Tuesday, January 06, 2009

How would you like to cross this street?

The traffic in Sanming City, Fujian Province isn't as bad as the picture above, but it is no less challenging to cross.

Sanming City is a small, river city of about 500,000 people, give or take. The main streets are nice and wide and are flanked by good sized office buildings and apartments. Most street corners have a white iron fence projecting out about two feet from the curb. The fence is about 3 ½ or 4 feet high and it has an opening for people to step out into the cross walk, and it makes a sort of bike path so that bike riders don't use the sidewalk. Of course they use the sidewalks with great regularity. Car and small delivery truck drivers also use the sidewalk to pull up in front of stores and for parking. Motos, or as we know them mopeds, run up and down it as well, in the belief that the sidewalks are safer-true, for the drivers at least. And they think they will get to their destination quicker-debatable. Along with dodging these motorized terrors on the sidewalk , there are bikes, people and animals to contend with. The situation is compounded when it is time to cross the street.  

In America I look to the left before stepping into the street. In Thailand and other strangely British influenced places I look to the right; but here in Sanming I look everywhere. I check my left. I check my right. I check straight ahead, and right behind. No matter where I look it seems as if every contraption and person in a three block radius is moving in my direction.  

There are tri-wheeled bikes pushed along by tiny, silver-haired matrons. Their bikes' baskets haul fruits and veggies, or the delicious candy like snack made by the Urgur people, of Western China. It is like Snickers with out the chocolate. Moto cabbies sit off to sides of the street crossings, smoking cigarettes, ready to speed a body, or a package deep into the bowels of this river town. When they see me they shout out the three or so English words and phrases they know: “Hello”, “Hey You”, and “Very Good.” Invariability the men's “Very Good” becomes garbled as they excitingly shout, trying to get my attention. Soon it sounds as if they are shouting “Betty Goose” Before too long, they all seem to be shouting, “Hey You. Betty Goose. Betty Goose.” All the while they are waving at me, or motioning me over. Meanwhile old women walk along the streets; their faces shielded by weathered, conical hats, their backs bent under the harden bamboo carrier, brown hand woven baskets dangle from both ends; they are overflowing with chickens and ducks, or fresh eggs and swamp spinach. Beggars, kowtow on the flithy corners, pleading for money in the local dialect. They switch to sub-standard Mandarin when I pass by. The beggars' pleas are lost as hawkers conjole passers-by to buy fresh pineapple on a stick, or some cheap toy, or paper thin polyester socks.  

I do my best to acknowledge every person, but at the same time politely avoid them, as I make ready to cross the street. For I have learned that I must check all directions, as often as possible. The situation, events, my standing in the crosswalk changes micro-second to micro-second.  

Just when the way appears secure a pedi-cab comes ripping by and almost takes out a businessman stepping out into the cross walk next to me. He is trying to get home for lunch. A quick check to see if more pedi-cabs are coming finds a moto coming the wrong way down the bike path. Turning to the left there is a green taxi cab doing a rolling stop at the corner trying to catch a break in the on-coming traffic. The on-coming traffic is passing a young woman pedaling a tri-wheel basket bike. It is piled high with yellow apples, red grapes, and the brownish bitter fruit that is so beloved here. First to pass the lady is one of the city's big orange public buses, overflowing with school kids, going home for the noon hour rest. Then a black Volkswagen-very popular in this part of China-is passing the bus and finally a lone moto driver is attempting to out flank both the car and the bus. All three vehicles have gone into the other lane of traffic and completely filled it up. All the while every horn in every vehicle is being blasted. Some are blasting a warning, while others signify some body, or some vehicle needs to move to the side. A few of the horn blasts are coming from cabbies trying to get the attention of pedestrians laden with packages, or that of walkers who seem to have the air of impatience.
I have discovered a trick to safily navigate the dangers of street cross; it is to walk with an escort. Not that kind. Rather I find someone going my way and walk next to them. If it is a small child or lady I try to walk so I am shielding them from the insanity which rules the roads here. I find it is most helpful to walk with a group, or along side one of the many three wheeled bicycles transversing the city streets.  

Behind the businessman is an old man, skinny and hunched over; he is pushing one of these contraptions, empty. So I fall in next to him and his bike. I study him as I scan the traffic. He looks like he is swimming in the blue Mao jacket. His face is creased and and a deep brown. His matching blue pants are rolled up to the ankles and sway like a dress in the small breeze. I am almost caught out, looking the opposite way checking traffic when he boldly pushes the bike into traffic. Doing this causes the on coming vehicles to slow down, swerve, or speed up to avoid him. We make it ½ way across plowing through on coming pedistrians, and swerving motos, while blithifully ignoring any vehicle with four or more wheels. The situation looks aces.

I begin to move hoping to cover the next half of the journey quickly but safely. However, I notice the old man hasn't moved. I quickly check to make sure a speeding vehicle of any sort is not barring down on me, or rather us. Then I see a bus begin to pull away from the curb, ½ a block up; he is waiting for it to pass. As the big orange monster rolls by, the man lunges forward and the bike's three wheels groan in unison. As the bike slowly moves into the lane of traffic, he pushes hard into the handle bars, trying to make it move faster. He looks sort of like a linebacker digging in and shouldering on against a tackle dummy. 

We are almost across and the bike is about to hit the access ramp unto the sidewalk, when two pedi-cabs on the sidewalk make ready to hit the ramp and spill out into the street. Additionally there are three moto cabbies, two are staring at me and the old man and one is finishing picking up a fare and making ready to blast down the ramp, heading Lord only know where. The moto driver guns it and almost hits a beggar lying face down on the sidewalk, who is mumbling thanks, or curses to all who pass. The old man next to me either doesn't see all this before him, doesn't care, or has a death wish, for he doesn't slow down. I think he digs in harder, pushing harder, moving forward faster. As we approach the sidewalk, I hear a faint, but clear ringing; it is coming from the bell on the bike's handle bars. The pedi-cab's stop, or rather due to the great effort it takes to get them moving, the operators cease all efforts and it appears that the they stop. The moto honks and speeds up, swerving the front tire left and right. It shoots out of the space between the pedi-cabs, and into the crosswalk; the driver turns hard to the left, pulls back on the throttle and scoots down the street and is quickly swallowed by the afternoon traffic. The old man and his bike split the space the moto shot out of moments before, scattering pedestrians before them as if they were seagulls on a beach/ubiquitously. He works the bike to the left, narrowly misses clipping the beggar's bowl. The old man maneuvers around the beggars outstretched hands, before hopping unto the seat and continuing his journey.  

I turn to the right ignoring the call for alms. I ignore the screeches of “Betty Goose” and “Hey You”; I ignore the slack-jaw stares, and the giggles and pointing. I ignore the moto driver staring so hard at me he almost hits a mother and the stroller she is pushing. I dodge the flying spit and the fresh, stinky pool. I swerve around the man holding a small child, whose legs are drifting open. The slit in the boy's pants begins to part and the stream of urine spurts out behind me, and splashes against a anemic, leafless tree. I just keep walking, crossing streets as they come.  

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