Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sheer raving terror

Note: I wrote this post on the 15th.

I rode a motorbike for the first time yesterday. I feel weak, and brave, and grateful; it took me an Alka-Seltzer, a hug, and 24 hours of quiet meditation to recover.

Dave and I picked up my bike on the major backpacker street, a place called Bui Vien. I was confident--here's where the years of playing Excite Bike as a kid pay off. And even if it was bad, Google Maps said that the distance from the bike rental place to Sean's apartment was only 6.5 kilometers. 10 minutes, it said, of driving.

It lied.

The unrelenting insanity of Saigon traffic is impossible to convey in words. I hinted at this in an earlier post, with my usual restraint and understatement, but let me just say the reality does not hit you until a wall of bikes surges across an intersection from five directions at once, with you in the middle.

Then the reality hits you again, and again, and again, because the next intersection is even worse. Old ladies walk with nun-like calm across a stretch of pavement that's probably seen more crashes than NASCAR. Dudes on 50cc bikes balance three tons of boxes and a monkey on the front of their scooters. A family of four ride on an ostensibly single-seat bike. Trucks pass so close you can check your shave in their rear-view mirror--the one inside the cab. Motorbikes cram 8 to a lane, even as a jumbo tour bus threads through. Breathing in rewards you with a delightful mixture of ozone, hydrocarbons, and powdered cement; sweat runs grey; mysterious chunks of stuff hit you in the eyes. Streets are narrow, and shops, stalls, and parked bikes reach into the gutters and beyond. Cracks and sink holes abound, and construction crews tear up the streets, carved up intersections, spill sand on the road.

After two minutes, sheer raving panic sets in. After twelve, you've become a creature of pure reflex; instinct has crowbarred your terrified consciousness away from control of your motor functions. After thirty, calm sets in. Ranks of angels sing, and guide you through an 18-inch gap between two city buses scarred and splattered with the remains of other, less fortunate bikers. Capering sprites tell you where to dodge, and when to break to avoid the deaf old man taking his afternoon constitutional in the middle of the road. It all seems easy--like a videogame, for real! If only I had a banana peel, it would be just like Mario Kart!

Once the adrenaline wears off--bike parked, helmet off, feeling restored to your extremities--after that, the real fear begins.

Dave, of course, assures me that he loves riding motorbikes. Better than a cup of coffee in the morning, he avers.

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