Sunday, August 10, 2008

The one behind the wheel

I'm freckling, which hasn't happened since I was a little kid. Matches the reddening hair. Probably an indicator of not enough SPF. But the sprinkling of kid freckles across my nose also matches my frame of mind, out exploring and not being too sure or too comfortable, but going for it anyway. Being a grown-up kid is cool. Because I get to drive.

Driving around Dubai (and we generally have to try twice, maybe three times to get where we're trying to go) is an adventure all in itself. When I manage to go directly to a place it's a major victory, and a bright spot in the day. Hey, I take it where I can find it. Early on, when Mike brought home the rental car provided by his work he said slightly proudly, slightly sheepishly, "Well, my very first time driving in a foreign country and I got a speeding ticket."

The speeding tickets here are given automatically by roadside cameras. You either pay them when you renew your driver's license or, like us, when you pay your monthly rental bill they're added on along with toll charges from the highway. A speeding ticket costs about 100 Dhs, $33 USD. It doesn't affect your insurance in any way and you have to get a lot of them to have any sort of real consequence. So they're not a big deal.

Our little white rental car (which looks pretty much exactly like all the other little white rental cars) beeps several times if we go above 120 km/hr, and Thomas beeps back at it. Some cars apparently keep at it, but ours is polite and gently reminds us. Thomas often requests the beep when Mike is driving.

We miss our Honda CRV from back in the states and, more importantly, it's turning radius. Lots of traffic circles and legal U-turns are the way of the road here. Car shopping is something on our horizon, not immediately important, but something to think about. Here we know we'll be getting something much bigger than we'd ever drive at home.

First, we want to be able to seat 6 for when we have guests. (No visitor is going to want to drive this unless they absolutely have to. )

Secondly, I've read that if a young man is going to die in an auto accident he is more likely to do some here in Dubai than anywhere else in the world. So we want something second cousin to, say, a Sherman Tank.

Mike had an experience the other day while he was driving home from work. He was going about 140 km/hr (about 86 mph...this is out in the desert where there's nothing but road and sand and few penalties for speeding of any sort), when an SUV came up behind him as though he was standing still.

There was a car beside him so he floored it and jerked his car over in front of the car next to him ---the SUV never slowed and blazed past him, he just barely getting out of the way. Mike couldn't believe the other driver didn't lose control of what he thought was a Yukon, not exactly a sports car. Then the other driver was gone, leaving Mike gripping the wheel tightly and trying to unclench his...teeth.

I had somehow glossed over in my memory the fact that although Mike had been to Dubai before, he'd never driven here. So riding in the car the first few times, no matter what happened, I felt perfectly relaxed and safe. After all, we were in experienced hands. Then Mike said something to his family back home about being new to driving here and I did the "whaaaaaaaaaat?!" thing. "Ack! I trusted you!" and so forth. Three weeks later it's no big deal.

Arabs are very fatalistic, and so far as driving goes, one has very little choice but to adopt the same method of survival or stay home. So far this has worked pretty well for us.

Mostly I relax, occasionally muttering things under my breath like "big jerk". There is jail time involved if one employs the middle finger, so I'm happy that's not a habit I engage in on the road. As lanes are optional, and motorcyclists making the Seattle courier cyclists look sane, I just go with the flow, Dao driving, like water flowing over rocks in a stream. (I will, however, be thrilled if the kids don't learn the word "crap!" from me by the end of the week.)

I have yet to drive in a visibility-limiting sandstorm, but they have been present often enough that I know I will sooner or later. I hear the trick is to slow way down and turn on your blinkers. Mike and his co-workers out in the desert are always on the lookout for them, knowing that a sandstorm will increase their commute time exponentially.

Driving along the main highway, the Sheik Zayed Road, there are particularly large portrayals of the rulers of the UAE, either huge signs or pictured on skyscrapers, very much larger than life. The Maktoum family united and rules the UAE, with an incredibly forward-looking view towards moderation, infrastructure, environmentalism, and honoring Islamic values. Impressively savvy folks, these. We haven't completely sorted out who is who yet in the photos, though it seems obvious that the Sheik, (pronounced "shake" not "sheek") who strongly resembles a fierce falcon, is the big guy.

There are always workers squatting on their haunches next to the roads in a way that I think would require some sort of circus training for a westerner. I am not only impressed that they keep their balance, but am astounded that this seems comfortable for them. One time I saw a man squatting on the 2" wide top of a concrete barrier under the overpass on the main highway, cars whizzing past at freeway speeds and greater. Yikes.

In the greener areas you see men holding hands, a sign of friendship (men and women holding hands is unusual, though we have seen it in the malls in the more-relaxed Dubai city), waiting patiently in groups under trees, all in the matching coveralls of their employer, though sometimes offset by brilliantly colored scarves wrapped around their otherwise bare heads. Bare heads and darker skin almost always signify a worker; it is only the Arab upper class who wears the red checked guthrah, and they are never seen with the workers.

Now that I think about it, I've yet to notice a single turban here. I wonder why that is. I'll have to pay attention and ask more questions.

Often the workers sleep while they wait for whatever it is they're waiting for, and more often than not they sleep smiling, stretched out like cats or sprawled spread-eagle on the grass.

The inevitable and multitudinous construction sites along the road are invariably marked with polite, apologetic signs and lined with cable. This cable is bedecked with thousands of red and white streamers that not only flutter in the breeze, making it harder to discern traffic movement, especially around the traffic circles. but also makes me wonder about the poor soul who had to tie all those on.

So while I'm getting as comfortable as one can with driving here, and truly, drive-related incidents that would totally freak me out back in the states aren't even a blip on my mental radar now, I still avoid rush hour like the plague and am anxiously awaiting the end of summer: the onslaught of the usual number of inhabitants to return to the UAE, swarming and clogging the roads.

Me and my buddy, the yellow lavender-filled chicken on the dashboard, will deal.


Mike VanCleave said...

I would just like to point out that the speed limit on Sheik Zayed once you leave downtown is 120km/hr, so 140km/hr wasn't speeding that badly!

Will & Cheyenne said...

That is so crazy about the ticket system. Will would benefit from such a system. :) Obviously Mike does as well!!

Natalie said...

I'm sure I'll benefit from the system as well. :) The speed limits are really silly in the residential areas. I'm all for driving especially slowly and carefully in cul-de-sacs where pets and kids are likely, but out on the four lane entrance road they have signs for 40 km/ hr, not quite 25. I think maybe the bicyclists end up obeying that speed limit, and the rest of us treat it as we do a stop sign...essentially ignored. :)

*Paula* said...

I am officially petrified!! I'm very impressed with your bravery :)

Natalie said...

Paula, don't they drive on the left side of the road in Ireland? Have you tried it out? I couldn't shift to save my life if I were having to reverse think. This is far less confusing for me, anyway. I'm also impressed there aren't more accidents here. Lots of "almosts", that's for sure.