This post was inspired by Rhiannon’s post about public transportation in Ecuador. I haven’t tried public transportation here yet; there’s a metro, but I’d have to drive to the metro stations, so like in Los Angeles and Kuala Lumpur, I feel ” why bother?” There are buses, and one even stops right under my window, but I hate buses under the best of conditions, and judging by the battle damage I see on all the buses here, this isn’t the best of conditions.
Taxis are how I usually get around in foreign countries, and each country has their own idiosyncrasies about taxis. In Romania, they were basically fine, but you had to stay on the driver to make sure he didn’t drive you all over creation to run up the fare (so you had to know where you were going already). In Kuala Lumpur, if you got one from a stand, you got one…but if you called for one it was 50-50 whether it would show up or not. The national motto should be “No taxi, lah!” Even on my last day in country, the taxi I’d reserved for my trip to the airport didn’t show up.
Taxis in Athens were their own special problem, because you had to interview with the driver for him to agree to take you. And no one ever wanted to go to my neighborhood, because they couldn’t get a return fare. One day I stood in the hot sun holding my baby in my arms on the main street while 17 taxis rejected me.
Here in Caracas, we have a list of approved taxi services we can use, and we’re supposed to call them (radio taxi), never get one from a stand. Our car arrived about a week after I did, so I haven’t used them. When we have to do a long trip here or go into most of the city, we have to use a driver in an armored car.
All this means that for most of my overseas life, I’ve been driving myself around.
Driving in places that aren’t the US
There are very few countries that observe traffic rules like the US does, and they are mostly in Europe. If you’re driving in the developing world, remember that most other drivers haven’t been driving as long as you have (I got my license at age 15, which means I’ve been driving approximately 25 more years than anyone else on the road), didn’t go through Driver’s Ed, and have no idea that they are controlling a lethal weapon.
Even in some European countries like Greece, you will see at least one accident every day, usually involving a motorcycle. Keep your head on a swivel, and don’t let your desire to start playing real life GTA come out. (This is how I used to get to work in the mornings in KL; the in-bound side of the road was jammed with rush hour traffic, so all the motorcycles would be on my side, coming straight at me. “Ride of the Valkyries” would start playing in my head and I’d just drive right into them. What else can you do? I never knocked anyone over, but there was always the gentle thump-thump-thump of handlebars, foot pedals, and knees bumping off my car).
In Caracas, there is one traffic rule: “Yo Primero.” For us Americans, there’s a second: “The American is always at fault.” Just keep those two things in mind, and understand that your paint job will not survive the tour. It’s OK, you’ll never see your car again anyway; the Venezuelans won’t even bother to ship it to you for at least 9 months after you leave, so you’ll probably sell it here.
I thought I had excellent Third World driving skills, but I’ve already been schooled here. I realize I’m a little cautious with a kid in the car, so I need to stop that, and remember the key to getting anywhere: Establish your space on the pavement. If you show weakness, you’ll be stuck forever. Don’t be polite, don’t be considerate, don’t think that people take turns at intersections.
I say this in one of the worst countries for vehicle fatalities. And drunk driving. Connection?
While I haven’t done much driving down in the hugely congested urban valley or on the rural mountain roads (the worst locations), my sense has been that traffic here isn’t nearly as terrifying as it was in Peru or Yemen. I’ve rarely been as scared for my life as I was driving in Lima, and in Yemen I was mostly scared for other people’s lives – I knew too many Americans who’d hit kids that had run into traffic or behind a backing-up car. My commute in Yemen was peaceful by comparison; I sat in a bulletproof SUV trying not to get carsick as we inched along with the tiny Ethiopian cows and the camels in the afternoon cattle drive.
Caracas is somewhat similar, in that it’s hard to get going fast in the urban areas because it’s a permanent traffic jam. What should be a 45-minute trip can easily take 3 hours. This of course leads to road rage, and people doing stupid things. In KL, you’d have to worry that the road rager would get out of his car with a parang (a big machete/sword thing). Here, in a country with about 25 million illegal weapons and no justice system, you’re just likely to get shot. I saw people get out of their cars with handguns to settle disputes in Los Angeles; here they will have AK-47s.
As a result, I limit my driving to the high valleys, where there aren’t freeways or roads, but there aren’t too many cars either.
All that special driving training we got
Depending on where you’re going, State Department will put you through a course affectionately called “Crash and Bang.” Since there are so many express kidnappings here, where the gangbangers stop your car and take you and the car (returning you for ransom, in theory), you’d think this training would be useful. Some of it might be, and you know I’m going to try it if I’m ever in that situation, but like many combat engagements, it turns out that terrain is crucial.
I don’t think I can adequately describe the roads here unless you’ve lived in steep mountains. Remember that mountain road that twisted and hairpin-turned down a 45-degree grade, with a steep drop-off on one side and a cliff on the other, and it was the ONLY road? That’s what we drive on. Plus, the edges of the road are crumbling, so it’s not wide enough for two cars to pass each other. And there are always people walking on it, because there’s no other way to get from the bus to anywhere.
Now imagine flooring it in reverse uphill on that road to get away from the bad guys, trying to turn through those curves backwards until you can flip the car around, while the little red dots of laser sights play across you and your passengers.
In conclusion, a healthy dose of zen, a lack of concern for keeping your car free of dings, and a confidence in your right of way will see you through. Oh, and develop a deaf ear for horns.