Driven to Distraction (Part 1)
December 27, 1993
Abu Dhabi, UAE
Let me see. Where did I leave off the last time…? Ah yes, driving.
Driving is a dangerous sport in the UAE. Venture out onto the roads and you take your life into your hands. No kidding. In the last three days I've seen as many accidents while I'm out and about. The other night I was sitting out on the balcony reading, when I heard the screech of brakes from the road that runs past our building...
I turned to look at the roundabout, which is maybe 100 feet past the apartment complex, and boom: collision. It's very scary. They pass on the inside and the outside shoulders on the highway. I'm sure they'd go over you if they could. And fast? Speeding bullets couldn’t compete with the drivers here.
Surprisingly, it's unbelievably difficult to get your driver's licence in the UAE. Some people try for years. Not months mind you - years! We know one guy who has been trying for more than a year. The last time he went for a test, the examiner kept asking him questions and chatting. Now, this fellow is a radio DJ, so of course he chatted back. At the end of the session, the examiner told him he didn't pass because he talked too much!
Fortunately neither Bobby nor I had to take a test to get our UAE licences. As the bearers of valid foreign driving permits we simply transferred ours. Nevertheless, it took me two weeks and four trips to the licence bureau to affect the transfer.
First I had to find out my blood type by going to the blood bank and having it tested (a good idea I must admit, having everyone's blood type printed right on the front of one’s licence), because they couldn't determine whether I was A positive or A negative at “The Company” clinic.
I also had to have my Canadian licence translated into Arabic, then the translation, along with the original licence, were couriered to the Canadian consulate in Dubai for verification.
(There’s no Canadian consulate in Abu Dhabi, in fact there is no Canadian embassy in the UAE. Really important stuff must be couriered to the embassy in Kuwait or Saudi. Apparently somebody made a diplomatic faux pas, and insulted the people here by closing the Canadian embassy in Abu Dhabi without warning several years ago. Rumour is the UAE was so offended that Canada is permanently forbidden to establish an embassy here, but maybe it’s just a rumour.)
I also needed a letter from Bobby saying he gave me permission to drive. All women here must have permission from their husbands or their fathers before they are allowed to get their licence...
Anyway I finally got it, ugly picture and all. It was pretty straightforward in the end I guess, just a matter of having the right paperwork at the right time and the requisite number of passport photos, two in this case. Several passport photos are usually required for just about everything: health club memberships, liquor licences, health cards, etc.; it’s also common practice to send photos with your resume when applying for a job.
Now that I can drive, I take my life in my hands each day as I venture out into the streets of Abu Dhabi, my Range Rover and I against the crazies, like some kind of expatriate Road Warrior.
The streets and roads in and around Abu Dhabi are well built and maintained. Almost all, including the ones in the city core, are three lanes in each direction with a median in between. The medians are grassed, flowered, treed and fenced for the most part.
The main arteries, which are lined with buildings, form a sort of grid pattern; but within the large blocks of the grid there are often smaller alleys and streets, especially in the "older" (i.e. more than 5 years old), parts of the city. Theses alleys normally house a multitude of shops, restaurants, etc. on the ground floors of more high-rise buildings, which are located within the blocks.
Traffic flow is controlled by both traffic lights (or signals, depending whence you hail), and traffic circles (roundabouts), in approximately equal proportions. In the downtown core lights prevail; vice-versa outside the city centre. The traffic lights are slow to change to accommodate U-turns, which are allowed at virtually every intersection.
The long lights give ample opportunity for paperboys stationed at the intersections to hawk their publications to waiting motorists. They walk between the lanes of stationery vehicles waving an assortment of daily newspapers and glossy magazines at a momentarily captive audience.
This has to be one of the worst jobs in Abu Dhabi, especially in the heat of summer, out there on the hot pavement hour after hour. I often saw paperboys absolutely drenched with sweat from head to toe even in the "cooler" days of September.
The second the lights change the race is on. Everyone honks madly - prompting those in front to put the “pedal to metal” - and the paperboys dart to the median on one side, and the sidewalk on the other in a frenzied dash to relative safety, like so many ten pins in the wake of a careering bowling ball.