Sunday, August 9, 2009

crazy rides

Mounting on the back of a moto taxi you are not only trusting your safe arrival to this single driver, but to the thousands of others who will criss cross your path enroute. Cheap motorcycles have taken over the roads of Cotonou, providing the most convenient way to move around the city. You would be hard pressed to find a traditional car taxi- they have all taken on set routes as shared taxis (a car for 4 passengers, magically holds 6).

The moto taxi drivers are distinguished by their yellow shirts, and swarm the streets of Cotonou before day break and speed on into the evening hours (though prices are of course higher). Locally known as zemi-johns, these taxi motos along with thousands of private motos determine the flow of traffic. At a red light they fill up every gap between cars, and rev their engines as the light turns green- all instantly taking off at the same moment, and trusting that the moto in front of them is taking off just as quickly.

But, there are only a few working traffic lights in Cotonou, which means that most intersections are a free for all. And, by the way, the traffic is heavy. Traffic flows down the main streets practically uninterrupted- so, intersecting streets have to work to make their way through the intersection. They wait (not very long) to build up enough mass, see a gap, and as one unit move into the intersection to open up their path.

There is a constant flow entering, circling, and exiting a roundabout, and there arent really regulated turns per say. Motos and cars come at you in practically every direction, all at varying speeds. And, just yesterday our moto taxis found a short cut to our destination by entering the roundabout in one of the exiting lanes. Brilliant.

Safety doesn't seem to be a huge concern. They speed, and even a promise to go slowly proves that their understanding of slow must be different then mine. Nobody wears a helmet, well, except for me and a handful of others. And, gasoline is sold on the curb side in glass jars and bottles of different sizes. The moto pulls up, the attendant places a 'filter' over the gas tank, and pours a bottle or two of gas into the tank, swirling the bottle as it gurgles down. The government has tried to shut these rudimentary curb side gas stations down, but with such high demand, regular gas stations charging an inflated price, and no real way to enforce it, they persist on every street corner.

While I have had enough trouble (or rather, concern) about keeping myself balanced on the back of a moto with their abrupt stops in traffic and bounces when hitting a pothole, most balance much more than just themselves on a moto. Most often you will see a moto driver with a large piece of luggage wedged between himself and his handlebars, and the passenger behind (if a woman she likely has a baby strapped across her back). Ive seen complete families on a moto (2 adults and 3 children), often 3 adults share the moto, and once I even saw 5 adults on a single moto!

Among the items Ive seen transported on a moto, these stand out: a tray of pineapples balanced on the passengers head, a ladder (sideways), several 12 foot long pipes, a door, a full length mirror, a desk, a car bumper, 6 sacks of rice, 3 goats, 1 fridge, 2 fridges (!), 30 10-gallon jugs of gasoline (empty, thankfully). Ive got a good photo of that last one.


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