A bit about driving

Bogota trafficI always thought that Colombian drivers were terrible. Period. No ifs, buts or exceptions. However since buying a car last year and having experienced Colombian roads from the driver’s seat, I’m prepared to cut them some slack in the driving stakes.

I’d long held the belief that Colombians received their license in a Weeties pack (although of course there are no Weeties here), yet in actual fact the current requirement is that they complete a 30 hour course and pay more or less a monthly minimum wage for the privilege. That’s pretty intense and quite a commitment.

I won’t deny that at first I was afraid of driving here. I told Edwin that we would buy an automatic, because there was no way that I was going to drive in Colombia – on the other side of the road for me – and try to think about changing gears in Bogota’s infamous traffic. I had a car and drove in the US for six months, so I wasn’t a complete newbie to driving on the right hand side of the road, but I was still petrified at joining the chaos on the roads.

Getting behind the wheel was a huge lesson in understanding the challenges that every single driver faces and it made me realise that I’d been a little too hasty in my judgments about Colombian drivers.

  1. When there are no lines marked on a 4 lane road, how do you expect people to stick to their lane?
  2. When there are large, car eating holes that suddenly appear before you in the road, how can you not swerve to miss them?
  3. When speed limit signs seem to have been selected at random and placed 20m apart by road workers, how can you expect people to know how fast to drive?
  4. When street parking is as rare as hen’s teeth, how can you be expected to do drop offs and pick ups without holding up traffic?

While I’ve cut some slack to Colombian drivers, there still remain some eternal frustrations that make driving a not-so-pleasant experience.

  1. People who think it’s okay to drive in the fast lane (ie left hand lane) of a 2 lane highway and never pull into the fa right hand lane to let faster traffic past – especially when they choose to travel at 50kmph.
  2. 85% of drivers* do not use their blinkers (indicators) to change lanes or turn into streets.
  3. The people who beep their horns for the cars in front to take off from the traffic lights when the lights are still red.
  4. Never giving way to pedestrians at traffic lights – every day as I walk to work I am almost hit by a turning car that refuses to give way to me.
  5. Drivers with a complete disregard for their children’s safety letting them bounce around the car unrestrained, or in the arms of another passenger, or even worse, allow them to sit in their lap in between them and the steering wheel.

This last one makes me very angry because if you can afford to buy a car, you can afford to buy your baby or child a car seat.

I’m also quite baffled that everyone parks in reverse. In my home state of Victoria the only reverse parking people do is to get into a parallel park on the side of the road. Upon telling Edwin he could drive frontwards into a carpark he told me that he simply cannot park forwards, he can only park the car in reverse. Bizarre. I think it takes longer to park in reverse, and it gets very frustrating when you have to wait some time for a big SUV to manoeuvre their car into a narrow space using three or four line ups so you can pass and find a space. Surely putting the nose into the park and not having to rely on mirrors or a passenger to get out and guide you in would be far easier.

I’m still not super confident driving in Bogota and I leave most of that driving to Edwin while I crochet the time away, but I’m getting better and am starting to take the car out more, although only when I know I can easily find parking near my destination. The suddenly appearing motorbikes remain a cause for concern and driving anxiety, as do the even more unpredictable buses. But the best part of having a car is that I again feel like I have freedom. I can get in the car and go somewhere if I want to. We can go away for the weekend or on daytrips or longer trips as a family. We had the same feeling of freedom when we got the motorbike in Santa Marta, but unfortunately 3 don’t fit on the motorbike.

A car is not a necessity in Bogota for us like it was for me in Australia or the US. We live close to my work and to shopping centres so I don’t have to drive there. We managed to live in Bogota for almost two years with just the motorbike, public transport and our own two legs, so even though our car spends most of the week without leaving the garage, it’s handy to explore the outskirts of Bogota and pick family and friends up from the airport.

Now that we have 4 wheels and 5 seats, the motorbike has become Edwin’s runabout taking him to classes and work and filling in the gaps when we have pico y placa (restrictions on driving the car depending on the date and the last number on your numberplate). I’m not sad to no longer ride the motorbike, quite the opposite in fact, because even if it is faster in traffic jams I feel safer and more comfortable in my own private metal bubble.

 * so I made this up, it’s a fictitious statistic most likely for exaggerated purposes, but it feels very realistic to me.

Esmeralda my new green gem

After being in LA for a month, I have finally bought a car.

Me and Esmeralda: the beginning of a great friendship

I won’t lie and say it’s been easy because being in LA without a car is tough. I was feeling hamstrung and completely dependent on my friends who had to go out of their way to take me places. But when I woke up today, I had a feeling that it would be all okay because I had come to a resolution in my head. If I didn’t get a car, I was going to hire one for a week.

Initially I was quite hesitant about driving on the opposite side of the road, however as the days and weeks passed I became a lot more confident and just wanted to get back behind the wheel again. It’s helpful that there is always traffic in LA and also the yellow lines painted down the road are a godsend for staying on the right side of the road.

I can’t even begin to imagine how much time I spent on Autotraders and Cars.com websites, trawling through car after car, trying to find a good car in my price range of $5000. Disappointed by the lack of vehicles, I even moved my budget up a thousand dollars, but still it was tricky to find something that I felt comfortable with. In the beginning I was looking for an SUV and had my heart set on a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Then when Gin and J got Brandon, I thought I could probably get away with having a smaller sedan that would a) fit into the second space for a compact car at our apartment b) be easier to park in general and c) would be more fuel efficient. Brandon’s big Jeep interior and roofracks could handle anything big and bulky that we would be transporting, so something smaller in the family would be fine.

I moved on to looking at Volkswagens. Mainly Passats and Jettas. I test drove a dodgy, smokey Jetta that a dealer wanted $6500 for. Then I test drove a private sale Passat which I made an offer on subject to it passing a mechanics inspection to my liking. That car didn’t even make it to the mechanic I had selected before it had an engine problem. So I dodged a bullet there. I also found out during my research that there are a number of engine problems with the Passat, for which a class action had been taken against Volkswagen for an oil sludge problem.

Disheartened, I finally did a search on Autotrader for any kind of car. I was that desperate. It threw up a few Volvos and on closer look and internet research, they looked to be a good car. So I called Good Vibes car dealer in North Hollywood this morning to see if the green 2000 Volvo s40 was still on their lot, as I’ve gone to a car yard before only to find the car I wanted to look at had been sold already, so it’s always good to call ahead.

J drove me in Brandon to the dealer and we had a good look at the green Volvo before going to see Steve the salesman. Steve was lovely and let us have a play in the car, checking how things worked, opening and shutting the sunroof, pulling down the split fold rear seats to see how flat they lay, getting in the front and then the back to check comfort levels, and wowing over the seatbelt for groceries in the boot. We then asked to go for a drive and after a Castle moment, the cars being detailed in the yard were moved to get the little green Volvo on the road.

The car was very comfortable to sit in. It felt really solid and safe on the road and it just felt good in general. Feeling rather excited, I decided that I wanted to buy it. We checked all the electrics again and found that the right brake and indicator bulbs had gone, so they were replaced for me without any hassle. I then let J go home while I spent a couple of hours filling in paperwork and organising insurance, chatting to Steve about how he loves the film Muriel’s Wedding, getting the skinny on all the paperwork and learning some new road rules.

Finally, after handing over a big wad of cash (predominantly $20 notes) and swiping my debit card for the remainder of the cost (which came in right on original budget), I got the keys to my new little Volvo. I sat in the driver’s seat and inhaled deeply a few times, holding the steering wheel and wearing a big smile. I adjusted the seat and mirrors, opened the sunroof a little and moved out onto the road. I was underway in my very own car, which is one that I would never have bought in Australia.

Getting home after a good run on the Hollywood Freeway, I even managed to ace a reverse park on the hill out in front of our place to cap off an exciting day. 

My new Volvo has been named Esmeralda. It means emerald in Spanish and my little green gem and I are going to be inseparable in LA.