Nepali Times
Driven to distraction


I am profoundly sad to be leaving Nepal, not just because the people here must be among the friendliest in the world-and I have lived in many places-with climate and scenery to match, but because I have failed to solve the mystery of Nepali driving. This isn't about right and wrong ways in which to drive; but about different driving styles.

For the most part, as far in Kathmandu, people do not drive very fast and road rage is virtually unknown. Joining a stream of moving traffic from a side road without so much as looking at who may be approaching from the right is upsetting to conservative drivers like me, but people seem accustomed to it, and not much harm is done. I stop at a T-junction to see if a vehicle is already approaching and the vehicle behind me simply overtakes and merges with the stream of traffic without a care in the world.

The mystery that gives me any anxiety is the use of the right indicator. In countries where driving is on the left, the normal messages given by this sign are that one is about to turn right, to overtake a vehicle or to join a stream of traffic from a stationary position. These all have in common an indication that there will be a movement to the right. Yet here in Nepal the sign is also used to communicate that it is safe to overtake. Using the right indicator for this requires either a leap of faith or uncanny intuition about what is going through the mind of the driver in front, whether he is turning or moving right or merely signalling that the road ahead is clear.

Other idiosyncrasies of Nepali driving do not alarm me greatly. My dim memories of science lessons at school several decades ago remind me that "nature abhors a vacuum". The textbooks did not tell me that the same applies to motorcyclists in Nepal. If there is a space a motorcyclist first has to fill it; only then does the rider have to think that there might be a very good reason for the existence of that space (which does not include his presence in it). The classic example is when two four-wheeled vehicles slow down to pass each other in one of the capital's many delightful narrow lanes. The motorcyclist presumably sees this as a challenge that must be tackled and immediately fills the space beside the car in front and facing the oncoming car. Result: nobody can move at all until somebody concedes and time that the motorcyclist presumably thought he or she was gaining is actually lost by all concerned.

In the interests of making the streets a little less noisy, I decided that the only reason I would use my horn would be to avert danger. And to this end I have sounded my horn only once since July 2001, when I was overtaking a bus and the bus decided (obviously because the driver had not first consulted his mirror) to overtake something else.

In addition, I have no comprehension of that mysterious language Whistle, exclusive to traffic cops. If the cop is whistling, how do I know he is whistling at me and, if I am indeed the target, what is the cop trying to tell me. An abiding memory is of the fellow who sits in a little booth just off Lazimpat. Facing away from the traffic, he reads his newspaper; his dedication to self-enlightenment is commendable but I wonder what part of the news he is attempting to pass on when he whistles as he reads.

Horn Please

The horn is a multipurpose instrument. It can be used for the following:
. "I am behind your vehicle" (though you have a mirror to tell you that).
. "I am still behind you" (though you heard that the first time and several times since).
. "I am behind you pedestrians" (and, because I'm so important, you ought to get out of my way, even though there's no pavement beside this road).
. "I am approaching you on the other side of the road" (it's rather alarming that drivers think that others on an open road will hear them before they see them).
. "I am approaching a corner too fast."
. "The car in front of me has slowed down or stopped" (and sounding my horn will make it miraculously disappear).
. "The traffic lights have turned green."
. "Oh, there's my friend."
. "Oh, there's a very attractive person on the pavement."
. "I can see a pothole and I'd better warn it I'm coming."
. "I am a very important bus and I want everybody to recognise that fact."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)