On being driven abroad

23 Feb

Over the years I have racked up a lot of miles on foreign roads. From my first foray in Denmark back in about 1974 I have steered my way around a broad swathe of Europe as well as having driven many thousands of miles in the USA. 

I have survived the rush hour on the Peripherique around Paris, wheeled in and out of Barcelona, done the ton on the autobahn and can add driving in Boston, Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco all during the daily commute. Apart from Stateside driving though, all of my other trips abroad have seen me being driven by a local, and I am glad that I was.

My first experience of this type was in Bogota, Columbia. Arriving after dark around 8pm I found my driver and we headed off out of the airport parking lot and boy was that an education. Other cars came at us from all angles and yet no contact was made. There may have been some code of driving etiquette, but I could not see it. On that trip my hotel in the business district was just about 300 metres from the office so my daily commute was on foot and I had just the one major intersection to cross. Here I developed the tactic of hiding in the middle of a crowd and crossing with the herd. My return to the airport was in the calmer waters of the Saturday morning, but I was glad to be able to leave the driving to my chauffeur.

The next trip was to Tripoli, the capitol of Libya, and my first experience of both Africa and of an Arabic country. The drive in from the airport was chaotic and when the traffic slowed drivers would just go off road and go as far as they could before forcing their way back in when they had no other option. Into the city and the rule of the road at junctions and roundabouts was to not give way unless contact was unavoidable. I could almost feel the quarter panels of the MPV flexing to get out of the way at times when contact seemed inevitable, but somehow none was ever made. One tactic that I saw every day was a driver make a short trip the wrong way along a dual carriageway to avoid crossing over and then back again to make a turn. In the rush hour they would do it along the sidewalk. I had been warned at the security briefing that I would be at a greater risk on the road than from terrorist action and it was apparent that they were not joking, but thanks to the skill of my drivers, and perhaps the will of Allah, I survived to go home.

I barely had time to draw breath before I was off again, this time to Beijing for my maiden trip to China. Here the pace was perhaps slower, but pushing in was a fact of life again and in the mix were electric motor bikes and scooters. I spent most of this trip in Tianjin commuting in the back of an MPV between the hotel in Binhai and work down in the docks. Again no contact was made on any of the journeys, but it always seemed iminent. Road surfaces in the newer areas were to a high standard, but down by the docks there were some rougher stretches. The motorways were also fine.

The next year I was back in China, this time in Chengdu. Here I was chauffeured to and from the airport, but walked between the hotel and office. With 6 lane roads crossing at right angles life as a pedestrian got interesting as few motorists seemed to abide by the traffic signals. Impatience appears to be a way of life in the Orient, at least as far as road users are concerned.

Next stop was Bangkok and another business district hotel. The office was 2 kilometres away, but with the temperature in the mid 30s and the humidity high my client insisted on me using taxis. These were all Toyota Corollas, but very cheap. Unlike the chaffeurs who took me between the airport and the hotel the taxi drivers were a mixed bunch, some good, some less so, but I lived to tell this tale.

So I now have experience of motoring on three new continents. Unlike the parts of Europe and the US that I am used to I was very happy to have seen it all from the back seat. Whilst I have not previously flinched from a challenge behind the wheel I have little desire to take on the locals in any of the cities that I have mentioned here; I just don’t have the right attitude. Another issue would be not understanding the road signs, for although I could have managed the Spanish signs in Columbia, in Libya, China and Thailand they use a different alphabet. Although in China I did see a few signs in dual language on the main arteries the bulk of the signage was meaningless to me elsewhere.

My most recent overseas trip was the short hop to Dublin and this time I took the airport bus into my city centre hotel and back and walked between hotel and office each day. Irish driving around the city seemed much more akin to the UK, unsurprisingly perhaps, and I would have been happy to have a drive there one day.

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