Driving in NZ

the road warrior

Yesterday I had my first experience driving a car in New Zealand.  There is one adjective to describe this experience for both myself and my passenger: terrifying.

People in Wellington drive extremely fast.  The roads are extremely narrow, twisting, and hilly.  Louis’s car (pictured above), is huge, wide, does not have power steering, and is manual transmission (and billows out toxic fumes upon start-up).  This combined with the fact that for the past 15 years of my driving experience I have done things completely opposite to what I should be doing now made the experience quite challenging.

50 km/hr + narrow twisty roads + hills + driving on the left + enormous car = LORD SAVE ME

In my opinion, most of the logistical factors in driving a car are of the muscle-memory, instinctive variety.  Especially for some one like myself, who learned to drive 15 years ago, in suburban Chicago, and have driven infrequently in the past 10 years, mostly in North America, I am used to a particular style of driving.  Other than awareness and alertness, the physical act of driving is like riding a bicycle, my body just instinctively knows what to do.  Well, imagine if some one just turned your entire world up-side down.  Shifting gears with your left hand, signaling with your right, turning right into the left-hand lane of traffic… it’s all so counter-intuitive!

Beyond even the quite obvious principle that most people are right-handed, therefore it makes sense that the driver should be on the left side of the car, with the clutch on the right side of the driver, everything just felt wrong about driving on the other side of the road. I was constantly afraid that I would turn into the wrong lane of traffic, where I would be crushed by a huge oncoming truck.  Having a bicycle for the past 2 months has certainly helped acclimatise me to the rules of the road and general flow of traffic, but I still do find myself cycling along the right-hand side of the road occasionally on an empty street, and at an intersection, looking left then right before crossing.

Another thing – there are NO STOP SIGNS in this city!  It’s all yield and “right of way” signs, which means people never stop!  You get to an intersection, and just roll right through.  Now I know why people drive so fast here – they never have to stop!

To be honest, I don’t really care to learn to drive in this country.  I hope to never be in a situation where I have to drive on a regular basis, or own a car.  However, due to increased pressure from my flatmates, I have been made to feel quite guilty for attempting to get out of any driving-related tasks, without any valid reason for doing so, simply because I don’t like cars or driving. Especially when I have a valid driver’s license.

But really, is it wrong of me?  I am vehemently opposed to non-communal or public-transportation motor-vehicles.  I would be totally happy to never have to drive a car again.   There are circumstances when driving is essential, for example, when I wanted to visit Lascaux in France, in which case, you have to take a taxi, which can be prohibitively expensive, or rent a car.  There were no buses that went there, 40 kms from the nearest town, so I had to rent a car and drive alone through the French countryside, when I could barley drive a stick-shift.  That was stressful!  But worth it to see that amazing cave.

My flatmates like to do a weekly trip to the super-market, where we spend approximately $100 on food, and then on Sundays, we spend $50 at the vegetable market.  It has been the habit for Louis to drive his car and I to accompany him.  Lotte cannot drive, and generally stays home with the baby.  This is a lot of food, and would be difficult to transport without a car.  I understand that there may be a situation where Louis cannot go to the store or the market, in which case it would probably fall on me to do the shopping on my own.  Luckily, this hasn’t happened yet.  If I were able to drive the car, it would be a lot easier.  However, in my current state of hating-driving, I would have to either ride my bicycle to Kilbirnie and back, lugging 20 kgs of groceries with me uphill, or, walk 15 minutes to catch a bus, and then catch it back to town before walking home, uphill, with 20 kgs of groceries.  Neither of these options sound attractive.  Due to the irritating and completely fucked up nature of Wellington, the nearest grocery store to my house is at least a 30 minute walk, and overpriced.  The more reasonably priced grocery store is about 7 kms away.   Today I went to Moore Wilsons (about 2.5 kms distance), on my bike and bought 20kgs of things, and it was exhausting lugging it all back.  Did I mention it’s uphill? BOTH WAYS?  And usually raining?

WHY? Why did I come to this godforsaken place?  How long for the days when I lived on St. Dominique, 100 meters from “Epicerie Segal”, alternatively “The Push N’ Shove”, or “The Third World Market”, the cheapest grocery store in Montreal! Or on du Parc and St. Joseph, upstairs  from the PA!!!  Or even when I lived by the IGA in St-Henri.  How I long for the Aldi on Cermak ave in Chicago, dream about the Fairplay (just don’t go at the end of the month, when the food stamp benefits come in!), and fantasize about Pete’s Fresh Market.  Even Si-Muang City-Mart in Vientiane was more convenient than the offerings of this town!  Wellington, people have to eat for Christs’s sake!!  Why make it so difficult?

Oh, North America, I know I have expressed disdain for you in the past, but how I miss your courteous, moderately-paced motorists, grid-like traffic patterns, stop signs, bicycle lanes, and conveniently located amenities.  You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.

Because of all of these circumstances, I must admit, driving is a useful skill.  I’m sure that there will be an occasion when all this will seem well worth it, despite my current reluctance.

It’s certainly true that driving offers convenience.  However, I would argue that this is due to the layout and geography of our cities and towns, which is in part due to oil and car manufacturers lobbying for zoning regulations that encourage dependency on non-renewable resources, and fosters isolation.  If people actually challenged the perception that cars are a necessary evil, and refused to live in neighborhoods where a car was needed, we could build stronger communities with more efficient and effective public transportation.   We should demand this from our public officials.  So, yeah, what can we do?  Well, we can start by not driving, which is what I’m doing.  OK, now I have a valid excuse for not learning – I’m ideologically opposed to it!

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