sábado, 8 de septiembre de 2012

Following rules in Lebanon

I recently visited the United States, a land that I love dearly and one that I also equate to "the land of rules".

Those who know me well know that I am an avid rule follower, but the US takes rules to the extreme. From the moment you step out of the plane, directives are showered on you: where to stand, where to look, what to do, what not to do. Coming from Beirut, all the rules are at first overwhelming. But I must confess my jaw dropped when we came out from the airport to a wide highway full of lanes, with people driving one behind the other, under the speed limit, using their blinkers, letting us pass as we approached the exit... The Jounieh-Beirut highway I had driven (praying) the previous Saturday night seemed so far away!

As the days passed, I would look at some street signs and only smiled as I discussed with my husband how these rules could be applied in Lebanon.
My favorite example is the "no honking" signs, looking down at you from many street corners, and threatening violators with a $350 dollar fine. Can you only imagine if every time someone honked in Beirut, the government got $350? Lebanon could pay the national debt in a month! * 

Another thing that made us laugh was street crossing. We were patiently waiting for all cars to pass before we would dare even stepping down from the sidewalk. At one point we realized that all drivers had stopped, a long distance away from the crossing lines, looking at us patiently. And that's when we realized that drivers give priority to pedestrians! Can you imagine this in Beirut? 

Looking for a parking spot in an American city was an adventure. You see, there's all sorts of complex parking rules you need to know: resident parking, parking available at certain hours, places near the crossing where you can't park, water hydrants for firefighting you wouldn't even dream of parking in front of, handicap parking, sides of the street where you can't park for street cleaning... And those few spots left, you bet you have to pay the meter to park in them. Violating these rules is very expensive and often means your car is towed away. 
As we kept driving in circles, I imagined just pulling in one of those "forbidden places". In the end, the parking ticket in Beirut can be as low as 10,000 LL (around $7 dollars).  

I could go on and on about these little incidents. But what really impressed me was when I arrived back to Beirut (and parked on the sidewalk in front of my house- good habits quickly lost) and found out that there was a new smoking ban in restaurants and cafes. This is the new talk in town, and everyone has an opinion about the issue. Regardless of whether I agree with it or not, I have to say it is proven to be the first effective rule I have ever seen in Beirut. I think this is due to the fact that it has the essential two components of a rule: a consequence if broken, and someone to enforce it. If someone catches you smoking, it is $100 fine for you, but $1,000 for the restaurant. And if 2 people are smoking, it's $100 each, plus $2,000 for the restaurant, $3,000 for 3 people and so on and so forth. You bet the restaurant owners will make sure you will not smoke in their establishment!

So it seems like rule following is possible in Beirut. And even if I am not clear if this city will ever be an "orderly" place, I must say this ban is a breath of fresh air, literally.

* On a side note: a friend of mine just started a "Stop honking" group on Facebook. This group was created to give some ideas about how to stop this very bad habit in Beirut... or at least to provide a space to vent a little :)

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