Like a (cautious, considerate and law-abiding) bat out of hell…

SL-193

My hire car looked a bit like this…

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.

HummerIn 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.SZR 2

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, Dubai night SZRsit 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.

30 Comments

  1. I’m considering a move to Dubai… Guess I will resign myself to another country where I won’t drive. I’m definitely not as brave as you are!

    • Honestly – if I can do it, anyone can!! It has taken me three years to be able to say this, but – it’s worth giving Dubai a go!

  2. I’m choking on the exhaust fumes here – loved it! It sounds like a vamped up version of the south of France (replace the 4×4 trucks by clapped out 2CVs driven by grannies and C15s driven by half drunken masochoistic French hunters, with spaniels’ heads hanging out of the windows). I’m curious to know how a woman at the wheel is perceived by local men…. Even in France, there are still macho comments made about woman drivers (generally proffered by someone who drives “like a foot”, as the French say).

    • I haven’t really experienced any misogyny as such here – not when driving anyway… There are just so many terrible and erratic drivers on the roads it would be difficult for anyone to make a sweeping comment about gender or nationality. Interestingly, I had an Egyptian cab driver the other day who claimed Egyptians are “the best” drivers in Dubai… I’m not sure my taxi journey did much to support his case…

  3. I did not drive while visiting Bangkok Thailand and Hanoi Vietnam, but your words took me right back to traversing those streets. Honking. Speed. Traffic. Life was lived in the streets as walkers, bikers, buses, cars and mopeds moved and weaved while others walked, talked and ate – in those same streets. *Sigh.* I was utterly awestruck. I wish you well. : )

  4. Sounds the way Dublin used to be in the good old days….I needed a sit down and a cup of tea just reading that!

    • Dublin? Really?! I needed something a bit stronger than a cup of tea every time I made it home after a driving adventure…

  5. So, with all the drama of the move, I hope the new place is fantastically worth it!!

  6. Barbara Backer-Gray

    You’re very brave!

    • Thank you!! I didn’t feel it at the time… And I stuck to a few set routes I was happy with… Next time I’ll try to be braver and head out of town somewhere exciting…

  7. When I visited Dubai I did find it very different to Australia. But I was impressed with my friends who lived over there and seemed to handle the craziness! I’ve recently come back from Mexico and never been more scared for my life on the roads!

    • Hi Daile – I’ve heard the Mexico roads are pretty perilous – and India too… If I ever get to either of these places (and I hope I do), I shall be able to create a detailed comparative study :-)

  8. How funny and how true. Driving in the UAE is certainly not for the faint at heart. I only recently started driving here, and am still petrified to navigate the roundabouts Al Ain is ‘famous’ for. They are seriously scary!

    • :-D I’d steer clear of the roundabouts if I were you! I had about four safe routes I felt comfortable with, and I stuck to them!!

  9. sounds a bit like Italy…… you managed to move the fish tank, with the fish intact, and the cat still hungry… ;)

    • :-D Separate trips for the different beasts! Hope you had a great summer. Was it baking hot in Croatia? x

      • it was baking hot in Croatia…. where have you been? your blog had no updates for some time, everything ok I hope?

      • Helloo! I’ve been in the UK for the summer – travelling about and having a holiday. We went to Greece which was also baking hot! Back to normal life now… Or as normal as it ever gets over here :-)

  10. Bravo! Well done for taking the plunge and getting out on the roads. Reading this post brought back memories of driving in Qatar many years ago. I got used to it in the end, and started to anticipate all the mad/impatient/incorrect driving that went on. Apart fromt he things you have described, two other things amazed me about the local drivers – sometimes they drove with their small child sitting on their lap, and sometimes they were looking in their rear view mirrors at a tv which was sitting on the back window ledge!

    • Wowee – never heard of the TV on the back seat, but kids / babies on laps / Siberian tigers on passenger seats etc are worryingly common sights out here…

  11. With the experience you have gained, you can drive join the drivers in Naples.

    • :-) Experience? More like a crash course (boom boom!)… Not sure I’m brave enough for Naples yet…

  12. Lol, reminds me of driving in Lagos, Nigeria! You eventually get used to it.

  13. Thanks for stopping by and liking our blog. That gave me a chance to visit yours and I had a great time reading this post. I have a hard time imagining driving anywhere in Mexico or Central America as the rules for traffic seem to be mere suggestions, stop signs are routinely ignored and one-way streets become two-way depending on the driver! Looking forward to reading more of your posts. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

    • Hi Anita – and welcome to H&H! It seems, from people’s comments that Mexico is among the craziest places in which to drive, although Egypt, India and Italy also sound rather fun :-)

  14. Ha! Sounds very similar to Qatar. Impressed you got out on to the road1

  15. I have never been a brave driver anywhere and I will stay clear of the roads for SURE. I enjoyed reading your blog and please do post some interesting posts of Dubai!

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