Cars are a sign of affluence in most countries – some cars scream wealth, others suggest new riches, yet others imply upward mobility, while the bulk of the breed just point out that the owner can afford one instead of standing at a street corner for a taxi or worse have to travel by mass transport. You can travel from country to country and this basic theme doesn’t change. In most of Europe, the cars may be smaller but they follow the theme, in the US they are larger and in Japan they are smarter. But most of us buy one for the two advantages – transport from point A to B and onwards and the status it brings us.
Now my question is does status really matter anymore, particularly when you are trapped in one of the almost omnipresent traffic jams on Muscat’s roads? I used to smirk at my friends who drove in from the suburbs like Mabela and Seeb everyday through stop and go traffic down the Sultan Qaboos Highway. “I stay in Ruwi to take advantage of driving against the rush hour traffic” was a standard refrain. If any of them remember that, then they’ll be having a great laugh. Now it doesn’t matter whether I leave office in Al Khuwair at 6.30, an hour later or 2 hours earlier, I inevitably have to crawl through bumper to bumper traffic on the Qurum heights road or worse on the highway that winds it way through Wattayah and Wadi Adai. And the only entertainment I have is watching the other prisoners on the road, trapped in their gleaming chariots hauled by new age horsepower. I’ve even started carrying a bottle of water along with me for the ‘just in case’. If it gets any worse I may need an empty bottle too. The other day I even found a test car running into the yellow warning zone for its fuel and looking at the trip meter with its remaining range readout is a recipe for high blood pressure as it goes from 70km to 30 km in the three kilometres that you have crawled.
Of course the occupants of the other cars are now subjects to be analysed – “Is that his car or is he a driver?”, “where did he pick her up?”, “those kids should really be in the back and belted”. Of course too, most of us live in a shell surrounded by the force field of our belief that we are the only human beings among all these metal carapaces, until you lock eyes with a fellow sufferer.
I won’t even get into how unfair it is to us commuters that we have to suffer so, where a ten minute journey (remember the good old days in Muscat where everything was reachable in ten minutes?) has now become a 75 minute one and where you see the next stretch of road being dug up even before there is any sign of the previous being completed. I am actually looking forward to Ramadan with its usual ban on heavy traffic during certain hours and the shortened work day. I have colleagues who have become masters of the obstacle race, taking the small inside detours, cutting through petrol stations, cheating with a quick U-turn on a cross roads and cutting through parking lots to cut down their commute time to Wadi Kabir. As for me, I remain stuck in the hilariously named fast lane.
The Qurum heights road is no better as two lanes of traffic try to become one at Darsait, with the wedding proceeding because compliant lesser halves in the proper lane give way to the go-getters cutting in from the lane meant for Muttrah. It is hardly a Hobson’s choice as to which lane you should take – I try being rule-abiding and every single time I can feel road rage creep in as I count the number of smart alecks who pass me by and get ahead at the junction. So a ‘get-ahead’ pill is just what we need – choose to be the better half.
On these roads, status does not matter anymore – size does, aggressiveness does and so does the uncanny ability to go, in the manner of Captain Kirk and Tow Mater, where no gentle-car has gone before. It was something that defined the early morning commuter from Sharjah to Dubai prior to 2009. It defined my existence as a commuter in Mumbai and it is the canker that troubles car drivers from Bangkok to Los Angeles to Shanghai. Only in our case there is the hope that one day it will get better.