Stories from Afar & Up Close

Of seatbelts and bumper cars

Wagentje rijden In a corner of the Corniche, behind a Chinese $1-store and an ice-cream vendor, is an old amusement park. It is a surreal place, especially at night, when lighting is sparse and the number of visitors low. The rides are old and rusty, clearly suffering from the perpetual spray of salty sea-water, some closed down indefinitely, little carts with paint chipping at the edges. The Ferris wheel is still going, even though it is said that one or two of its gondolas have come crushing down over the years – with or without passengers, nobody really knows the story. A little booth in the middle sells tickets – LL 2000 (€1) for a ride.

And then there are the bumper cars. A recent paint-job makes them shiny and attractive, but don’t be fooled: the seats have given up a long time ago, leaving strands of iron wire over a wooden board which will give you bruises with every bump. But despite the name of the attraction, the Lebanese youngsters who jumped on the little cars when they saw us getting in were not in it for the bumping. They drove like they do in regular traffic: speeding up, swerving around, coming close but never actually hitting the other. They didn’t understand my pleasure at racing straight at them, aiming for a head-on collision… I was having fun; they were practicing for the road.

Yesterday was the first day of Ramadan. It was also the first day that police-men were expected to enforce all the traffic rules: no talking on cell-phones while driving, those in the front seat have to wear a seatbelt, no double parking, and definitely no crossing a red light or driving against traffic. We were even warned at a checkpoint, the week before, that ‘from September 1st, we will fine you if we catch you doing one of these things’. People were speculating as to how this would work out. Would it really happen, Lebanese people sticking to the rules? What would the city look like, without the chaos of traffic?

botsen maar! I still recognized Hamra yesterday, with its stinking, honking collection of cars going up the main street. Yet the service-driver did ask me to put the seatbelt, profusely apologizing for the fact that he didn’t see the need but, you know, enforcement of the rules and all. I didn’t mind, although it wasn’t easy to pull down the belt that probably hadn’t been used in 30 years. Baby-steps towards a more organized Lebanon – I’d like to see where this is going.