Confessions of an expat – automotive madness

Too many cars in the world? Errm, yes, actually

There was a small black Toyota driving around Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, for a few months last year that was highly distinctive. From the back it looked perfectly normal. It was a bit dirty, but when you looked at the front you could see why no one had bothered to wash it lately.

It had been restyled. By a bus. You know: one of those smallish buses with pictures and slogans all over it that performs a public service. And owns the road. Took the front layer off the car in the middle of the automotive madhouse that is central Paramaribo. He did it so neatly that the front was all pushed up and he ripped the number plate off, but no one was hurt (traumatized, yes, but not physically harmed) and it still goes.

It’s a strange feeling driving a visibly damaged vehicle. People can’t help looking at it, and then at the driver, to see if he or she looks like the kind of maniac who could be expected to have crashes, or perhaps the sort of person who can afford to have them. So you get either a flash of pity and sympathy or a look that says “You had it coming to you. How dare you drive around in a nice, fairly new car, when I can’t afford one?”

This scrutiny happened every day down by the central market, where the traffic is always at a standstill and the pedestrians are as arrogant as the motorists. One of the many things I don’t understand is why, in some countries including this one, crossing zones for pedestrians are marked with white stripes for all to see, yet the person walking has no rights. When you step onto one, the traffic doesn’t stop and let you cross, so what is the point? It’s a waste of paint. And it results in people crossing the street wherever they like, because one place is no less dangerous than another.

Maybe in the distant past the painted crossings did have to be observed, but more and more people ignored them until the power of the steel box versus tender flesh and bones won the day and it became advisable to forget the whole thing. As it is, the crossings are at best unworkable and at worst misleading and hazardous.

That in turn creates antagonism between pedestrian and motorist, but along with the nervousness of many pedestrians comes, in others, a certain arrogance. There is a growing trend for people to walk in front of you and point at you in a way that combines recommending that you don’t kill them with commanding you to stop. Maybe they get it from the front seat passengers who do it when their macho driver is pushing his way into the traffic. It’s a dangerous environment when common sense and skill are challenged by battles of will and ego. You have to wonder about the mental state of some people out there. What it says to me is “Let me do this, because I’m not a rational person and you’ll have to be extra sensible to compensate.”

A prime example of this was the long-limbed, dreadlocked, carefree cyclist I saw going round in wobbly circles in the middle of the traffic in one of the very busiest areas. If someone knocks him off his bike, who gets in trouble?

To many people the car is a status symbol, and Suriname is no exception. Those of us who just want something of reasonable quality, comfortable and okay-looking are outnumbered by those who feel the need to have their ego boosted by a big vehicular statement.

On the other hand, the macho culture around here can make it a good idea to drive a bit of a beast. I have a friend, a 30-something Dutch girl, fair-haired and feminine but not glamorous, and she drives a big, black, diesel-engined pickup truck. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect a pest-controller to turn up in if you lived in the jungle.

And why does my friend drive this monster? Because she was tired of being pushed around on the roads by ugly, aggressive men. While a gentleman might treat a young lady in her cute car with courtesy, the sort of ape who has to prove his masculinity by driving in a tough manner just sees her as an easy target.

So she got this inappropriate pickup. It’s not even shiny and trimmed with chrome. It’s matt black with no frills. And it has tinted windows, so the morons can’t see who they’re dealing with. They just assume it’s someone like them, not to be messed with.

And the heavens opened, for it was the Long Rainy Season (there is also a short one) and a deluge descended onto the streets of Paramaribo, and guess what – they don’t have proper drains

The mean-looking pickup does have practical advantages, though. In a city where the roads are patchy at the best of times, all it takes is half an hour of rain and you’re driving through a river, and the macho pickup keeps you above it.


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