are free to find your own way between all the larger vehicles – slicing your travel time to a fraction, which is no small win. It’s less “right of way” than “possession is nine tenths of the law”, and very egalitarian in pecking order: the man on a bike feels the same right to the road as the fuel truck. Nobody will wait for you to take your turn, but once you’ve taken it, nobody will question your right to have done so (another principle: “She who hesitates is lost” – or at least, stranded on the side of the road unable to get back into the traffic for the foreseeable future). No-one gets upset or frustrated, and hooters are used simply to notify others of your presence.
Two weeks on, and I am utterly converted to scootering. Even on a mere 50cc’s (49 for official purposes, don’t ask me why), I can see the bike appeal: the freedom of the road, the sense of cheating fate (in the form of a purgatorial future spent in traffic), and the sheer fun of nipping in and out of lanes, dodging pedestrians and zebu horns, and zipping past stationary queues of larger vehicles. After the hours of my life logged in the Tana gridlock already, it’s like being able to fly.
Watch this space for the further adventures of Kate on Wheels. I always wanted to be a biker chick.