Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Not so fun with motos

Sometimes I’m reminded of just how fragile and precarious our lives are. Only earlier this month, we were all reminded of that in Haiti. Today my example is more local. I’m not particularly morbid, but sometimes when I’m riding my bike around Makala or taking a bush taxi, I think of how easily it could all be over so quickly, with a wrong twitch of the steering wheel or a careless driver just not seeing me. And we hear so many stories of motorcycle, car, and bus accidents here, that you can’t be oblivious to the realities of the road—it’s dangerous.

I got really lucky today. Let me just say I’m not seriously hurt, but I had my first moto accident and it’s left me more shaken and angry than anything else. I was leaving the MC2 on my bike, and coming down one of the major central roads in Makala. It’s Wednesday, market day, so even more people were out than usual. In spite of being a central road, this road is terrible—unpaved, sandy and rocky—and in effect it’s only a narrow path, a small portion of it, that’s passable. For those who’ve been here, it’s right in front of several bars, including my favorite, chez Jérémie. (NB: I was coming from work, not the bar.)

A moto was approaching me on the narrow path, and it was obvious there wasn’t enough room for both of us, so I moved to the right edge of the path and stopped, waiting for him to pick his route around me. I had no way of knowing which way he’d go around me—sticking to the right side of the road means nothing here. Apparently, his path of choice was right over me. I couldn’t believe it. I saw him coming closer and closer, certain he would change course or STOP, and somehow—I have no idea how—he didn’t. It happened fast enough that I couldn’t move in any direction, which wouldn’t have helped anyway, since I didn’t know which way he’d go. But it happened just slowly enough for me to realize, “I am about to get run over, he is gonna cut my body in two.” As soon as he hit me, I just started screaming. While he somehow didn’t see me, he heard me, and thankfully was able to stop shortly.

He knocked my bike over and me with it. My shoulder is twisted and hurting, but otherwise I’m ok. There are too many ways it could have been worse—if he’d been going any faster, if I would have fallen on a nearby rock… When I did get up I just couldn’t believe it. As soon as I was up, I could feel my shoulder and another twinge of anger, as it flashed through my mind that Dad had his shoulder messed up in an accident years ago, and it still bothers him sometimes today. The driver got off his moto. He must have been 15 years old. I think I shouted once, “How did you not see me?!” and then somehow I kept my calm. That’s rare for me here. But the crowd was increasing and I didn’t want to turn into any more of a spectacle. I was so mad and shaken that my right hand was trembling ridiculously, like my Grandpa’s used to, back and forth by what must have been two inches—I couldn’t stop it, just stared at it, watched it go. My left arm hurt too much to raise. More and more people were gathering around, picking up my bike, asking if I was ok. When I kept asking the driver, “How did you not see me?” he refused to answer, just looked away. What made me the angriest was his refusal to answer me. You can’t just run over people with your moto and walk away. (Or can you…) My voice was calm, but I asked him, literally, did he have his eyes closed? Even, “Mon frère, I know my skin is the same color as the sand, but how did you not see me?” People around me urged, “Pardonnez-lui,” Forgive him.
“No,” I replied, “He was wrong. He could have hurt someone.” I pointed to one of the small wide-eyed children looking on, “If it had been one of them, a child, you would have killed him.” Such accidents happen too often.

Finally, when I realized that my bike and I were mostly ok, and that there was nothing else I could do—including getting an explanation—I got out of there, fighting back tears of frustration behind my sunglasses. I got hit by a car once while riding my bike in DC and was hurt worse then, but I was angrier today. There is no penalty or punishment for someone who’s reckless. The boy didn’t have a license, which could have been revoked. As Thea reminded me afterward, if I would have gone to the police, they wouldn’t have done anything. I’ve seen what looks like 12-year-olds driving motos. As much as I’ve hated tickets in the past, it makes me grateful that the U.S. has a system to protect us from such carelessness. (I got a ticket once for riding my bicycle on a sidewalk! Pedestrians of DC, rest easy.) It bothers me that many seemed to shrug their shoulders, accept this as normal, and do nothing. It’s true that there are bigger things to worry about here—getting food on the table, keeping your family out of the hospital, paying for school. My inconvenience is limited to a sore shoulder, but it becomes clearer to me all the time why the average life expectancy here is 52 years old. I’m reminded that every day in good health is a day to appreciate—that nothing should be taken for granted. A few extra miles per hour, and it could have been much worse.

PS— Now one week later from when I wrote the above…

…and so I don’t get frantic e-mails from the parental generation of America. The parental generation here in Cameroon has been taking good care of me. My co-worker Adèle, the cashier at our bank, took me to the hospital, and although they’d run out of ibuprofen, they gave me some other anti-inflammatory for 20 american cents. Not bad. In addition to that, Adèle has proclaimed that she has a talent for massage. She does! And she uses it on me! So we bought some weird Chinese menthol balm product off a kid on the street, and she now regularly massages my shoulder, while I’m sitting behind the counter at the bank. Makes for some funny stares from the clients… but I’m used to that!

My co-workers had some thoughts about how the accident probably happened. A lot of the young moto-taxi drivers here are often drunk, or sniffing glues and drugs. It was market day, and so the bilbil, or local millet wine, was out in force, making for a lot of drunk people wandering around. It doesn’t make me feel any better about riding with the motos, I’ve been pretty skittish since last week. But it makes sense… why the driver didn’t see me, didn’t stop, just seemed unperturbed. I’ll get in some good walking in the coming months…

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