America has a car culture. I remember quite distinctly being a teenager in the suburbs and waiting with baited breath to turn the legal driving age so that I could get around to see my friends and have the ultimate freedom. I remember getting my learner’s permit and those first few times starting up the ignition and backing down the driveway. I remember all the lessons: parallel parking, checking mirrors, signaling before changing lanes… and the infrastructure is something that most Americans take for granted. Traffic lights, stop signs, painted lines on the roads, mile markers, and other conveniences are abnormally absent from third world countries.
So when I decided to become an expat, I knew that driving was one privilege that I didn’t want to lose. I went to AAA and got my international driver’s permit so that I could operate a motor vehicle in every country in the world. While living in South Korea, I bought a motorcycle and took lessons so that I could get around town without having to rely on the public transportation system – the metro line was in construction in Jisan Dong (my neighborhood) and overcrowded buses were the only option.
In Turkiye, I only drove once when I had to leave school and get back to my apartment for some important paperwork that I had left at home. I borrowed my supervisor’s car and braved the Middle Eastern roads and traffic (my wife was a mess thinking about it). It’s something that I couldn’t have done without my international permit.
While living in China, the school provided us with an eBike – it topped out at 40 kph (which is nothing), and only for a short time before needing to be recharged, but we were able to get back and forth from the school campus to the bus station or the supermarket in town when we needed to. Incidentally, I didn’t need a permit to operate such a small eBike anyway.
In Spain, we rented a car a few times to drive around the country, or between countries. We took an amazing road trip through the south of France in October of last year (with a detour through Andorra) and then when we were in Germany over the Christmas holiday, we rented a car to get us back and forth to Prague in the Czech Republic. Driving in Germany was one of the best vehicular pleasures of my life – the roads are well-lit, the drivers know what they’re doing, and sometimes there’s no speed limit at all.
Whether or not I was behind the wheel in these countries, I sure as heck saw some weird, crazy, and sometimes amazing things on the roads.
For example, in Ankara we saw people get into a fight on the road. They literally got out of their stopped cars in the middle of the lanes of traffic, went into their trunks and pulled out iron bars and baseball bats. Apparently, a lot of drivers keep weapons on hand in case of incidents of road rage. Pretty freaky!
In another instance, we were in the backseat of a car in China (driven by one of the workers of our school), who proceeded to not only drive into lanes of oncoming traffic, but then swerved onto the opposing shoulder of the road to try and make a left turn by avoiding the intersection completely and cutting off four rows of cars, buses, and trucks to do so. It was single-handedly the worst driving I have ever seen in my life.
The roads in Nepal and Cambodia are a nightmare. Yet somehow, the drivers seem to know how to successfully navigate the traffic. I have yet to see any kind of accident here. The speeds top out at probably 35 mph anyway, so no one is really gunning it – pedal to the metal – down the dusty, pot-hole-filled streets, but still. The roads are twisting and turning, and in both countries, 5 cars are squeezed into the space of where only two would normally fit. Don’t get me started on the motorbikes either. They are everywhere and will cut off the larger vehicles on both sides just to get around a jam.
If you choose to drive overseas, make sure you are completely comfortable behind the wheel. And if you’re an avid driver in the States, thank your lucky stars that you get to drive in such amazing conditions.
Until Next Time…