Vehicle: Grandparents’ car
Location: outside Birmingham
Visiting my English grandparents as an eighteen-year old, after having not seen them since we migrated to Australia when I was two, was an experience. They were, of course, very elderly by this stage, and my grandfather was dying of throat cancer from lifelong pipe-smoking. He had had several operations including one to remove his voicebox, but despite being very frail, insisted on driving. The last remnants of independence that would soon leave him entirely.
I would sit in the back seat, behind my grandmother in the front passenger seat. Grandpa knew he was not a good driver any more. He knew his reactions were not good and that his hesitation made other drivers impatient. He did his best not to get in the way.
We would start on our way, slowly, slowly, slowly. He would hug the kerb. Signposts and light poles would flash past my ear, so close that I held my breath for fear we would hit them. In the front seat my grandmother would start humming, a distracted tuneless hum. Hum-hum, hum-hum.
A parked car ahead. Grandpa would pull right up to the car, check his mirrors then bunny hop around the car. Hum, hum-hum, hum. Then back to the kerb-crawling. Cars would come up behind him impatiently then swerve around him without indicating. Hum-hum-hum.
He really shouldn’t have been driving, but we didn’t have the heart to tell him he was too old. He had been one of the first men in the neighbourhood to get a car after the war, and teaching his son, my father, how to look after an engine, was something he was proud of – a man thing. Looking after his car and driving his female relatives around, was part of that.
He was dead in six months.
Location : Everglades
After attempting to drive on the right (wrong) side of the road and ending up facing the wrong way on an interstate, we decided it might be a good idea to take a guided tour – by bus. The tour took in the Everglades, then on to a crocodile farm where a huge crocodile lay across the bottom of a cement pit (think swimming pool with the water let out) for the express purpose of being wrestled several times a day for the entertainment of tourists. On the trip home our friendly tour leader had already established who we all were and what we did for a living (my husband, a prison doctor and myself, at that time the manager of a palliative care agency, had thereby alienated all members of the tour group. Mental note to say I am a kindergarten teacher in future.)
While my driving efforts had not been incident free, the locals apparently were not so forgiving. Taking affront at some imagined slight on the part of our bus, a huge Ford four wheel drive truck, complete with shaven headed driver and his bleached blonde, talon-fingered passenger suddenly swerved at the side of our bus. Our bus driver gave chase. Now this was a trip to the America like we saw on TV! Soon we were weaving up side streets that were probably not designed to take a bus, swaying marvellously from side to side. Where were the news cameras when we needed them? Our erstwhile attacker, presumably surprised to find a bus giving chase, crashed through a dilapidated picket fence and across a field. And they say that city drivers shouldn’t have four wheel drives they never use.
Message to the man in the four wheel drive: we have your number plate – we know who you are and we’re coming to get you!
Location: Shopping district
Who would have thought that I would be the one getting sick and leaving my husband shopping while I went back to the hotel? A very mild dose of gastro picked up in Africa turned into a disaster when the humid Singapore weather meant I was unable to lose heat. The shopping centre air conditioning proved inadequate to the task rather quickly and hence a taxi was summoned by a very concerned looking shop keeper (don’t be sick in my shop!) and I was dispatched back to lie down in our hotel room, air conditioning set on ‘Arctic’.
Our window overlooked a freeway. All day and all night cars zoomed up and down. At night, in the silence of our room behind our double glazed windows, we watched as this private light show, as fascinating as the laser show on the pyramids at Giza, pretty yellow, red and white, whizzing past endlessly. Almost hypnotic in its steady pace, constantly changing, always the same.
A taxi driver told us cars were at a premium in Singapore, only a certain number allowed on the island. You had to wait until someone gave up their car or died, and even then registration was very expensive. Who would drive in Singapore? Apart from the constant rush-hour traffic, when you get where you are going, there’s nowhere to park. Much better to live centrally and walk, or taxi, door to door.
Location: Samburu Wildlife Park
Having had road safety message drummed into my head since I was old enough to listen (perhaps even before then), who would have thought that standing up in a people-mover whizzing along a bumpy dirt track in the middle of nowhere, with your head sticking out of the pop-top roof could be so much fun? On holiday the normal rules don’t apply.
In the middle of the day we would lounge around the resort pool being served Gin and Tonic (for its anti-malarial qualities), or sleep like the lions, or travel from one game reserve to another. Every dawn and every dusk we would drive out of the resorts in the middle of the game reserves and go on the hunt for the precious wild animals we had only seen in zoos. The drivers chat to each other in Swahili on their two-way radios, then suddenly the magic word – simba! Emerging from the dense undergrowth all over the park, twenty or thirty of tour vans like crazed vultures would race over bumpy half-wild dirt roads in a mad race to get to the lion first. Each van, like ours, would have half a dozen tourists hanging out the top with vice-like grips on their cameras, grinning like crazy.
The trips between the parks were as adventurous as within. The roads in Kenya were shocking. The pot-holes eat away at most of the tarmac, so the drivers drive along the soft shoulder of the road. How fast? I stopped looking at 100kph. The amazing thing about remote Kenya is that no matter how far from any visible form of civilisation that you are, there are always people walking on the side of the road. Not just one or two, but a steady stream. And whenever and wherever the vans stop, swarms of hawkers, desperate to sell their wares would descend on the vehicle and place necklaces over our head, drop carvings and trinkets in your lap and demand money. Hard to refuse someone aggressively demanding the equivalent of forty cents Australian.
Vehicle: tour car
The interesting thing about driving in Egypt is that stopping at red lights is optional. If you flash your lights and you don’t think there is anyone coming through from the cross road, you just drive through. Speeding up is optional but advised. Just don’t try this at the checkpoints, manned by eighteen-year old boys with loaded rifles, serving their National Service as Tourist Police.
If the traffic in front of you is too slow, you can drive on that other side of the road. If the traffic is heavy and you think you might be able to wedge yourself in between the two cars in the lanes painted on the road, then do it. The neatly ordered lanes of traffic jams in Australia have nothing on the denseness of an Egyptian traffic jam.
Every car on the road is covered in minor dents. But the number of people killed on the road is reputedly almost zero. Something to do with being charged with murder if you kill someone on the road.
So in downtown Cairo we were completely safe when a local man came up behind us, grabbed our hands and dragged us into the middle of the heaviest traffic I have ever seen. The Red Sea parted and the drivers avoided us. We would probably be standing there still waiting for a break in the traffic, if he hadn’t helped us.
Of course, we were obliged to visit our rescuer’s shop and purchase “exotic perfumes”, “ancient trinkets” and the like.
Locale: South Africa
Vehicle: private car
I met a South African lady who worked for Coca-Cola, marketing for the whole African continent. (You may not be able to get fresh water wherever you travel in Africa, but you can always get Coke. Diet Coke is another matter – not much call for the diet variety in Africa apparently.)
Every day on her email system at work she would get messages telling her which way was the safest way home, which highways to avoid because armed gangs were working in the area at the time. She said she always drove with a loaded gun in her lap, and at night, she didn’t stop at traffic lights for fear of being car-jacked.
As we travelled in Egypt, laser beams were being installed in the roof cavity to complement her already extensive home security system. Her house was in a walled compound, with electrified wires on top of the walls. Some time back they had to put live wires inside the wall because someone had come along with a bulldozer and punched their way through the wall.
Her son couldn’t believe the freedom he had travelling in Egypt. In South Africa anywhere he went he was escorted inside and picked up from the door (security guards to make sure there were no gatecrashers). No sneaking outside a party for a quick kiss and a cuddle.
A security guard also accompanied her from the supermarket to the car so she wasn’t held up and her groceries stolen on the way. Despite this she had a crooked finger where someone had yanked a ring off her finger breaking the bone, and had had a punctured lung from a stabbing. She was trying to migrate to Australia.