Driving Dr Gledhill: Intro*

I have been back in the UK for exactly one month and many things spring to mind as a posting topic, but none so emphatically as driving! Of course, there are the obvious differences like driving on the left, as everyone else calls the right side of the road (or as they call it in Brazil, ‘mão inglesa’), but my experience has revealed much sharper contrasts.

When I arrived in Brazil in December 1986, the economy was at a standstill. The day I arrived in Bahia, a general strike had been declared and the beaches were full. There was a price freeze in place and most basic commodities had vanished from the shelves, awaiting a thaw. The people I was staying with obtained dairy products and meat from their relatives in the countryside. The supermarkets were bare. The very thought of purchasing a car was a far-fetched dream for most. When I asked a Capoeira teacher if he had a car, he said he had to sell it because he couldn’t afford the petrol. It took a few minutes to realise he was joking. By the time I left, it was so easy to buy a car that the roads were clogged. Endless traffic jams were making Salvador worse than São Paulo. But in all that time, I never wanted to buy a car. Wondering why? Let me explain.

I had just arrived from Los Angeles, which of course is a city designed for driving cars. Public transport was (still is) so bad that anyone who could afford the cheapest hulk would prefer one. My first automobile in that city cost $100 (purchased from a friend of a friend) and listed to one side. I seem to recall that it was a Ford with push-button transmission. I was immediately pulled over after taking delivery because it didn’t have a catalytic converter!

Thanks to hand-me-downs from my family, I went on to better wheels, but my experience on the roads was pretty much the same – lots of motorway (expressway) driving, both within the city and en route to other parts of the state. I was a prudent driver and kept strictly to the speed limit – living dangerously by LA standards because shortly after I left I heard that drivers who did the same were being shot at! I drove for a total of 8 years before settling in Brazil. And that is where my driving experience ended until last week.

Why, you may ask. would I willingly give up my freedom of movement and put myself in the hands of bus and taxi drivers (the Metro only started running last year and I’ve only taken it once)? Of course, buying a car would have been very expensive – the monthly payments, insurance, maintenance, petrol (or ethanol, which is also an option in Brazil), and parking! But that was not the main or only reason. In short, drivers in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil (being careful not to generalise) are completely insane. Road rage is normal behaviour, especially for bus drivers. Signalling is more like gaslighting. Thought I was turning left? Hah! Gotcha! And motorcyclists weave among the sweltering motorists (who keep their air conditioning turned off to save money) like extras from a Mad Max film. Long story short, as long as I could afford to take a taxi, I preferred to have a professional behind the wheel, but even that had its perils…. (to be continued)

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*It has always amused me that in Brazil – at least, in Bahia – if a taxi driver wants to ingratiate himself with a passenger, he (they are usually men) will call them ‘doutor’ or ‘doutora’ (or even worse, for females, ‘madame’). When I was working towards my PhD, I would joke that I wasn’t a ‘doutora’ – just a ‘doutoranda’ (PhD candidate). Then when I actually had a doctorate, I would suggest to those who called me ‘madame’ that ‘doutora’ would be more appropriate! Here in Blighty, people I don’t know routinely call me Dr Gledhill. Still getting used to it.

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