Having grown up in the Mid-West, I learned to drive on wide, asphalt-covered, grand swaths of road and highway; and because my tiny hometown was also situated in the countryside, there were plenty of gravel roads to whiz down, as well. I have never (knock, knock, knock) been in a car-related accident and I have always considered myself to be a fairly decent driver. At least, that’s what I thought until I started driving in Mauritius.
Minnesotans should take extreme pride in their roadways. The roads in Minnesota, in my opinion, are perfect bliss and I seriously miss driving on them. The highways there are wide, clean, straight, well-marked, well-lit and lacking serious L.S.D.-sized potholes (Chicago citizens you know to what I refer).
When I lived in Minnesota, some people I knew would complain that the Department of Transportation received too much of the overall state budget for its operations. But, I must say that money does indeed buy some glorious asphalt. And not only asphalt, but stop signs, stop lights and those bright orange cones used during road construction. In Mauritius, these everyday items of the roadway are premium pieces and there are not too many to be found, not even in the largest city here, Port Louis.
They drive on the left side of the road in Mauritius; therefore, drivers sit on the right-hand side of the car. Before I started to drive here, I had only driven on the left once when I was traveling in Scotland, but it was many years ago and the skills to drive on the left did not sink in. Because this is not North America, most cars are manual gear. I have driven manual gear cars a few times in the past, but again, no ‘kick-in’ skill set has taken root in any part of my brain. Needless to say, the first time out of the gate I didn’t get very far.
I only went as far as to the end of our tiny lane. It was then decided that for my sanity and the sanity of my Frenchman, we would seek out an automatic car for me to drive while we lived on the island. We found one and my driving in Mauritius adventures soon became a daily experience.
My office is located within the center bustle of Port Louis near to the major horse racing track. In fact, I park my car in the middle of the race track each day. And each day as I’m walking from my car to the office, I trek through the daily dust and hay of the ashen race track. Many of the city buses also park here so I try not to have my laptop bag swing too far out into the road while I’m plodding into the office. I’d be clipped for sure.
When I lived in Chicago, it used to take me thirty to forty minutes to go from my North side apartment into the downtown core. I used a mix of transportation including the bus, the L-Train and my feet to walk the distance from the nearest stop. Here in Mauritius it takes me forty five minutes to an hour to make my way into the office via car.
Chicago is one of the largest cities in the U.S. and there are tons of people that make the morning and evening commute not only from within the city proper, but from the surrounding suburbs, as well. Yet, there are only 1.5 million people in total living on the entire island and it still takes me longer to get to work. There are no trains here and the bus system is a tad loose with its schedules. The majority of people that work in Port Louis commute in via car and because the city developed rather quickly without a strong traffic grid nor any structured pattern to help control traffic flow, the traffic here is somewhat lopsided and a bit chaotic.
To drive from the far North of the island where we live into Port Louis, there is one main highway. It’s two lanes for the majority of the way and there are no street lights. Passing slow moving cars can be done at any time and drivers on both sides need to pay attention. If a car in the opposite lane is passing and is still in your on-coming lane, it is expected that you will slow down your car and move off to the side of the road so that he or she may pass. There are no traffic lights nor stop lights, but there are a few ‘round-abouts’ which after getting used to, I find, are rather a genius way to control traffic at four-point intersections.
I also dig driving my car and going 100! Too bad it’s really only about 62 miles per hour. Why is the US not metric? It really is quite baffling and living here makes me wish I would have paid closer attention to that one chapter we covered in the fourth grade. Live and learn. Live and learn.
As you get closer to the city, the two lane highway becomes four lane and you start to hit the suburbs of Port Louis. Sidewalks are not common here and people will cross the highway anywhere and at anytime. The other night while I was driving home from work, I noticed a group of women in Saris in the median of the highway not too far off from where I was fast approaching and what’s the other thing I see? They also had two baby strollers.
They all made a mad dash for it, pushing the babies as they ran. I said a silent prayer for the group hoping that a colorful sari wouldn’t be pulled under by one of the stroller wheels and hit the brake. These types of median crossings happen all the time and the crossers can be walkers, scooters or people on bicycles.
There are lots of scooters and bicycles here and they are old school if not beginning school style. Driving home in the dark, you really have to watch for the scooters because many of them do not have any lights. Or if they do, the bulb lets off such a faint flicker that you really can’t see it unless you are almost on top of it.
And the dogs are there, as well, and none of them are wearing reflective tape or lights of any kind. They can pop out of a sugar field at any point and just stand and stare in the middle of the highway. My hand position on the wheel is always 10 and 2 or 9 and 3. There is no chillin’, one-hand driving going on. It is serious business with eyes forward, a straight back and thank goodness I had that cup of instant joe before I left the office.
But, I really get my driving sweats when I hit downtown during rush hour. Driving from the main highway to my dirt track parking lot is never the same. Some days there may be a man pushing a cart down the middle of the main road that leads to city hall and taffic will get a bit backed up. On other days the streets in Chinatown may be overflowing with fresh vegetables because the harvest was especially large over the weekend. The buses drive directly through it, cars slowly creep around it and the scooters just scoot about everywhere.
There are a handful of traffic lights downtown and many intersections are simply unmarked. I now know which intersections I need to watch out for and which ones have an unmarked right of privilege. I have also mastered the Mauritian hand out the window, finger pointing gesture which allows me to make the difficult right-hand turn.
I have driven on sidewalks, had scooters and bicyclists hold onto the back of my car and forced traffic in the opposite lane to stop and wait while I drove around buses, carts and parked cars. My tires have cabbage in the treads. Attention! I am driving in Mauritius. Think left. Look right.