Friday, March 31, 2006

On the Road

Drivers of Korea, you know little of the terror you so greatly inspire in the mild hearts of Canadian expats....

Our very first night in Korea, less than an hour after our arrival in fact, we found ourselves careening down a crowded multi-lane freeway at 130km/hr, in a minivan whose dashboard was alight with multiple electronic gadgets, including a GPS, and a device to hold a cell phone while the driver could talk, and numerous other blinking, beeping contraptions designed to make life easier, but instead succeeding in increasing distraction.

I've mentioned before the competitive, passionate nature of the Koreans. Nowhere is this more dangerously obvious than on their busy roads. BEWARE, if you have the audacity to cut someone off, you will most likely get an earful of profanity at the next red light (that is if you choose to stop, considering that traffic laws are open to a great deal of interpretation). Either that, or they will do their best to get the better of you by doing everything in their power to get back in front of you again, even if it means putting their lives and the lives of countless others in jeopardy, simply to get the "upper hand".

Last week, I took a bus to Costco. Buses are very near the top of the food chain on Korean roads (the top place is held by the blaring tow trucks that converge on the scenes of motor accidents within seconds in order to clear the roads of wrecked automobiles, so quickly that I imagine they cause enough car wrecks on the way to their destined accident that it creates a steady and successful business; they even hold a higher place in the hierarchy of the roads than do ambulances, fire trucks or police cars. A short time ago, I saw one of these trucks, sirens blaring, heading full speed in completely the wrong direction up an exit ramp onto a busy freeway). In any case, the bus drivers are paid by the number of circuits they run in a day, so stopping for passengers seems to be a damn nuisance - you're barely in the doors before they slam shut. More often than not, you'll find yourself thrown halfway down the aisle as the driver hits the gas, propelling you firmly into the lap of a poor unsuspecting grandmother or businessman, who are usually sound asleep... another peculiar trait of many Koreans seems to be their ability to knock out almost anywhere, even while standing on subway line #2, the busiest in all of Asia.

So here I was, on the way home from Costco (with my precious Raisin Bran and cheddar cheese...oh, how thrilled I was to make those fine purchases...such commodities...) when the bus, like buses so often do here, inevitably cut across several lanes of traffic to a fanfare of blaring horns and rising blood pressures. One of these cutoffs (cutoffees?...mmm...toffees...), unsatisfied with simply making his displeasure known through curses and honking, decided instead that he would cut off the bus (a brave manoeuvre for a mere mortal in a mid-sized sedan). The competition was fierce. Car pulled up next to Bus, where Car's driver gesticulated and screamed madly for a few moments before making his daring move. Pulling in front of Bus, which was not easy because Bus was not about to be cut off by something as lowly as Car, Car immediately slowed to a crawl on this busy freeway. After a few tense moments, Bus leaned on his horn with no sign of letting up. After maybe five or ten seconds of steady horn blaring, Car finally relented and began to move again. A few short moments later, Bus had to stop for one of those irritating passengers. Car, noticing this, came to an immediate halt in front of Bus. After the passenger had boarded, Bus prepared for blastoff, but, much to his chagrin, that damn sedan was still blocking the road. Again, he leaned on the horn. Car waited, waited, waited....finally, using some logic I am not familiar with, Car apparently decided Bus had been punished long enough, and took off with a screech of tires, boldly and unflinchingly cutting off another 5 lanes of traffic in the process.

All that, and I haven't even begun to tackle the taxis or manage the motorbikes. We'll save those stories for another day.


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