Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Driving in the Third World

     All things being equal, I prefer to self-drive when I travel in the Third World. Doing so provides the most flexibility and best views when I can stop any place and spend the time I want there. Sometimes, if the next destination is along a complicated route which would be hard to follow or you need language skills you don't have in order to make the trip or the route requires some other skill or knowledge you might not possess, it is good to have a local driver behind the wheel. Actually that arrangement lets you spot events off the road and find the best photo opportunities. Either way, the tourist has the most control over the trip. That is, if all goes right. There is no guarantee that the voyage will be uneventful however. I do confess that there are some places so forbidding on the road that I won't get behind the wheel in spite of any convenience that might offer. If people drive on the opposite side of the road, I find I need to concentrate more and miss some of the sights although that depends on the place. Ireland, though not Third World, with its narrow roads and multitude of tight circles is one example of this. I even found the the gears were reversed in my rental car there and that made for disorienting moments from time to time. But generally the things that dissuade me from getting behind the wheel are unusual traffic obstacles (India- cows, dancing bears, carts and rickshaws for example) or dangers (Pakistan-  rough, unmarked highways, lurking bandits or terrorists) or lunatic drivers (Rio and a few other centers of road calamities.)

     I wrote earlier about a trip along the Silk Road in China which included two flat tires, both occurring many miles from any place they could be repaired. Fortunately, the driver carried a pump to put air into the tire with the slower leak so we were able to limp into the next town stopping and pumping, stopping and pumping. It was a close call on a lonely and rather dangerous road but we made it. That's not the best driving experience I have had but it was probably not the worst. I remember riding in another junker in West Africa along a road which went through an unpopulated and barren area and having the car stall on us. We had put gas into the car some fifty miles earlier and there must have been something unwelcome in the gas. It turned out that the driver knew a mechanic in the next little town about thirty miles ahead. He decided to bring him back to the car in the hope that he could repair it. He hitched a ride to the other town but our guide was able to start our car in the meantime, ride a bit until it stalled again, and repeat the process until we hobbled into the town not far behind the driver's arrival there. He had already secured the services of the mechanic who then disassembled and cleaned the carburetor and put it back into the car. (He charged us $7.00 for that service. I wish he lived closer to my home.) The ride was smooth from then on. I asked the driver where the next mechanic was located. He said about 200 miles ahead.

     The experience of getting lost is another driving hazard in strange places. My first such experience occurred in Jamaica many years ago. I was driving through the countryside and took a questionable path into the hills. We twisted and turned, enjoying the scenery, until the road hit a dead end in a mountainside village where the folks were not particularly happy to see us Americans. The country was not too friendly to tourists at that time and we felt quite threatened by the people who mulled around us. The road had ended right there so a quick turnaround and a descent back to the main road was the next step. We made that without further incident. I also remember getting terribly lost in the hills of central Mexico. We were again ascending a steep, climbing road when the path ended right at the edge of a cliff. Somehow, I managed to turn the car around but my level of confidence was not high. It was hard to feel comfortable, especially as the sun began to set. Getting lost has become a recurrent adventure for me when I am behind the wheel in the Third World.

     Another hazard is running out of gas. In many of the places I have driven there were very few places along the road to fill up. Usually the gasoline comes out of a bottle purchased in some small, all purpose store, often the only one in the town. Sometimes there is no town. I was on a deserted road in southern Mexico and badly underestimated the opportunity to get gas along the road. The result was a long drive in a deserted area as darkness enveloped us while the gauge showed empty. We must have gotten some fifty miles out of the vapors in an empty tank. I managed to schedule in a couple of such adventures in my travels. It is so titillating to drive on empty in an area where safety is a concern under the best of circumstances. Not that it is only the Third World where one can have interesting rides. Recently, in the south of Spain, we drove our van down a small street in a little town which we stopped at to walk around in and found that the road ended right at the edge of a steep cliff. It was too narrow to back up so we decided to turn the van around in a street which could not have been much more than about six inches wider than the van. After assistance from one of the street residents and about forty or so backups, we finally got out of that mess.

     The foregoing does not exhaust the opportunities for special driving experiences in far away places. Running into the flood in China and getting stranded in the mountains as I wrote about earlier is another. Driving over a road covered by a slick glacier is a bit challenging. An overnight drive on a narrow road in fog so thick one can barely see the front of the car is an exciting undertaking. So are drives along high mountain roads with no lights, no markings, and no guardrails. If one is lucky, adventure is just a few miles ahead. The trick is to keep it at least that far away.

                                                Bridge, Central Sumatra, Indonesia


Anonymous said...

You would'nt get me drivng in these places- Ha- good blog- Bill clyman.

I had my fill of driving in the big Rockies in this country much less in distant lands. But it's fun...

Anonymous said...

I have shared some of these experiences as well! Always fun to look back with fond memories.