Walking In Traffic

December 8th, 2010

Hanoi Traffic

In Hanoi, there are millions of motor scooters in the streets and not so much traffic management.  You get across the busy thoroughfare by simply walking into it.  If you wait for an opening in traffic, often you would never be able to get across the street.  So the new skill I learned is to just walk into oncoming traffic…

I’m becoming way too comfortable traveling all over the world.  I’m on an excursion that began in Hanoi, Vietnam, and sends me to Paris and then Moscow in the space of three weeks. When I first traveled overseas, I remember that difficult and exciting time when you first have global encounters and it seems as though there is something new to learn every hour of every day.  But in my recent travels and global engagements, I had been feeling increasingly confident of my ability to navigate in different cultures, to manage both the logistics of getting around in places where I don’t know the language, for example, as well as to manage the emotion of being immersed in situations that are ambiguous and sometimes scary.  I learned to just walk into oncoming traffic.  And I felt good doing it.  I felt like I had mastered a new skill and with my new ability, I could afford to relax and daydream as I walked.  I wasn’t in danger.  I was untouchable.

Then I took a walk in Hanoi, about 1 kilometer, through bustling streets.  I was on my way to find a belt from a local mall (I thought I had packed everything) and as I walked, I noticed how chilly it was.  There was a cool breeze blowing off of Westlake where I was walking and I was a little underdressed.  The streets were generally narrow, but seemed to get more constricted when scooters and cars came zooming through at me, horns blaring (beeping horns are a way of life on the Hanoi motorways.  People just drive with their hands on the horn all the time).  There were vendors and kids and chickens and roosters all along the roads I walked (rarely was there a sidewalk) and there was all kinds of wet blotches in the road.  Not sure what they all were.  The air was full of exhaust and I started coughing a little.  As I walked the sun began to set and by the time I was halfway into the walk, it was dark.  The oncoming traffic became only oncoming bright lights and I was increasingly uneasy as I walked.  It was rush hour now and there was much more traffic on the road.  Suddenly, I was dodging bright-light-scooters and weird wet spots and horns constantly blaring, nervously looking in front of me and behind to make sure I wasn’t about to be swiped.  And all I can remember is the story I had heard from another visitor of a bloody accident he saw on the way in from the airport a few days earlier.

I got to the mall, got my belt and got back to my hotel.  But I realized that I was not safe and sound and in control in Hanoi.  It was scary and dangerous and just because I learned to walk into traffic arrogantly did not mean that I would not get hit by a scooter or car.  I was just lucky up to that point.

It’s not that confidence in new cultural contexts is necessarily bad.  It’s just that it’s hard to balance that confidence with the reality that when I am out of my home country, I am in a pretty precarious position.  Always.  I live in the illusion that it will all work out, an illusion that has a particularly American quality to it borne out the pervasive comfort with which I, as a U.S. citizen, experience on a regular basis.  My problem was just that I started to believe my own hype that I had this global thing down.  I’ll never have it all down.  I’ll just keep experiencing and learning and trying to remember with clarity how challenging it is to be present in the world.

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