Waiting for the bus in Buenos Aires

Depending on how you look at it Buenos Aires is one of the most orderly or disorderly cities we’ve visited.  Flying in to the airport at night, it is obvious from the rows of streetlights that Buenos Aires was designed using a grid system.  Walk around any neighbourhood, and you’ll see the buildings lining the street all do so with their fronts neatly squared with the street (which might not seem like such an accomplishment until you’ve visited parts of Ireland and Mexico).  Watch people queue up for a bus, and it’s easy to think you could take a measuring tape and find that each person in line is exactly 18 inches from the next, and they all face the same direction.

But look a little closer and you’ll see the chaos all around you.  Bus passengers may respect the rules for standing in line, but drivers certainly don’t respect the rules of the road, if they exist.  People often drive through town at incredible speeds, motorcyclists ride on the sidewalks if the motor traffic ahead of them seems to be moving a little too slowly, drivers create lanes that aren’t there, or turn from the second (or third lane) over, or turn into the fifth lane (a frequent occurrence), and at the many unregulated intersections (that’s right, no signs or lights of any kind, even at many fairly busy intersections) you can see the yelling and hand gestures imported from Italy.

And while the streets and buildings may seem orderly, there are some baffling exceptions.  To see what I mean, walk to Plaza 25 de Mayo, which lies directly in front of the Pink House (much like our White House, except it’s a kind of pink, of course).  You’ll see a nice planned plaza, with a statue of a man on a horse, a flagpole, another statue on an obelisk, fountains, gardens, etc.

Try this experiment.  If you could stand in the center of the main arch of the Pink house and strike off perpendicular to the building, you will come to a statue of a man on a horse.  However, you won’t be right at the middle of the statue, but a few inches to the side.  Make your way around to the other side of the statue and try again, and you’ll almost run into a flagpole just a few feet away.  Almost, but not quite, since the flagpole is not centered on the pink house or the first statue.  Keep going and  you’ll come to a plaque explaining the planned garden ahead of you, but you’ll have to step about two feet to the left to read it since the plaque is not centered on anything you’ve passed so far or even on the garden ahead.  You could keep this up through the garden area, to the statue on the obelisk and so on and you won’t find anything that is lined up with anything else.  It’s generally symmetrical and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to line up the front door of the pink house, the statue, and all the rest but no, they didn’t.  It’s as if someone snapped a plumb line, set all the pieces in place, then nudged each element two feet this way, or four feet that way.  It would be fine, too, if it was clearly asymmetrical, with everything offset enough to give the sense it was done purposefully.  Instead, it looks like each builder just showed up and said, “Close enough.”  It wasn’t.

The most amazing thing to me is how the plaza was used during the recent bicentennial celebrations.  As explained in the last post, this year marks the 200th anniversary of the first local government in Buenos Aires, which began on May 25.  The nearby thoroughfare Avenida 9 de Julio is much, much larger than the Plaza 25 de Mayo, and so made sense as the focal point of the celebrations, but the Plaza seemed more like a construction zone during the celebrations than anything else.  Imagine there was a 4th of July Plaza directly in front of the White House, and the U.S. was getting ready to celebrate its bicentennial (July 4, 1976) and decided to use the White House lawn and the plaza as a loading and unloading zone for events elsewhere.  The Plaza 25 de Mayo looked horrible until the day after the celebrations ended, when all the extra crap was cleaned up and it was transformed into a beautiful public space.  It’s still not lined up, though.


Cairo traffic

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

First I thought the Irish were bad drivers (sorry, Irish readers, but Amy has thirty-year-old co-workers still working on getting their licenses, whereas I was considered to be a slow learner because I got mine at age 18). Then we drove in Spain, and I realized the Spanish are much worse. But the worst by far are the Egyptians.

You would think the Egyptian drivers would be pretty good, considering the obstacles they have to learn to avoid. Since the sidewalks are non-existent, torn up, or being used as an extension of a shop, pedestrians have to walk in the streets most of the time in a city like Luxor. There are donkey carts, horse drawn carriages, bikes (with their riders balancing enormous piles of bread in baskets on their heads), and even sometimes horses all competing for space on the streets.

Maybe it helps not to be able to see what’s on the road. Drivers don’t use their headlights, even at night. They don’t use their turn signals either, preferring to use their horns, which can mean a variety of things: “I’m pulling in front of you,” “Don’t pull in front of me,” “Get out of the way,” “Want a taxi ride?” “Hey, look, I’m driving down the road,” or “It’s Tuesday!”

Most of the taxis are old and don’t have seatbelts, but even in newer vehicles the seatbelts might be disabled. In a fairly new bus we took to Abu Simbel, each seat had a seatbelt, nicely buckled behind the seat, making it impossible to use.

Lanes don’t mean a lot in Egypt. On the ride to the West Bank of Luxor, the driver drove as often in the left lane as in the right, even in the face of oncoming traffic, eventually drifting back over in time to narrowly avoid a collision. It isn’t just on country roads, though, where lanes are mostly theoretical. On our last taxi ride to the airport in Cairo, it didn’t matter whether the road showed three travel lanes in one direction. Sometimes four cars would compete for space, and sometimes our car would simply drift around the tarmac. There was one moment when we were actually in a lane, and the two cars on either side of us drifted about a foot each into our lane at the same time.

Not surprisingly, our taxi didn’t have side view mirrors anymore, but I don’t think the driver would have used them anyway, since he never looked back once to his blind spot. I don’t think he was unique in not looking for cars coming up behind him; it was the norm for drivers to start moving over and assume the car behind would get out of the way in time. With the high speeds, no real lanes, and cars drifting in and out of our path, it felt like we were on a racetrack.

When we arrived safely at the airport, the driver, who spoke no English, said, “Yaaayyy,” and clapped his hands, which got a laugh out of us. I think I now understand the Arabic saying “Insha’Allah,” or “God willing.” I can’t explain our survival without crediting divine intervention.

Mazda 121

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

1997 Mazda 121: €1800
Eight driving lessons: €320
New wiper blades: €28
Passing an Irish Driving Test: priceless

It’s true. Exactly 11 months, 1 week and 1 day after arriving in Ireland I finally have my Irish driving license. The test was nerve wracking, but in the end I was only marked down on one manoeuvre. That old lady shouldn’t have been on the sidewalk anyway!

Now that we are finally free to roam about the countryside, we hope to start doing some exploring. Look out, Ireland. Here we come!

We were riding the bus from the airport in Barcelona to our room in the city, when we both realized everything felt familiar.  It wasn´t like London, where the city seemed so recognizable from countless movies and television shows, but something different.  It took a few moments before we knew what it was.  We were riding on the right side of the road, the green road signs looked like those in the states, and I was most reminded of the first time I was driven on the freeways from the San Antonio, Texas, airport. 


The familiarity with the roads, though, would not last.  We had decided to rent a car this trip which we would pick up at the end of our four days in Barcelona and use to drive to Andalucia in the south.  We could stop where and when we wanted, and getting out to the national parks would be easier with a car than if we used public transportation. 


This falls into the “seemed like a good idea at the time”category.  We have a lot of those.  Several times on each trip we have taken, one of us turns to the other and declares, “Lesson learned,” and explains what we´ve done wrong or what we´ll be doing differently on our next trip.  Usually our first lesson pops up within minutes of our arrival in a new country.  You´d think with enough of these trips, we´d be making fewer mistakes, but while we really do learn our lessons and rarely repeat a mistake, we are talented enough to discover new ways to mess up.


We actually realized the car was a mistake even before we picked it up, when the owner of our hostal (which is different from a hostel) told us about the toll roads, which no research we´d done on Spain had turned up.  It seems that tolls are collected on most of the roads here, and they charge one euro per ten kilometers, which was quite a lot since we were driving over one thousand kilometers just to get to Andalucia, and more kilometers when we got there.  It turned out that only a fraction of the roads we used had tolls, so it wasn´t quite that bad.


Navigating and driving out of Barcelona was the first challenge.  I´ve driven a little in Ireland where they have lots of roundabouts, but at least there they have lanes.  Here, at the first roundabout I came to, all the cars seemed to shift one lane (there were three) to the right as they entered the roundabout, at which point all the lines disappeared and drivers pretty much went where they wanted.  It was madness, and both Amy and I discovered we really can curse quite effectively when the need arrives.  At least this roundabout had some helpful signage.  Leaving Almeria we found one where the signs before the roundabout listed the many destinations reachable through this roundabout, but once in it, not a single exit had a sign saying where it led. 


Driving on the autovia (freeway) is really not that different from driving in America, except for the larger number of drivers who don´t realize there is a striped line down the center of the road separating the two travel lanes, which, along with the speeding of many drivers, explains why Spain has the highest fatal auto accident rate in Europe.  It´s in the cities, though, where the driving turns to hell.  For example, it took more than 90 minutes after arriving in Granada to reach our hostal.  We had printed a map with just enough detail to show us an easy way to the hostal, with only three turns.  Of course it didn´t work, because before we arrived at our second turn the street was restricted to buses and taxis, forcing us to turn down a side-street and begin our forty minutes of wandering.  We knew from driving in Almeria that there apparently had been a law passed that whatever road we were driving on would not have visible street names, and any street where the name was visible would not be on our map.  This proved true in Granada as well, and only by a little luck did we arrive safely at our hostal. 


The worse part for me is that I was named as the driver for the entire trip.  Amy´s driving test in Ireland was rescheduled until after our trip, and we didn´t want her to relearn to drive on the right side of the road here in Spain and then make a mistake on the test.  To further ensure she wouldn´t be contaminated by this trip to the continent, the entire drive she had to close her eyes, cover her ears, and go, ¨Blah, blah, blah, blah.¨

Although this posting is really more about Amy, I’m writing it because Amy couldn’t without using an expletive every other word, she‘s that mad.  So, what’s up?  Amy was scheduled to take her driving test this Thursday and had been preparing for it diligently, but yesterday she got a call cancelling the appointment.  The excuse was that someone is sick, which is fair enough, but it doesn’t help that she now doesn’t know when she’ll be able to take the test.

You Americans reading this are wondering, “Why didn’t she just reschedule right away?”  Because this is Ireland, and if there’s a sensible way to do things, it’s almost certainly not the way things are done here.  Let me start at the beginning.

When drivers from the European Union (EU) and a handful of countries outside the EU move to Ireland, they can simply trade in their old licenses and get Irish ones.  But Americans aren’t so lucky, and they need to first pass the written portion of the test, then once they have their provisional license, wait six months before they can take the test.  In other words, it doesn’t matter that Amy has been driving for half her life, here she’s treated just like a sixteen-year-old learning to drive for the first time and she still has to wait six months.

More accurately, Americans have to wait at least six months, because the Irish equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles has about the stupidest system of scheduling I’ve ever seen.  If you had to wait six months in America before you could take your test, when you got to about five months, you would just call up the DMV and schedule your appointment for the day after your six months probation was up, right?  But here, when you get close to your six months, you fill out a request and the Road Safety Authority eventually sends you a letter telling you when your driving exam is.  You have no say in when or even where it is (there are several testing sites), you‘re just told a time and place to take the test.  They don’t check their own records, so they may assign you a time that is five months and 28 days after you passed your written test.  If they do, you’re out of luck and you have to go through the requesting procedure again.  On the other hand, your scheduled test may be long after your six months is up, which is what had happened to Amy.  She had met her six month requirement in the middle of August, but of course they assigned her an October 2 date.

She felt a little ridiculous doing so, but Amy had been taking driving lessons, almost the only legal way for an American over here to practice driving before taking the test.  It’s one thing for a teenager to ask a parent or older friend to give them lessons, but when you’re 36, it’s not so easy to find a qualified driver to sit next to you while you practice driving.  This adds another wrinkle to the ridiculous system — Amy will have driven far less in the weeks leading up to her exam than she had done in the weeks and months leading up to her arrival here.

The only way we’ve been able to see other parts of Ireland is for us to rent a car (although we own one) and have me drive (though I haven’t shown that I know the first thing about Ireland’s laws by taking a written test).   Yes, here is where it gets even more absurd.  Amy has a provisional license, and she has insurance to drive our car, but legally she can’t drive without a person sitting next to her who has had a full Irish license for at least two years.  I don’t have an Irish provisional license, so I can drive on my American license, but can’t get insurance on our car because I don‘t have an Irish license.  Therefore neither of us can drive our own car because Amy has the wrong license and I can’t get insurance.

However, when we rent a car, I can get insurance through the rental agency, which means I can drive a rental  on my American license and the rental agency’s insurance, but Amy still can’t drive because she’s gotten her learner’s permit.  Further, if any of you American readers fly over here, rent a car, and drive all over Ireland, it‘s perfectly legal, but since Amy has taken a written test showing she understands the rules of the road here she is legally barred from driving these same roads.  Got it?

So, now Amy waits.  They told her they did put her on a priority list but we really don’t know what that means.  We assume that if someone cancels, they’ll call, so now she may get a call some morning asking her to come in and take the test later that day.  This would mean she will have to cancel work appointments, find a driver to come with her (if she shows up at the test site in her car with no qualified driver with her, they will fail her immediately since she will have driven to the test site illegally), race home to get the car, then off to the test site, whichever one it is.  Or, they may call when we’re on holidays (we head to Spain for two weeks beginning the last week in October).  Actually, we pretty much know that will happen because it would be the most inconvenient and mean even more waiting.