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.

Oh what a night in Kansas City

I have found so much fun in Kansas City and tonight was almost too much excitement to bear.

We went out to dinner, tapas at a cute little Spanish restaurant called La Bodega with Hiker Buddy Brian and his friend (my new friend) Hillary and then cruised around KC in The Mustang with the top down singing songs that included some Australian music by ACDC and Jet.

Then we hit the nightlife of the Power and Light District and I was told I had to ride the mechanical bull. I had always wanted to ride a mechanical bull, but never really had the opportunity, or the guts to do it when the opportunity was nearby. But, when in the Midwest at a bar that caters to the country music loving crowd and has a mechanical bull as its centrepiece, you are in the right place to take that bull ride.

And so I did.

I got off that bull jubilant and with quivering legs from gripping it so tightly. Not even watching the “professional” girls and guys working at the bar leap upon the bull and expertly ride it without holding on with their hands could take away from me the fact that I totally nailed that bull ride.

A night of firsts

On the yellow bus
Excited to be on the yellow school bus

Kansas City got really exciting tonight as I filled the evening with a number of firsts, starting with my first visit to Chipotle to pick up a burrito for dinner.

Chipotle is a chain of Subway-like Mexican that has taken America by storm. I’ve heard so many people ooh over it, but had never ventured in until Hiker Buddy Brian and I popped in for a quick bite before heading to another first, a professional soccer game.

We then drove to the game in Hiker Buddy Brian’s black Mustang convertible, my first ride in a convertible. That was quite exciting and I felt super cool as we drove at 70 miles an hour on the freeway with the wind blowing wisps of hair around my face and with me playing my fingers in the wind.

The brand new Sporting Kansas City soccer stadium is right next door to Kansas Speedway, so we ended up parking in the speedway parking lot fairly far away from the stadium. I started to get giggles of excitement as I saw those iconic yellow school buses in the lot and I predicted that they would shuttle us to the stadium. I could scarcely contain my excitement as that prediction came true and I was soon climbing aboard one with the awe and wonder of a small child. Whilst they cannot hold a candle to the school buses kids in Australia travel on, and are historic relics that somehow keep plying the bus routes with the bare minimum of fittings, I was completely enthralled in the experience and emerged hot and perspiring but jubilant.

According to Hiker Buddy Brian, scalping is de rigour and an accepted practice in America. As we didn’t have tickets for the game, which had already started, I was looking forward to that first experience too, but there were no scalpers and we had to do a lap around the stadium to get to the box office.

Watching Sporting Kansas City
Excited to be at my first professional soccer match

Inside, we found vacant seats close enough to our allocated seats down the end closest to the Sporting Kansas City supporters who were cheering loudly and bringing a crazy, festive atmosphere to the ground. I couldn’t help but smile and be in a good mood.

Shortly after sitting down, we saw Kansas City score the very first goal in the newly built stadium. They’d only played one previous game in the venue which was a draw at nil all.  Confetti burst out from behind the goals, the crowd jumped to their feet and cheered as loud as their voices would allow them. It was so much fun.

I bought a bag of peanuts in their shells at half time, because the cashier had a little sticker on front of the register saying “Would you like peanuts with that?”. I wasn’t sure what to do with the shells as it is a messy process and I’d never eaten them at a special event. Hiker Buddy Brian told me to throw them on the ground. My littering sensibilities struggled with this. I looked at him and said “Really?” and he was like “Yeah, of course, they come through and clean everything up afterwards.” I was still hesitant. If I didn’t throw the shells on the ground, it would be easier for them to clean up, but the only other place I could put them was back in the bag with the ones I still had to shell and eat. I tentatively tossed one on the ground under the seat in front of me and felt desperately naughty. I then countered with the argument “why would you want to throw them on the ground and make a mess at your feet”. But with little other choice and hankering for salty peanuts, I threw the shells on the ground, kicking them under the seat in front of me so as to avoid getting the shells and skins between my toes.

It was so much fun. A night of calculating firsts and then to top it all off, from the safety of the apartment, we watched an amazing thunderstorm sweep across the city with flashes of light, cracking lightning bolts and some claps of thunder that made you feel as if you’d been cuffed behind the ear.

Everything is bigger in Texas

…. except the welcome signs.

As I was driving along the I-40 highway (major interstate freeway) from New Mexico to Texas, I started getting excited about what the Welcome to Texas sign would say. New Mexico’s Land of Enchantment signs were cool, as were the Utah – Life Elevated ones.

I expected big and brashy. Maybe a Stetson shaped sign like the Arby’s chain restaurant has. Maybe a big cow cut-out like those that adorn the hills of Spain. Or a giant oil well with neon letters spelling out the greeting.

But no. It was a no-frills, ordinary looking green highway sign that didn’t match up to the Texan reputation.

I-40 Welcome to Texas sign
I-40 Welcome to Texas sign - from http://www.teresco.org

A bit of Route 66

My map told me to take a small detour off the I40 freeway to follow the scenic Route 66.

It wasn’t overly scenic. Not in the way I have come to expect from scenic routes in America.

So instead I added additional time and miles to my trip to the Grand Canyon. Whilst Route 66 is the iconic American road trip, I don’t think I’d want to do it solo. I think the strange, zig-zagging path I’m taking is far more interesting.

Just shut up and drive

Monument Valley through the windscreen
Monument Valley through the windscreen

You know when you make a plan to do something, stop somewhere, and all of a sudden you find yourself in a vortex of white line fever (or here in the US it is yellow line fever).

I had one of those days. I wanted to stop off at a couple of places along the way to Monument Valley, but that didn’t happen because I was just too comfortable driving and sitting in the car.

More windscreen shots
The view from Esmeralda

I had also planned to camp at Monument Valley, but after a look-see, decided to press on to Moab. I didn’t stop to see anything else along the way and had to content myself with taking photos through the windscreen. I was in a drive frame of mind and crunched 350 miles.

A Mulholland drive

In our beat up little mechanics replacement car we were driving while Esmeralda was having her fan problem checked (yes, visit number four to the mechanic), we hit the roads of LA.

View of Downtown
View of Downtown

We started at Rodeo Drive. A stop at Wholefoods got us some lunch which we picnicked on at Via Rodeo, surrounded by posh shops and lampposts with cascading flower baskets and tourists. Rodeo Drive is a bit over-rated as a tourist destination, but it makes for an interesting little wander or drive if you want to pretend to re-enact Pretty Woman. The distinction between tourist destination and shopping destination is pretty hazy. Judging from the foot traffic, I’d say it attracts more tourists than shoppers, but that would hardly pay the rent on these massive flagship luxury brand stores. Getting out of Beverly Hills I heard the most number of car horns tooting than I’ve heard across the rest of LA. People must be so much more uptight, impatient and aggro here. A little further down the road is the craziest intersection I’ve had the pleasure of not crashing at. At the junction of N Beverly Drive, N Canon Drive and Lomitas Avenue it is a 6 way stop. This is an upgrade of the traditional 4 way stop (for which us Aussies would have a roundabout) where you all have to stop and then the person who got there first goes first, or otherwise the direction with the most traffic goes. It requires driver to driver communication, which always works better the lighter the tinting of the car. It also means you have to understand when it’s your go. At a 6 way stop there seems to be no real rules. You creep, creep out from the stop line painted on the road until you have claimed your turn and then you go for it. Miraculously there were no Mercedes Benz, BMW and Lexus pile ups. This is the second time I’ve driven through this intersection and the second time it has freaked me out. We drove up Beverly Glen Boulevard to the ridgetop Mulholland Drive. Made famous by famous people living there and the magnificent views of both Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, this highway is named after William Mulholland who was head of the LA Department of Water and Power and was responsible for building much of the infrastructure that supplies LA with water. While Mulholland Drive and Mulholland Highway stretches all the way from the Hollywood 101 freeway to Malibu, we drove only a short way, but appreciated the views from pull-ins and the winding road. At the last point of our drive, we stopped at an outlook that offered amazing views of downtown, the Hollywood Bowl and the Hollywood sign. Unfortunately this is also a stop on those bus tours and it got pretty clogged with them at about 5pm, so clogged we had to wait in the car to leave because one was blocking my exit from my park in a designated car space. I’d love to drive the whole section, but I think I will have to do it in small chunks because the windy road made me feel slightly carsick. Tips for driving Mulholland Drive:

  • Pull over if you start to hold up traffic
  • Stop at the designated points to admire the views
  • Give yourself plenty of time as the going can be slow

Neverending freeways

I’ve had two days of driving the freeways and I have to say that they never seem to end.

Heading out to Venice yesterday we took the 10 freeway in a westerly direction. All the freeways in LA are known by their numbers which, until you are here, sound so confusing. For example, a friend recently posted to my Facebook wall the directions to Los Angeles airport. It read “101 south to 110 south to 105 west.” Anyone reading that back home would think it was some kind of code to find a treasure (in this case I did find a treasure at the end, Movie Lass).

However, once you get the hang of the traffic arteries, you can pretty much go anywhere. That said, a GPS with advanced lane assist makes things so much easier, especially when there are carpool lanes or you come to an intersection where, if you were looking from above, it would look like a bowl of grey spaghetti.

Today’s freeway adventure was driving Movie Lass east on the 10 freeway to Redlands, which is a lengthy 60 odd miles away. For some reason, in my head I equivalated 60 miles with 60km and wasn’t expecting the drive to be so far. In reality it was something of a 100km drive on a freeway with 6 lanes and walls, making it somewhat of a tunnel with nothing interesting to look at except the back end of cars passing me.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like driving here. But on my solo trip back home as I battled with bleary eyes from the long, hazy drive, I just kept thinking “there is no way I could do this in peak hour traffic.”

On the 5 freeway

Our little road trip to Sequoia National Park is fascinating in itself.

We’re taking the 5 freeway north from LA and we’ve driven through the snow where little derelict shacks are made beautiful with white frosting dusted on top.

We stopped at a massive service station where you could watch people come and go all day.

In seemingly the middle of nowhere is an IKEA distribution centre. Then the landscape turns to farming with vines, crops and stonefruit with the odd oil well pumping.

It is such a mixed bag, but right now, about 15 miles out of Bakersfield there are gum trees lining the freeway and it gives me the comforting feeling of home.