If you go out walking here you’ll likely be sharing the sidewalk with parked cars and pop-up businesses. You’ll often have to navigate around obstacles by stepping into the road while making sure another vehicle isn’t bearing down on you from behind. In my new neighbourhood motorcycles use the sidewalk as an extra traffic lane during rush hour. I wondered what happens to babies in strollers or small children, people with canes, crutches or walkers and then I realized I hadn’t seen any people in those categories out on the sidewalk. To be honest, there aren’t many people walking at all.
As for crossing the street? Crosswalks? You’re joking. There are lines on the road but unless you’re prepared to step into the moving traffic, no amount of praying, looking pleasant or downright menacing is going to make vehicles stop while you’re standing curbside.
Traffic lights? They’re few and far between and you have to understand how they operate at intersections. They change in a clockwise rotation during which you might have three longish opportunities to get yourself across to the island in the middle of a boulevard, take deep breaths, look both ways and get ready to face the traffic again. The problem with lights is that they don’t exist as far as motorcyclists are concerned so you are constantly shoulder checking as you scuttle to safety.
In frustration I took myself over to Vientiane Social, a local Facebook group, for any local secrets regarding crossing the street.
“Pray to your gods.” they exhorted.
“Close your eyes and hope for the best.” advised the fatalist.
“Strong nerve and hands held high in the air.” Now I feel like I’m being held hostage and what do I do with the bags of groceries?
“Try and cross with a Lao person.” Good advice but it appears I’m the only one in Vientiane trying to cross the street.
“If you see monks try to cross with them.” suggested one poster. Maybe I should carry a monk robe in my backpack as part of my road-crossing kit.
The pragmatist said, “I walk and they stop. They get the blame if they kill me.”
An evolutionist reminded me that as pedestrians we are at the bottom of the pecking order in Laos.
My favourite was this Zen-like interaction: “I asked my Lao language teacher why Laos drivers did not stop to let pedestrians cross. She asked me why cars should stop for pedestrians.”
In my new Vientiane neighbourhood, I live on the wrong side of what is likely the busiest street in town regardless of the time of day and it’s the wrong side because I have to cross it twice each day as I go to and from my teaching placement. There’s a traffic light but one direction seems to keep going regardless of what colour the light is. On my way to IFA the first day it took me 15 minutes to cross at that intersection despite all the suggestions garnered from my Facebook post. There had to be a solution.
I found it on the way back home. There’s a huge public school down the block on the IFA side of the street and the students get out about the same time I leave work. I was walking down the “wrong side” looking for a possible crossing point when I noticed colourful pennants near a crosswalk. As I drew closer I realized that the pennants were held by “flaggies”, older students whose role is to help other students cross the street when school is out. I joined the students who were waiting get to the other side and once the traffic had been halted I made my way across too. The “flaggies” tittered when they realized that I was not part of the student population but smiled graciously in response to my very grateful khobchais.
The next morning I strode up the busy street until I got opposite the school. I saw lots of students and parents helping their kids across the street but no sign of my “flaggies". Maybe they were afternoons only. I teamed up with a father and son group in order to get to work on time. And another day, when there was nobody trying to cross I summoned up the courage to step into the road and just go for it. The traffic stopped! Nonetheless, remembering that I had my “flaggies” to help me across the road at the end of the work-day was reassuring. And for a week that’s how it was.
But last Tuesday, they were nowhere to be seen when school was getting out and I haven’t seen them since. And I’ve lived to tell the story. Maybe it’s connected to confidence. The more comfortable you feel in a new environment, the easier it is to resolve the challenges. Cars will stop. Life is not a Stephen King novel.