'Not From Here,' stories by Nathan Deuel

Did I see a man die this morning?

Tuwaiq Escarpment on Makkah Road, South of Riyadh

West of Riyadh, Mecca Road. (Image via Wikipedia)

Traffic in Saudi Arabia: After every white-knuckled trip here, I was such a raging, quaking mess that I finally gave up renting a car and took to using a driver.

This morning, heading east into Riyadh, I saw a bronze-colored Camry swerve on the west-bound service road. Trying to overtake slower traffic, he veered onto the soft shoulder but lost control. There was no guardrail, and I saw the vehicle slice into yellow sand and jackknife into the air. Kicking up a dense cloud of dust, the car flipped over once, the dark underbelly exposed, then flipped again. In a concussion of glass and metal, the Camry slammed to the asphalt, rocking on its roof in the middle of a four-lane freeway. Mecca Road. Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Traffic, World, , , ,

Saudi FAIL: Not dead, I was nonetheless hit by a car today

Riyadh - Mecca Highway

Zoom zoom along the Riyadh-Mecca highway. (Image by Bakar_88 via Flickr)

The sun glinted off oil-smeared asphalt. Winter’s already over, and the heat was building in the last morning minutes before the call to prayer would ring out across this city of several million.

I stood at one of Riyadh’s busiest intersections, half-way across Olaya Street. With cars blasting by to my rear, I checked the light ruling the traffic I’d need to cross. Sweat began to bead. I felt like a bug: All flesh and limbs and fluid, ready to pop against the unforgiving weight of a metal cleat.

No one walks here. Sidewalks are built beyond human scale, with foot-high drop offs at the curb. Driving isn’t much better: Women are banished from the wheel, so their 12-year-old sons take up the slack, with predictably dire results. With not much else to do, these boys drag race and hot rod and have perfected the dark art of drifting. For so many locals, disposable income is high enough that one can actually imagine — after an accident — abandoned BMWs, Mercedes, and even Rolls Royces, of which I’ve seen three gathering dust. New cars are easier than fixing old. The accident fatality rate is reported to be the highest in the world.

Thinking all this, surrounded by the sonic and visual whirr of traffic blasting by, I readied myself for the light to change. That flash of red would stop oncoming traffic — in theory. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Death, Homesick, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Traffic, World, ,

Saudi Arabia: The world's most dangerous place to drive

3301044-Private_Bus-Riyadh

Riyadh: Among the BMWs and Crown Victorias, a danger lurks

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 »

Filed under: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, The Review, Traffic, World, , , , ,