Friday, December 7, 2012

Right of way.

   Wild and crazy Domino's openings aren't the only interesting things happening these days.  I'm crossing my fingers as I say this, but I have yet to have a serious accident on my motorbike.  I commute through a dozen kilometers of the craziest traffic on planet Earth 8 or 9 times per week, and while, god help me, I've seen it all, I've managed to avoid anything worse than a quarter-sized patch of skin on my palm being torn off by the pavement.
   Minor accidents, though...well, those can happen any damn time.  Couple days ago, I was out doing an errand.  I've been lifting weights three times a week, and I find that a steady regimen of B-vitamins helps with my energy levels (teaching being a pretty tiring profession, too, amirite?) so I make sure to take some every day.  There's one particular pharmacy pretty close to home that has US-made capsules with every B-number you can think of, so that's where I go. B-1, 2, 5, 6, 10, 11, 12.  I have no idea what they all do, but hey.
   The pharmacy is on a small but fairly busy street--two lanes, as if that means anything in Viet Nam--and I'm always alert when I'm driving in this area.  Too many people, too much chaos.  Chickens and dogs, kids playing in the street, buses and minivans trying like hell not to smash the food-carts or street-sweepers.  Today is no different.  Checking my side mirror, I drift to the center of the road.  I slow down.  Bikes zip by on my right.  I click on my left-turn signal a good thirty feet from where I intend to turn.  I check the mirror again--clear.  As I'm turning in to park, there's a flash of motion.  Something slams into my left ankle.  I see a man and a motorbike flipping over ahead of me.  Sparks, as his bike skids.  Cursing.  Broken glass and plastic.
   I park.  My ankle's throbbing a bit, but seems ok--just a bruise and scrapes.  I check out the other guy, hauling his bike up.  He looks fine, but turns and blasts me a furious stare.  Marching over, he jabs a finger in my face and speaking Vietnamese far too rapidly for me to catch more than isolated words.  Motorbike.  Idiot.  Foreigner.
   It's easy to put on a hard face, and stare him in the eyes.  Foreigners are considered fair game in many ways--I've had people fake accidents to try and coerce me to pay out, had 2 helmets stolen, had someone try to snatch my phone, snatch my bike keys, snatch my wallet.  And I know, bone-deep, that I am not at fault in any way here.
   The guy--he can't be more than 22--keeps yelling.  By now, people are sauntering over.  A pair of middle-aged ladies in a clothing store next door (whom I had noticed before the accident, deep in conversation) perk up and begin speaking to the other driver.  The pharmacist is holding a bottle of iodine, looking hopeful.
   The guy gestures to his feet.  The white lines of superficial scrapes, no sign of blood.  He gestures at his bike.  Smashed mirror, scratched paint, otherwise fine.  He yells something about money.
    "He says you're a crappy driver," a guy says behind me.  Maybe forty-five, he's got a wispy little mustache, cheap cotton shorts, a cigarette, and a surprising command of English.
   "What the hell?" I say.  Not the wittiest reply, but heartfelt.  "He hit me."
   "He says you don't signal, man."
   "Bullshit."  I'm standing right by my bike, still idling.  I point at the turn signal, still blinking.  I point, and then with great deliberation stare at other driver as I turn the signal off and pocket my keys (like I said, I have had people try to snatch them before.  Keep your valuables out of sight in Viet Nam, people.  Even in nice neighborhoods.)  We lock eyes.
   "That's what he says."
   "He hit me.  On the left."  I point to the scrape marks on my left ankle.  "So that's on him."
   "The others say it your fault, too, man."
   "What others?"
   He points at the ladies, and some other people who have come from up the block.  I sneer.
   "They weren't watching.  And maybe they only say that because I'm the foreigner.  Vietnamese side with Vietnamese.  Maybe they wanna see the foreigner pay out."
   "Maybe.  Maybe.  Still," he says, and takes a long drag.  "Just pay him off.  Give him ten bucks.  He goes away."
   "What?  Fuck that."  I shake my head.  "I slowed down.  I signaled.  He tried to pass me on the left, going way too fast.  He was in the wrong lane, and Christ, he hit me.  I'm not paying."
   "They all say it your fault."  He shrugs.  "Where you from?"
   "California," I say.
   He brightens.  "Me too.  Lived in San Diego ten years."
   "Nice city."
   "Yeah."  He takes a meditative drag.  The other driver is playing to the crowd now, gesturing at me, the smashed mirror, the glass in the street.  "There no law in Viet Nam, man.  Just pay him ten bucks, and this all over."
   "Tell him no," I say.
   He jerks his chin at the other driver, who glares at me for a second.  The English-speaking guy says something in Vietnamese.  Again, I can barely catch the gist.  The foreigner says you hit him.  The other driver shakes his head vigorously, rattles something off.
   "He still says it your fault.  He wants money."
   "Is he going to fight if I don't pay?"
   "Nah.  All talk."
   "Then tell him something for me, will you?"
   He nods.
   "Tell him he needs to learn to fucking drive right."
   The guy smiles around his cigarette, fast and sly.  "You all talk, too."
   "Yep," I agree, and go in to the pharmacy.  I notice the other driver scowling.  I look at his feet.  I can see a tiny seepage of red on some of the scrapes.  I buy some iodine.  As I get on my bike, I lob it to the guy.  Startled, he catches it.
    I hear the older guy laugh as I drive off, and still, my heart is pumping fast and heavy, and my hands shake with adrenaline.

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