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Two Wheels Good

Shanghai: today's driver

Documenting a city or country from a car is a bit like doing human behavioural research without ever leaving a laboratory – there is worthy stuff you can learn but IMHO you’ll pretty soon reach the limitations of what’s interesting. Yeah I know, unless of course the focus of your research is car culture itself. But mostly getting out there requires removing the barriers between you and the world around you. What’s your excuse when a motorbike and local driver can be yours for as little as 5 Euro for half a day? And even if motorcycle taxi’s don’t exist in a city of your choice it is possible to engage regular motorbike drivers to engage in a bit of moonlighting.

So you think language an issue? Some of the most effective days spent researching from the back of a motorbike have been with a driver that doesn’t speak a word of English/German/Japanese and likewise me struggling to get my tongue around Farsi/Vietnamese/Chinese/Lugandan. What makes for a good research ride? A driver who is sufficiently aware of the passenger but ultimately knows exactly what he can get away with on the road/pavement/cattle path; a comfy passenger seat; plenty of cc’s; and ultimately someone who is not phased by requests to stop in wierd places; and ends up anticipating places and peoples of interest.

Pillion highlights from this past year?

Interviewing boda-boda (motorbike taxi) driver’s in Uganda for a study of shared mobile phone use, and on one occasion speeding through Kampala sitting Tour de France cameraman style i.e. the wrong way round on the passenger seat trying to get a good shot of a colleague Indri conducting an eventually very successful interview. Trust in your driver is a wonderful thing, especially when near misses are only witnessed after the miss and the only practical alternative is blind panic.

Being baled out of a sticky street situation by a motorbike driver in Tehran who knew just when to come and rescue me from over inquisitive officials. Watching Ho Chi Minh City wake and commute to work – Vietnam is after all still a 2-wheeled culture. The morning included a stop for a double condensed milk coffee and spending the next 30 minutes gripping and tripping.

And finally a day in the mountains of Fujian Province listening to tunes and staring contentedly at the back of a plant pot helmetted rider, who later introduced me to his favourite barber. The size of rock falls that were common in that part of the world would have wiped us out no matter how much wickerware protection he was wearing.

Bargain hard, tip well, don’t expect a helmet.