Saturday, January 24, 2009

Observations on driving

One of my students decided to take a vacation for 16 days this month and was kind enough to lend me his car (or rather the car that his driver uses...his car is a super expensive SUV that I wouldn't want to drive here). This has really been a blessing and has helped me out a lot, both by saving time getting from place to place, but also by allowing me to avoid taking the bus or walking around on the street. In this month leading up to Carnaval when street crime increases a lot, I am grateful to be driving around and not having to hold my breath as I walk from my house to the bus stop and then on the bus as I go from place to place. About a week ago 2 tourists were shot on a bus going to the airport as 3 robbers came on the bus, tried to rob everyone and these 2 men resisted. They didn't die, but were seriously injured.

Anyway, driving here is definitely very different from any place I've ever driven in the USA, so I thought I would write a little about what I've seen here:

-Lanes are a relative thing here. Sometimes there is paint on the road to indicate which lane is which and sometimes not. Sometimes there are conflicting paint marks so you don't really know which lane is which. Sometimes people drive in the lane and sometimes in the middle of 2 lanes. And the most frustrating thing to me is that there are no signs indicating when lanes are merging or ending so you'll be driving along and suddenly your lane is gone!
-Turn signals don't have any meaning. When someone puts on their right turn signal it could mean they are turning right at the next road or possibly the next 2 or 3 roads away. It could also mean that they are not going to turn, or turn left. And of course many people don't use turn signals at all. You have to stay really alert and be ready for anything on the roads here.
-After 10PM you can run stoplights. Well you do have to slow down if it's red and make sure there are no cars coming the other way, but you can run the light. This is because of carjackings and assaults on drivers. The other night I came home about 11PM and I didn't stop once!
-There are a lot more pedestrians, bikes, people pulling carts, and sometimes even people on horses so you have to be prepared to go around them. Sometimes they don't stay on the side of the road either.
-Bus drivers are maniacs.
-Horns are ok to use. In fact you have to use them as way of signaling people that you are passing or that they shouldn't come into your lane. I often think of polite Portlanders who never use their horns and I laugh because I had to learn to use mine, and I am making full use of it here.
-It's every man or woman for him or herself. Drivers here don't wait, don't let people in and are generally pretty damn rude. I find myself becoming an asshole when I get behind the wheel here.

I'm sure there's more that I'm forgetting, but you get the idea. I guess the biggest thing for me is that you have to stay super alert and pay attention at all times. In Portland sometimes I would find myself kind of spacing out, but you can't do that here.

The bummer is that my student returns from his trip on Monday so I have to give the car back. That means that I have roughly three weeks until Carnaval where I have to return to walking and riding the bus. I've thought about renting a car, but it's pretty expensive to do this, so I think I'll just have to suck it up. I'll probably take more taxis, but I can't afford to always take a taxi every time I have to go somewhere. Cars are something that I always took for granted in the US...but I sure don't take them for granted here.

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