Sunday, 22 December 2013

Driving up the wall

I think that, to live successfully as a foreigner in Algeria, its necessary to have a sense of adventure, and none more so than when driving here which is an experience all on its own.   I was here a year and a half and just couldn’t see myself ever driving a car in this country.  So many times, as we drove down a narrow street with cars parked on both sides and another car coming in the opposite direction, or we were stuck in a junction crammed full of cars at all angles, I thought to myself, ‘If it was me driving the car I’d stop right now, get out, and walk away and just abandon the car’.  People talk about how scary it is driving on the motorway but I never found it as scary as driving in an area full of pedestrians – they act as if they own the road and they are only letting you drive on it out of the goodness of their hearts, so you are the one who has to watch out for them, and woe betide anyone who hits a pedestrian with any vehicle of any kind!

My husband was going abroad for 3 months and I just couldn’t stand the thought of our car sitting in the front courtyard, with me struggling to do the shopping and paying the bills on foot.  So I took my courage in both hands and went with my husband to an open space and got into the driver’s seat.  After whacking my left hand against the driver’s door a few times it finally sunk into my brain that I now was driving a left hand drive and needed to use my right hand to change the gears.  I started to wear a different type of hijab soon after I moved to Algeria, and this one consisted of something like a cloak with voluminous amounts of material which I somehow managed to get wrapped around the steering wheel and lock it into place, or else I lost my hands in it so I couldn’t get at the gear stick.  I finally learnt to just tuck all the extra material behind me as soon as I got into the car.

All this was nothing to actually driving on the road with pedestrians routinely stepping off the footpath and crossing the road in front of you, usually at a leisurely pace.  However, I found I had an advantage over most other drivers in this instance – I wear a face veil called a niqaab with only my eyes uncovered, and so many times I have seen pedestrians put their foot down to cross in front of me, take a quick glance at me, do a double-take and put their foot back on the footpath. The expression on their faces say it all “Can she REALLY see where she is going wearing that???”  Of course I sometimes have those who walk across the road in front of me walking so slowly because they are too busy staring at me and trying to figure out on which side the steering wheel is.

And then there is the motorway which, can sometimes be like driving in a speed rally, with cars coming out of nowhere and darting in and out of lanes wherever they can find a space. I, personally, prefer to drive in the fast lane. The slow lane has drivers who take the term “slow” to a whole new level. The middle lane, for me, can be heart stopping with cars coming at you from right and left to overtake. So I drive in the fast lane with my eye on the rear view mirror and when I see someone coming up behind me I move over – unless there is a lot of traffic ahead of me when then, sometimes, you get the flashing light because you won’t move. That is when my son does his arm flapping, imitating a flying bird to signify “What do you want us to do – fly?”  I refuse point blank to flash or beep at anyone unless in an emergency as I feel this is just beneath my dignity, so if I’m stuck behind someone in the fast lane, who really should be in the slow one, I just move over to the middle lane and wait for the inevitable irritable driver to come up behind them and beep and flash them out of the fast lane.. and then I quietly move back into the fast lane.  Passive aggression at its best.

Sometimes it feels as if the whole of Algiers is just one big building site with roads being dug up here and there for new water pipes, the tramway, new roads and motorways and God knows what else.  To be honest, although it can be so frustrating to be stuck in a traffic jam caused by these road works, it is good to see things moving in Algiers, to see improvements being made, to see them finally making up for lost time and investing in the infrastructure of this wonderful city.  But driving on these kinds of roads is not easy and, a lot of the time, you find yourself totally in reverse to the rest of the world - driving in the potholes and trying to avoid the road.

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