Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Driving in South Africa

If you live anywhere near the greater Johannesburg and Pretoria area I suggest you stay off of the roads for a while. I have acquired a car.

And what a pretty and convenient vehicle it is. Light silver, only one previous owner, extremely good gas mileage, plenty of cabin space, and I swear it actually purrs. However, there is a catch: I have never driven on the left side before in my life. 

I'm finding it oddly distracting that the signal switch is on the right side of the steering wheel, and thus I keep expertly signaling with the windshield wipers. This would not be so bad if the Joburg weather wasn't so flippin' good every time I find myself driving, and if I wasn't a blond (no need to give them further reason). I also keep hitting my right hand on the door as I'm trying to change gears, not to mention having to actually look down to make sure I haven't put the car in reverse by accident (is this possible? I'm very worried). Furthermore, crossings and roundabouts baffle me, and if there is no other traffic I actually have to stop and concentrate in order to figure out which way I'm supposed to go. All this is naturally happening while I also have to keep track of my new surroundings to find where I'm going. So far though, the 'where I'm going part' has been the grocery store and the gym, both of which are within a kilometer radius of our house.

I don't particularly enjoy driving, and loved living in Copenhagen, where I took the bus everywhere for five years, never getting behind the wheel myself. However, in Mexico City, due to the dubious nature of the public transport system (whether there actually is any system to 'the system' is debatable), we decided to invest in a shoe box of a car, and I had to start driving again. Now, many of my friends (and many people in general) hated driving in Mexico City, because of the sheer amount of cars on the roads (read: mega super traffic), and the almost complete lack of drivers following the rules. Many of my friends employed drivers. Unfortunately, that was something not in our budget, and I eventually found that I was actually fine with driving myself around (usually my friends would not get in the car with me driving). I found it easy to just follow the flow of traffic. The average speed in Mexico City must be something between 40km and 60km per hour depending on the general flow, something that my shoe box was very suited for (wouldn't go above 100km/h). In Mexico City I learned to expect the unexpected in traffic, right turns from the left most lane crossing four lanes in the process, or people backing up at high speed on the freeway, and also to do the unexpected myself, such as sticking my hand out the window, to make it clear I was going to push myself in front of the car next to me. Here, however, to me it seems that the traffic is moving far too quickly, I have to keep an eye on the speedometer, which I never had to do in Mexico, be on the look out for the ubiquitous stop signs, be on the turning lane if I wish to turn, signal when I'm changing lanes, and remember to not push myself in front of anyone by force. Also, my best friend, the u-turn, is not as popular here as I would have hoped. 

I hate owning a car for environmental reasons, and I hate the fact that we will most likely have to have have two, if I ever want to leave the house in the next two years. As much as I love Joburg, this is no place for pedestrians, for security reasons naturally, but also for the sheer distances between all the places that are 'just down the road' according to all of the native South Africans. Even my friend, who I call my neighbor, and who lives on the same estate as us, is still two kilometers away. I guess, when there is such an expanse of land, miles and miles of fields even rather close to the heart of the city, no one wants to be too close to their neighbor. Of course, the situation is very different in the former townships, but even in these areas people still live in single family dwellings, and not in apartment buildings. 

Anyhoodles, here I come. Watch out if you see a little silver car with a crazed and bewildered looking blond on the wheel, and just let me pass, even if I'm giving you the windshield wipers.   

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