Like a (cautious, considerate and law-abiding) bat out of hell…
I had never driven an automatic before, or driven on the right, or driven on the crazy roads of Dubai. But we were moving house and buying furniture and transporting fish tanks and cats, and the whole thing would have been a nightmare without a car, so I grasped the proverbial nettle…
The advice I was given when first setting off in my tinny little hire car was to “go with the flow”… Alas, if you “go with the flow” too wholeheartedly on these roads, you end up breaking the speed limit, missing your turn-off and coming perilously close to mowing down a street cat, a pedestrian and a certifiably insane cyclist. Traffic here has its own natural inertia – a mighty, unstoppable forward-moving force, like a herd of stampeding wildebeest. And woe betide any unfortunate little wildebeest who needs to take the next left turning for Waitrose. It doesn’t help that most people who live here drive MASSIVE four-by-fours, so that anyone in a car of relatively normal dimensions ends up feeling like Charles Hawtrey in a particularly pumped-up and aggressive Mr Universe contest. I really do mean massive four-by-fours. Stupidly big. So big they must be impossible to park in your average parking space. I’m not talking Chelsea Tractors, I’m talking Chelsea Tanks… Chelsea Titanic Chrome Juggernauts… Some crazily rich people, however, eschew these juggernauts for flashy, low-slung sports cars with deafening engines – though they must come horribly unstuck when it comes to negotiating the vicious speed bumps of the residential streets. It’s all implausibly impractical.
Of the driving instructor’s sacred dictum – Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre, only the one word applies here. Manoeuvre. Manoeuvre here, there and effing everywhere – as swiftly and unpredictably as possible. The extraordinary manoeuvres one witnesses in this part of the world are enough to make your brain short-fuse. People appear as if from nowhere in your wing mirror, swerve in front of you, narrowly grazing your bumper, slam the brakes on and then swerve back again for no apparent reason; people beep at red lights and then mount the kerb and drive cross-country over the pavement, sand and rubble to avoid the traffic altogether; people miss their turning on the high-speed highway and so stop and try to reverse through the fast-moving traffic; people drive the wrong way down one way roads and then beep at you to get out of their way. There’s a lot of beeping.
In the UK, beeping is generally for emergencies or alerting other road users of danger – and perhaps occasionally a cheery double-pip to say cheerio to people you know. Here the incessant beeping, hooting, honking and parping of car horns is used to communicate everything from “The light turned green one millionth of a second ago you blind moron – MOVE!” or, “I’m about to overtake you at 97 MPH – don’t change lanes for the love of God or WE’LL ALL DIE,” to, “I am sitting in my vehicle outside your shop and I can’t be arsed to get out. Please bring me some fags.”
There is a feverish impatience on the roads that is incongruous with the relaxed pace with which most other things happen over here – from the painfully slow progress of supermarket queues or bureaucratic processes to the local families wandering sleepily around the shopping malls. One wonders why everyone is dashing around the roads so dangerously, as they never seem to be in a hurry once they actually get there… The other day, the driver behind me was so impatient, he couldn’t wait the five seconds it would take me to turn left into our car park. I indicated left, slowed down and stopped briefly to let an oncoming car pass. Just as I started to turn left (still indicating, mind you), I had to slam on the brakes as the nitwit behind me had decided I was in his way and he was going to overtake me – while I was turning left (UK drivers may need to reverse the sides of the road to appreciate the full impact of this idiocy).
There is in fact so much idiocy on the roads here that some people advise “turning one’s brain off” to drive successfully. The theory is that there is no benefit in attempting to consider or anticipate other drivers’ moves: simply drive on your raw instinct. A bit like Al Pacino’s blind-man-in-a-Ferrari scene in Scent of a Woman, perhaps… I found it impossible to turn my brain off though, so I ended up attempting to anticipate the moves of every other impulsive, distracted, chatting / texting driver I was surrounded by, and, as people here overtake from both sides and rarely indicate, it was all rather exhausting.
Traffic here abhors a vacuum. If you leave a reasonably safe gap between your own car and the car in front, other drivers will see that gap and, perhaps assuming your lane must be moving slightly more quickly than their lane, will immediately swerve straight into it, often swerving back again when they realise it’s not actually moving any faster or they’re about to miss their turning. All of this without indicating of course. I think indicating actually sometimes causes problems as it can confuse people. The other day I indicated before safely and appropriately changing lanes and a driver two lanes across braked and honked at me. Having spotted my flashing light he had obviously panicked and thought I must be up to something much more drastic and characteristic of the driving out here, such as an impromptu U-turn or a spontaneous desire to park in the middle of the motorway.
Another frustration is that the road system is totally counter-intuitive: you have to set off in completely the wrong direction, take four U-turns, sit at five sets of traffic lights and navigate three spiralling spaghetti junctions just to get to the supermarket that you can actually see from your own front door. There aren’t many roundabouts here, and when you do come across one you soon understand why this is. With the erratic driving one sees out here every day, roundabouts are absolutely lethal. People barge onto them in front of oncoming traffic; they sit on the inside and then weave across every lane to take the first exit. I saw one expat driver actually driving the wrong way around a roundabout the other day as he sought to join the main road in his tinny little hire car. Heaven help his tinny little hire car. Heaven help us all.
That said, I suppose it hasn’t been quite as bad as I anticipated. The nice thing about driving, rather than getting taxis, is that you are in charge. Honestly, the amount of times my right foot has pressed into the passenger foot-well of a taxi in futile search of the brake… And it felt like a considerable achievement when I handed the keys back to the hire car man and received my full deposit back. “No speeding fines?” he said incredulously, “No parking fines? No bumps?”
“Nope,” I replied. “I told you, I’m a good driver.”
“The trouble is,” he said, shaking his head sadly, “everyone here thinks that.” And he hung the keys of my tinny little hire car on a peg behind the desk, ready for the next driver.