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Speed bumps of life

  • Teaser: Speed bumps are there to slow you down. They seem also to reflect many other impulses and reflect some of the pecularities of the human condition

Speed Bumps, the Hiccoughs of Life, Brazilian thieves and Police – Written in 2011 and much much worse now

The worst ones are those painted black that you don’t see in the dark. There is a nice large one like that not far outside Natal, heading toward the coastal tourist town of Pipa in the North East of Brazil. It is perfectly situated as you come over a hill, on the descentc and are speeding up as you leave town. The road is clear so there is nothing to slow down for -  except for this huge dark speed bump that suddenly rears itself from the tarmac.

Speed bumps have become the latest fetish of government planners and local vigilante groups everywhere, whether in Brazil, Mexico, Ghana or Tanzania. The logic of the positioning of some of them is baffling, either in blind spots on a road, with no signs or warning, or when you are leaving a town, having already slowed down through the town and having navigated the three speed bumps before town, only to be met by another three as you leave. I understand the logic that one has to have one cover the whole of the road and not just half but 3 of them!  The dimensions of the speed bumps (called sleeping policeman in the U.K. - and thinking about it, it would be better if some of those African policemen lurking in the shadows and constantly stopping traffic for a bribe would be better employed if they did lie in the road) can be formidable, forcing cars to literally climb over them, one wheel at a time, lest the whole chassis collapses in shock, all the passengers being virtually disgorged from the vehicle every time a car attempts the ascent. Crossing Tanzania from Dar es Salaam in the East to Mbeya in the West, one must cross 150 or so speed bumps, three before and three after each town and then countless others sprawled across the road whenever someone thinks it’s a good idea. Going through a small part of Selou National Park, there was a couple of miles where every 50 yards or so, a massive speed bump made from compact dirt would be lazily sitting there, forcing all the trucks, cars and buses to virtually totally stop to a halt and then attempt to navigate the obstacle, looking like a person with really bad piles trying to climb over a fence. I figured they were doing their bit for the wild animals, in case any would be stupid enough to meander in front of careening buses but I am sure they are already aware of just how bad and mad most Tanzanian bus drivers are.

There is a logic to speed bumps. Sitting on a bus crossing Tanzania when the driver is trying to break the land speed record in between speed bumps only makes me wonder what it would be like if they weren’t there. All the buses leaving Dar in the morning, heading to Mbeya seem to be competing with one another to cross the country, perhaps hoping to pick up passengers first, but more likely just satisfying the macho yearning to be first. Our driver was a liability to life but no one was complaining. He was the King of the vehicle, The Big Man and it seemed people simply accepted the situation. A couple of times, when trying to overtake one of the countless trucks on the same road, he had to break viciously, sending the vehicle into a spasm and on the back seats, sending us into a virtual convulsion. Yes, my friend and I had two seats on the back row and when the driver chose to ignore the speed bumps, our bodies would leave the seat, our heads would hit the rack and then we would come to earth with a bang. The driver’s antics also made a poor vendor lose his whole goods as the bus lurched away from a pit stop before money could be parted, forcing the vendor to run after the bus, only for his goods to splay all over the road. Any pit stop was short and not sweet, with barely enough time to grab a bite to eat or to go to the toilet before the bus would begin to pull away, forcing passengers to run after it and jump on.

In Brazil, from Natal to Pipa, only about half the speed bumps were “official”. The others were put up by villagers who felt more were needed. True, the drivers were often mad and would hammer through small towns before the bumps but then again, speed bumps that cannot be seen until the last minute create their own problems.

It was 6 days after my arrival in Pipa and 2 weeks since arriving in Brazil that it happened. We had only been gone for about 90 minutes, walking over the cashew tree strewn dunes to a friend´s house. We walked into the house and as we went into the living room and then the bedroom, the reality hit us. We had been robbed. The side window in the bedroom was broken, the larger front window open and as we looked we realized that all our computers were gone. I stared at the suitcase where I had stashed all my belongings – passport, cash, cards, etc and it was lying on the floor, the side pocket zip open. I stuck my hand in there, just to see, and of course it was empty. I went back into the living room and realized my computer and Ipod were gone. My friend was repeating to himself, “No, no, I can´t believe it”. Strangely there were 3 bananas from the kitchen on the floor of the bedroom. Were the thieves also making fun of us on top of stealing everything they could get their hands onto, or were they half way through a snack when we came back a bit too early, forcing a sudden departure out of the window.

For some reason, my friend was confident we weren’t going to be robbed. They had lived there nearly four years and even though many others had been robbed in the area, they had been fine and they thought that as they were well-known in the community and had done a lot of pro bono work for various people, the word would be around that they should be left alone. But obviously others had different ideas and the fact that two other foreigners were staying with them probably whetted the thieve’s appetites. No doubt they had been staking us out and waiting for their chance. The house had been fairly carefully constructed to deter thieves, with bars on some windows and hard-wood shutters on the others, but in fact it was easy to break into. A quick thrust of a crowbar to separate the outer rim of wood that covers the cracks between the two hard wood doors on the window, another thrust and rip of the crowbar as it levered open the door, a quick break of a window pane and they were in. Thirty seconds perhaps. Another 5 minutes to case the place, grab a sheet off the bed and put all the stuff in, one minute to open up the larger window to escape, 30 seconds to eat a banana, if they could, and out they go. All that effort at security and for what?

In Brazil, a country known for its inequality of wealth and the sometimes violent attempts to redistribute it, what happened was nothing really. Just another wealthy house owner being disinvested of some personal belongings, and in this case, probably by a small group of local young guys, high on crack. It is known in Pipa that there is a small group responsible for many robberies but the police do nothing in particular about it. Pipa is a small town on the coast of Brazil, which has grown a lot in the last ten years, now catering for many Europeans escaping their winter and also Brazilians coming up to party from the south during the holidays. There are also quite a lot of bohemian types from South America and Europe who live here for part of the year, making some money in the tourism industry.

And then there are the local people, many of whom are quite poor - not that many of the bohemian and longer term residents have much money either - and so the temptation to rob is there. If there is no real deterrence - as in a serious attempt to stop it by the authorities, then it will continue. Apparently, even in the Lonely Planet Guide, it is not recommended to come here because of the amount of robberies, but as of now, little seems to be being done (2011).

Driving from Pipa to Natal - the nearest big city - takes about 1 ½ hours and is a journey of about eighty kilometres. You have to cross about fifty speed bumps to get there. I haven´t counted but maybe I will when I next have to take that formidable journey. Eighty kilometres is not far and having spent days on buses, this should be a breeze but somehow it seems to take forever, as if every speed bump exerts an emotional toll as the vehicle slows down, lumbers and staggers over the bump, like a drunk navigating a step (or a drunk with piles), all hesitant and wobbly, and then to enthusiastically speed up again only to be similarly curtailed, maybe a hundred meters further down the road. It is as if suddenly, people have figured out a way of doing something about the admittedly crazy driving of the Brazilians, not to mention the Ghanaians and Tanzanian bus drivers, and oh yes, Indian bus drivers, and so are now determined to reign them in, whether they need to or not. So, one speed bump after another and all of a different style and size, all with a vigilante zeal.

The perfect and most reasonable speed bump is one that makes the car slow down to a reasonable speed for the road, whether it is 20 or 50 kph and the car can cross fairly easily without jarring the passengers too much or the struts of the car. Those large, gently rolling ones are the ones I mean. They work. The worst are the ones are not necessarily that big but which rise vertically from the ground maybe 4-6 inches, are often made of stones and are very narrow. You have to virtually stop the cross them, one wheel at a time. As the car crosses, even fractionally too fast, the whole car vibrates and the struts scream in pain. In Ghana, one such improvised speed bump – many spontaneously appear in the morning, a local resident having decided it is needed – broke the axle of a Mercedes of the local head teacher of a school. I know because he told me as we crossed the very same bump. It was lethal. There are many other varieties. One I saw in Brazil was a rope that curls its way across the road like a snake. Most of them are somewhere in between the most reasonable gentle one and the speed bump from hell, making the car slow down too much, and in time damaging it no doubt, not to mention the physical and emotional toll on the driver. Of course, the logic is that a speed bump has to be big enough to slow traffic down. Otherwise it could be just a fun thing to do, to speed up and not down as one gets to the bump and whizz over it like a rally driver. But many are simply mad. There was one in Mexico, on a rutted dirt road, going up hill, where it would be hard to go very fast anyway, just before a very fancy house, which was made from bricks and was virtually impassable if you didn’t have a four by four. It was obviously a rich person’s statement of how he/she wanted any cars to pass their house.

Talking with my friends and other people living in Pipa about the thievery, I get the impression that in Brazil, or at least here, it is basically accepted that it will happen. It is part of the culture. People who have nice houses have elaborate security systems, including dogs, alarm systems, walls and full time guards. This is not Rio or Sao Paulo but small town Pipa but still this is accepted. If you do not one or all of the above, then really, what do you expect. It is really your fault. As far as the police are concerned – who by the way make around $500 a month in pay – you are rich and have options and if you don´t take care, so be it. There seems to be no great outcry in the community to do much about it, except from expat residents who obviously feel something should be done. We made police reports, were visited by both military police, machine guns at the ready and saying they already had suspects, and then the local police, all 4 turning up to ask questions and look around, but nothing else happened. Apparently they have to have direct evidence to go after someone, catch them in the act or find the goods on them, but it seems they aren’t about to go and search a suspect’s house or round them up and ask questions. Given the size of the town, it is probably clear to the police and many others who did it as it happens so often, but nothing seems to change. Perhaps unless the order comes from on high that something has to be done nothing will and apparently the Governor of the state thinks this place is just full of hippies anyway and doesn’t really care. It made me think that in India, for example, if local police wanted to find a thief they would simply go and get the suspects and if they were found with any evidence, would get an instant beating. Not that this kind of cavalier justice is good but it can be effective. Maybe the police here are more hamstrung by legitimate limits to their power – not that you would think that by the amount of dubious hits that are made by traffic police extracting fines for shaky traffic offences. We recently passed a police officer who had just stopped a driver and as we drove through, he waved his finger at us. My friend said he is going to write us a ticket and I wondered how as he hadn´t even stopped us and had nothing to write one for. But my friend turned around and went and spoke to the officer who said that the person in the backseat wasn’t wearing her seat belt, which was not true, and he couldn´t have seen one way or the other. So, after a couple of minutes of document checking he let us off. My friend said that if we had not stopped, he would have had a ticket issued and would have had to go to court to dispute it. The last time this happened, he did dispute it, had the fine cancelled and yet when going to register the car, found the fine still on the books and had to pay it there and then anyway, as they wouldn’t register the car and he wouldn´t be able to leave with the car without the registration! Maybe the number of speed bumps in a country reflect the level of bureaucracy and corruption there. Brazil and much of Africa definitely are near the top of both tables.

So, our confidence in the police being willing and able to help became somewhat limited. Five days after the robbery, we were speculating again about the route that the thieves could have taken. My friend had already found a phone SIM card packet that was in my bag on a path some ways from the house, heading into town so we knew they had to go toward there. So we deduced they would have left by the back and skirted down a hill before crossing a road to another path and from there, following it until reaching the other path. So he went scurrying along that path and looking into all the bushes on the way. By some extraordinary good fortune, he found the sheet and one bag and when he brought it back, I found my passport and other belongings in there. Unfortunately the money was gone but at least my passport, credit cards and other odds and sods were there. Amazing. The next day, we went back to check again and found another bag, in which was my money belt and lo and behold, there was even some cash in there that the thieves in their haste or exuberance of having made such a large heist, had overlooked. So, I was thankful for small mercies.

My friend called the police to let them know of the find a few days later and two officers came to the house to check it out. As my friend walked with them to check out the spot, the officers drew their guns and went ahead into the bush, as if the thieves were still going to be there 10 days later and then they promptly got lost. My friend had to show them the way back to the house, hoping the guns weren’t going to go off accidentally.

Many speed bumps look alike but the slightest difference in structure can make a big difference. There must be some mathematical formula for this, to determine the amount of effectiveness of discomfort caused by the width, depth, height and mass of a speed bump. I am sure traffic control experts and engineers have figured out how to do it right but most of the speed bumps I experience, especially in the so-called developing world are more irregular than this and tend in the main to be too effective.

I don´t know if any city or state has been sued for the damage done to cars by badly designed speed bumps but I imagine there is a case to be made. My friend just told me that he thinks there are 33 speed bumps going the old route from Pipa to Goianinha, seventeen kilometres away.

In Kenya, on the coastal road from Mombasa to the border of Tanzania, there are over 60 speed bumps, with more appearing all the time. A huge one appeared overnight near a small town called Kombani and which my friend didn’t see as it wasn’t painted white and wasn’t there the day before. He flew over it at about 70k and nearly destroyed his car. Kombani is a little chaotic in that African way - small Toyota and Nissan buses stopping randomly, pedestrians wandering across the road, trucks hurling by, but still, a little warning would be good.

In India, speed bumps are growing in frequency and given the number of near death experiences on Indian buses I am totally in favor of every one of them. But as with anything as beaurocratic as deciding where to put speed bumps, there is little logic involved. In South India there is a crazy town called Tiruvannamalai, famed for its famous Shiva temple and nearby mountain, Arunachala, where millions of devotees come every year to celebrate Dipam, when the top of the mountain is lit with clarified butter (ghee). Outside town on the main road to Bangalore, there is a peaceful sanctuary of the ashram of a famous Indian sage, Ramana Maharshi. That sanctuary is suddenly shattered as you leave the ashram and try and cross the fairly narrow road, to get to the chai shop on the other side. Buses hurtle down the road from the town center, air horns blasting furiously, determined not to slow down at all as they weave their way around pedestrians, rickshaws, bicyclists, cows and god knows what else. They seem to have the impression that the volume of the airhorns alone is enough to part the waves of humanity from their trajectory, and which, in world of survival of the fittest on Indian roads, actually works a lot of the time. There used to be speed bumps on this road, but they were taken up before the visit of Rajiv Gandhi one year and for some reason have not been restored. The bus lobby must be quite powerful. However, on the other side of town there are ample speed bumps, dutifully slowing cyclists and a few sputtering rickshaws to an even slower crawl. How I love India, not to mention Tanzania, Ghana and Brazil. Long live the speed bump.