It took more than six months before I was comfortable to drive here. Traffic is terrifying, earning Saudi Arabia tops in the world among road fatalities per capita. People generally observe red lights but aside from gravity, there are no other rules. People turn left from the right hand side at eight-lane intersections; people pass on the right, sometimes popping up on sidewalks at 60 mph to do so; in Crown Victorias so common here, children roam free, unbelted, and I’ve even seen babies stored on dashboards. Oh, and because women can’t drive, it’s not at all atypical to see families resort to putting 10 year olds at the wheel. It’s insane.
So for some time last spring, I rode the bus. Yes, the bus. Owing to what I understand is a tacit agreement with authorities here, there is a fleet of 1970s Toyota minibuses that ply the main thoroughfares here. They don’t actually stop: You have to leap aboard and leap off, but the price is right: About 50 cents. As long as the drivers can keep them running, it seems, authorities let them do their thing.
As much joy as I took in riding among laborers and middle-managers I would otherwise never have met, I knew what I was doing was dangerous. The drivers are notoriously wanton, performing some of the most aggressive traffic maneuvers I’ve ever seen. There are no seat belts in these buses, and the steel bodywork is so old and worn out, I’ve seen cardboard replacing metal on some buses.
This morning I encountered what I’d all along feared. One of these buses was upside down, in the middle of a busy intersection. Where cars usually speed by, there was instead an explosion of glass, the sharp smell of fuel, and the angry twisting of metal. I didn’t see if there were injuries. I hope there weren’t.
All this is a prelude to sharing a piece I wrote about what it’s like to ride. Take a look — it was originally published in The Review — and wear your seat belt.
Riyadh wasn’t made for people on foot. The pavements are willy-nilly, with each business evidently responsible for its own frontage. In sandals one night en route to a bookstore, I scaled a three-foot precipice between two stretches of pavement at different heights and stepped through half a pane of plate glass, which broke in an explosion of glittering shards. For blocks, sweat blinding my vision, choking on exhaust, gingerly taking steps with glass in my foot, I wondered how my wife and I – how anybody, really – could ever make a life in such a harsh place. Read the rest of this entry »