Here in Lebanon, you are a pilot, not a driver. Driving is crazy, you have to be 100% all the time, no exceptions, no questions asked. In Zahle where we live, there are no lanes, no traffic lights, very few street signs, minimal traffic police and huge potholes. There seems to be two speeds, way too fast or way too slow. It is commonplace to see people going anywhere from 10 to 100 miles per hour on the “highway” that we live on. Not only that, but when you pull out, you better check both ways because people often go the wrong way, albeit slowly, if they find it more convenient for themselves. Speed bumps are plentiful and never painted, I can’t fathom the reason why this is the case. It seems that people here have a very strong memory for bumps, cracks and potholes the size of craters (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit,) don’t even get me started on the roundabouts.
It is not uncommon to see an entire family on a scooter. The other day we saw a man, woman, young child, and infant packed onto a scooter big enough for one, maybe two people cruising down the highway in light rain and 40 degree weather. Seeing three guys packed onto a motorcycle is both hilarious and more common than you might think. I regretfully haven’t managed to capture a photo of this phenomenon yet, but stay tuned, the time will come. Trucks are often in poor repair and spewing huge plumes of diesel smoke behind them. Then of course there are the Mercedes semi trucks from who knows how long ago, the 70s or maybe even 60s? These trucks are massive, they remind me more of tanks. They have a flat front, huge brush guards and tires that I can’t even see over from the seat of our little VW hatchback.
If you don’t use your horn every time you drive, you are doing it wrong. There is a honk for everything here: get out of the way, your going to0 slow or too fast, make sure you see me, your lights are off, give a signal man (although nobody does), you have a flat tire, crash imminent and a diversity of other meanings. It was very overwhelming at first, but once I started using my horn and getting used to it, it seems only natural.
Driving to Beirut can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours, depending on traffic. Jessika’s brother made it in less than 45 once, but I was holding on to the ‘oh-shit’ handle in the back of her sisters’ Mercedes the whole way. We have to pass through two military checkpoints during the journey. Occasionally the stops are backed up because they are searching for someone, but most of the time you just have to roll down the window, turn off the music and give a simple ‘Marhaba’ (hello in Arabic.) You actually don’t even have to come to a complete stop, truth be told. It seems that they are much more likely to stop people in trucks.
All this being said, we really don’t’ have to drive very far. AUST where Jessika and I work is just 3 minutes from our apartment, and her parents’ house is just 5 minutes from there. You can drive from one end of Zahle to another in about 10 minutes, so although driving is crazy, we really don’t have to go very far. It feels like we are flying along, but we rarely actually exceed 50 miles an hour. Several days ago, Jessika decided to revoke my driving privileges for reasons unknown (or unapproved.) It seems today I’ve earned them back, mostly because I started teaching at ALLC (the American Lebanese Language Center) and she can’t possibly give me a ride because it’s during her workday. Pilot or passenger, let’s just say we always buckle up and never skip the morning coffee before we hit the road.