Monday, November 7, 2011

Driving UAE Style

Driving while Distracted

Rumors that driving in the UAE is nuts are true, but as with everything, reality is somewhat different than what the imagination conjured up. I envisioned wide boulevards with nothing but Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis whirring past as blurs.
These stadium seats face the highway. We guess they use it for parades.
The tower is one example of . . .
. . . the architecture that distracts you while driving. 

The reality is that while we have seen the fancy sports cars speeding along on the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway, Abu Dhabi city streets are filled with either small sedans like the one we have or expensive SUVs with darkened windows owned by Emiratis, alongside construction and delivery trucks, delivery scooters with boxes on the back, and buses filled with workers wearing dusty royal blue uniforms.
Can't Get Here from There

To get anywhere nearby from where we live you have to go around the Al Bateen Executive Airport (used by the military, diplomats and the royal family) and then to get home you can’t go back the same way; it just doesn’t work. 
It's not unusual to take a route like this to get somewhere
The entrances and egresses to the malls and towers (aka buildings) are all under construction which causes complete chaos; even the locals don’t seem to know where they are going. An exit that was available yesterday is blocked today, and vice versa. So drivers slam on their brakes or veer across several lanes of traffic with no warning to make a U or right turn.
This video might give you a feel for what it's like to drive into Abu Dhabi amidst all the construction. Note all the helpful signage. (I'm a video neophyte, so bear with me. Better videos will be coming along.)

Round the Round

The roundabouts are even more fun. Don’t get me wrong, I like roundabouts. I hate sitting at traffic lights. But there is something that puzzles me. For some reason, cars hesitate to enter the roundabout if there is any traffic on the way, even though they could easily make it in. Even though the lane they would enter is clear. So traffic entering the roundabout piles up until dozens of cars are waiting. When they have a totally clear field everyone hits the accelerator and floods in, so that the next group trying to enter piles up and waits. There are exceptions to this rule, people who just blend in without even looking, but I won’t mention names.
Speaking of Mark, he has really gotten the hang of driving around here; in fact he drives exactly like an Emirati. Smash down on the gas pedal, swerve around in the roundabout, pass everybody, slam on the brakes at the speed bumps, veer off at the last minute to make the exit to the right, squeeze in at the last minute to make the U turn.
My Husband's Permission

Mark not only gave me "permission," he encouraged me to drive. I told him I would drive, but to start out I wanted him to be in the car because he knows his way around. I knew that this was taking a serious risk because we always argue about driving, no matter who is at the wheel. Instead, he carpooled to work with Dana saying as he left, “I’m putting the keys in this dish. You should drive.” I spent that day cleaning and nesting in the apartment instead. Mark seemed surprised that I hadn’t ventured out and I realized that the longer I waited the more daunting it would be. Sometimes you just gotta jump into the pool and learn how to swim, is what I say. But driving in the UAE reminds me more of stepping onto an escalator, maybe because we've been riding so many escalators in the malls. You have to just get moving and step on. 
So, Deb and I made a plan to go to the Carrefour hyperstore the next day. “I don’t care how many wrong turns we make,” I said. “We’ll keep going until we find our way back. It’s a game.”  Plus, we agreed, if we got too lost we could park the car and take a taxi home. There are taxis everywhere and they honk to ask you if you need a cab ride. In fact, I have realized, THAT is why I got honked at that first morning . . . but I digress.

Sure enough, we got to Carrefour just fine but getting back home was an adventure. We got to drive around the awesome Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which is one of the largest and most magnificent mosques in the world and will the featured in its own blog post as soon as we get a chance to tour it.
Believe it or not, I snapped these two photos of
the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
while we were driving past at about 85 kph.

But I was not driving at the time.
Mark was.
We also got to cross the Maqtaa Bridge, which Mark had warned me would happen if we tried to get home in that direction. Hey. Who cares? By the way, the Maqta Bridge crosses over a shallows and before the bridge was built, people could wade across at low tide to get to the island that is now the site of the booming city of Abu Dhabi.
Driving in the roundabouts is my favorite; I like the cat-and-mouse feel, but only when I’m the one driving. There are two or three lanes in the roundabout, and Tom says that the outside car always has the right of way. I don’t know yet exactly how that works. But once you’re in, you have to figure out how to get out. I was driving to the AWN coffee on Thursday with my neighbor Helen; she knew how to get to Café Arabia and I was game to drive. I entered the circle, and a car pulled up behind me and honked several times; I guess he felt I hadn’t waited a respectful amount of time. There is nothing like having the front end of a huge SUV with tinted windows taking up your entire rear view mirror, except possibly being run down by Darth Vader.
Honk if You're Emirati

Speaking of honking we witnessed the funniest scene the other night. Mark and I were with Dana and Deb, looking for a place to get some Chinese food which we were craving. We found a place called Food City in a shopping strip on one of the main drags. The place was crammed with cars, some blocking the parking spaces, with people waiting in them. This is normal; parking lots are jammed with standing cars but, ironically, there are always empty parking spaces. Apparently there is still some confusion among the populace about how parking lots for automobiles are designed to work. So we found an empty parking spot. While we were inside eating, I heard a lot of horns honking outside, which I thought was strange, and briefly wondered what was going on. When we came out of the restaurant a bit later, the place was completely jammed with cars. Someone had parked too close for me to open the door on my side, and our car was blocked in, so we stood around waiting and watching. Big SUVs and little sedans were squeezing around each other, and we could see that there were vehicles, pointed in opposite directions, that were blocking both ends of the strip. Cars were squeezing past each other, with no place to go, and millimeters of clearance. Then the honking started.
Nobody got out of a car to chest bump, nobody gave anybody the finger, nobody rolled down their window to yell or curse. They just honked, honked longer, and finally everyone was laying on their horns. We were the only ones not in our vehicle, so we got the full effect. It was great! One of the cars blocking the way finally moved (he was waiting for someone who came out of one of the shops) and then everyone was trying to get out all at once. Soon a black BMW with a racing stripe made a break for it and went ripping past us, while it occurred to me that someone could get killed.  If there were such a thing as a testosterone meter I’m sure it would have been pegged. I wonder how many times a night this happens around Abu Dhabi?
I think driving is not yet part of the Emirati DNA. Here, driving  automobiles on roads is relatively new. Think about it: we are about to celebrate the 40th birthday of the United Arab Emirates as a country (we passed sign with a countdown:  “27 days, 8 hours . . .”) Not so long ago, they were driving on huge expanses of sand. So no wonder they do things like double park and block everyone, swerve around, honk, and speed.
One thing that you don’t want to do is run a light. When you see the green light flashing, hit the brakes! Two green flashes, one yellow, and it’s red – not much warning. According to Mark, if you run a red light a camera takes a photo, you automatically have a ticket and they impound your car for a month.
Stop signs don’t mean anything though. Nobody stops at those.
I finally did drive with Mark as a passenger on Friday morning, after the USMC Birthday Ball. It was the perfect circumstance because we had stayed at Tom’s for the night, and Mark was hung over (although to be fair, he was also coming down with the flu.) Anyway, he was relatively docile. I would say “Do I turn here?” and he would say “You can, or you can go straight.” I think he actually appreciated it that I could drive. It helped that Café Arabia is halfway between our place and Tom’s villa, so I already knew where I was. Really, the best way to learn your way around is to just get in the car and drive – but as a geographer,  it really helps to study the map first.

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