The other day I had my first episode of street-crossing paralysis. I was going to the supermarket, crossing the street at the pedestrian crosswalk in front of the university, and I froze. I was standing in the middle of the street, on the line separating the two directions of traffic. Cars were speeding by on both sides of me. And I couldn’t go on. Fortunately, someone came along behind me and blithely walked out in front of the moving cars, which slowed to let her cross. I followed her across the three lanes of traffic to the other side, feeling rather foolish.
This is crossing the street in Ulaanbaatar. It’s also crossing the street in Cairo, or Addis Ababa, or any number of other cities I’ve lived in or visited. I’m just out of practice. It’s been a while. Emma chides me for being overly cautious. She’s perfectly happy stepping out in front of moving traffic, even at home in San Diego. But I’m having a hard time with it. I still go out of my way to cross at a traffic light if I am going in a certain direction (towards what will eventually be my bank). There are times when it is totally fine – like when there’s enough space between the cars to make it across the lane. Or when traffic is at a standstill and you can walk between stopped cars, or cars that are inching along. But there are also times when it seems impossible, like when the traffic is heavy enough for a steady stream of cars but light enough for them to be moving fast. It was like that when I froze.
Most of the streets I’ve been crossing so far have been main arteries through town, so they are pretty busy. There are two or three lanes of traffic in either direction, which means three or four lanes of cars each way, since the dotted lines marking the lanes are pretty much suggestions here. My strategy so far has been to cross with other people. If there’s no one there, I’ll pretend to check my phone or something until someone else comes along, and then I’ll go. If the traffic is light enough or slow enough, I’ll cross on my own, but sometimes I have to talk myself into it.
I know I’ll get used to this again. I think most drivers will slow down or stop, rather than hit a pedestrian. But on my first day here, the driver of the university van very nearly hit an old woman crossing in front of him, and it left an impression on me. As did learning that last year two MIU students were hit crossing the street in front of the university. It doesn’t seem worth it to me to risk death just to buy groceries or change money. And Emma, much as she thinks I’m being silly, is a big reason why I’m cautious. I want us both to live through this experience, preferably without serious injuries.