A few of weeks ago our car arrived. I had been dreading its arrival as much as I had been anticipating it. A car in this city gives you a level of freedom that traveling by taxi or by public transportation does not. And it makes it a lot easier to bring home the groceries!
But the truth is that driving in Quito is stressful. My husband says it isn’t any more difficult than driving in Washington DC and sometimes I’m tempted to agree with him. But he also has driving experience in some of the wildest countries in the world, Turkey, Qatar, and Afghanistan. His aggressive driving technique has been honed from years of experience. My experience comes from driving in big cities like Washington DC, San Francisco, and Stuttgart, Germany.
I’ve honed defensive driving skills only and allowed the more aggressive-side of my driving nature to be left behind with my teenage self. Unfortunately, defensive driving gets you nowhere in Quito. A defensive driver like myself might get stuck at an intersection for hours at a time if it weren’t for the folks behind me honking their horns or ever so politely getting closer and closer to my back bumper. Or, they might just jump to the chase and go around my car, traffic from the other direction be damned.
Therefore, I am learning to drive a little differently. My husband recommended that I revert to being 17 years old again and drive like a teenager. It’s good advice. I’ve learned to accelerate to pass other cars like they’re standing still. You never want to get stuck in a lane with slow cars. I’ve learned when stuck in slow moving traffic to turn the nose of my vehicle into the neighboring lane in order to make a place for my car. There is a general rule of thumb: the car in front, no matter by how few inches, has the right of way. It’s pretty expected here and most people don’t get upset when you commit this kind of lane creeping. However, if you don’t commit and you only edge over a little bit, they’ll just drive right by, coming mere centimeters within hitting your vehicle.
The rhythm of driving changes here depending on the time of day and the day of the week. The best day is Sunday and if you’re learning to navigate the city, this is the day with the least amount of traffic. It makes it easier to concentrate on street signs and new traffic patterns and to take a swing around all the different traffic circles just to get a feel for them. Because on the weekdays, especially as people are headed to work or coming home, those same traffic circles are chock-a-block with vehicles of every kind – taxis, city buses, small trucks, and just your regular old cars. Right of way goes to those already in the circle and if you don’t know how to maneuver in, well, back to folks honking their horns or just passing you by.
As I’ve become more accustomed to the rhythms of driving, I’ve had a little more time to pay attention to the traffic around me, in the larger sense. I know that buses are likely to stop a lot and you never stay in a lane behind one. I know that small cars don’t always have the engine power to handle some of the hills in the city and you pass as soon as possible. I know that many of the cars are stick-shifts and many people don’t know how to use their clutch on a hill. Therefore, don’t get too close to cars on hills. I know that taxis are always in a hurry and will zip around me in a heartbeat. Just let them go and don’t worry about them. I know that families will pile into vehicles and that few people actually where seat belts. In fact, we just saw a young girl with her head sticking out the sunroof the other day as the car she was in flew down the local version of a highway. Her hair was flowing behind her like a Golden Retriever’s ears. She looked like she was having a grand time but I could only imagine the driver hitting the brakes hard and her poor body flying free from the car.
Which brings me back to defensive driving all over again. I want to drive in a way that not only keeps me and my passengers safe, but those in the cars around me. I’m afraid that’s wishful thinking around here but it goes along with my personality. I am often accused of being naive and I guess when it comes to driving in Quito, I’ll continue to let other drivers press their advantage, to give huge leeway to those that have children in their cars, and to be the person that stops and allows a car to turn left in front of me just because I’m not in as much a hurry as they are. Do me a favor, if you’re driving on the road behind me, give me a break and don’t honk the horn right away. I promise, I’ll move forward when it’s safe.