My first encounter with traffic seemed extreme but I have since realized that it was quite calm as it was Friday and the quietest day in Kabul. I have tried to figure out how to describe the traffic in Kabul. I am sure words alone can not capture the experience. I doubt that even a video would give you a full idea because you need not just sights and sounds but also scents and feelings. With that said, I am going to do my best to convey some idea but as you read this imagine lots of dust and smells including diesel, livestock, and sometimes open sewers.
The first thing one must realize about Kabul is the state of the roads. The vast majority of them (even the ones that would be five or six lanes in the United States) are mostly dirt and they are far from smooth. Often there are trenches cut into the street, large potholes (craters might be more accurate), and security barricades scattered about the road. I have no idea how one keeps tires from being constantly flat. Even on the roads that are paved there are seldom lane markings and I suspect that they would be ignored even if they were there. Niceties such as signs warning that a road will narrow, traffic signals, and other such niceties are generally absent.
On the roads you find a mix of automobiles. Toyotas being the most common make and Corolla wagons probably being the modal category of cars. Many of the cars are well over a decade old. The newer automobiles are often SUVs belonging to some government or NGO. Buses and vans carrying many more people than their official occupancy load are also common. Often you see men standing in the open doorway of the van/bus. You also see people perched atop the cabs of trucks and pickups. Decoration adds to the kaleidoscope as larger vehicles often have scarves tied on mirrors like giant tassles and dashboards are frequently adorned with rugs, furs, and/or artificial flowers.
To this mix, sprinkle in green Afghan police pickups and international troop automobiles, the occasional military convoy, and dump and tanker trunks that are elaborately decorated with murals and mosaics of metal. To add to the confusion some of the automobiles have a left driver position and some have a right driver position. So that doesn’t sound like such a strange mix — but wait that’s not all.
Along the major roads and on the less busy streets, you will find far more than automobiles. The mix of four-wheeled autos is supplemented with motorcycles many of which have cabs built so that they can haul larger loads or several passengers. Even motorcycles that are not altered in this way, will often have three or even four riders. You also see bicycles with riders balancing a variety of loads – some quite large..
That is still not all. Traffic also includes people on foot either pushing or pulling carts. Many of these look as if they could easily be used in a movie set in the middle ages. The carts are generally loaded with produce, wood, or other items for sale. Sometimes you will see a cart being pulled by a horse, mule, or donkey. Less often you see buggies for passengers that are pulled by animals. There is one of these that I see near campus where the horse and cart are so decorated with tassels that you would think it was on its way to a parade.
Still more confusion is added by the various pedestrians — beggars many missing limbs and on homemade wheelchair substitutes (the beggars range from young children to old men and women), people trying to sell you things when traffic comes to a stand still, people walking from one place to another in a wide variety of dress including burqas,children playing, boys flying kites in median strips and along side the road. Last but certainly not least are the animals – stray dogs and herds of goat and fat bottom sheep. Finally, along the edges of the roads are carts selling a wide variety of goods (cheese, naan, produce, and much more).
So you have quite the visual feast that does not stand still and does not move in an orderly pattern. Instead traffic seems to be a giant game of chicken where you move anyplace that you can fit or muscle your way into. One thing moves in a head on collision course with another until someone loses the nerve and swerves out of the way. This battle of wills is accompanied my much honking and enthusiastic verbalizations. On the roundabouts, people go in both directions. Sometimes one direction of traffic will completely take over and stop traffic in the opposite direction. Sometimes the tangle becomes so complex that blocks of traffic are stopped until people at the edges start backing out of the way and things can be untangled. Last weekend I spent over 30 minutes in a van stuck in such a tangle without the van moving even one inch.
Then of course there are the security checkpoints and men with guns to add an entirely different element. I won’t have the opportunity to drive while here and for that I am very grateful. As a passenger, I find the experience oddly exhilarating much of the time (kind of like rollercoasters for most people) and terrifying at other times.