My American Adventure - Part 2
This is the next in my series of the adventurous America visit I made all by myself to LA one winter. I feel it is an experience well-worth to recollect and share with you, about a true story of how I got a crash-course in USA driving on the Los Angeles roads, safely within an hour. This also made me realize that having known how to drive for more than a decade outside USA did not make me any better when I first took to the wheels in Pasadena.
It became a trip to remember as it was the first time in my life I ever traveled to USA without informing friends or family to receive me at the airport or to take me around with their protection. I was amazed at the important lessons I learnt as a South-east Asian, which I will cherish, share and use for my whole life.
On my first day in LA, as a house guest at a friend’s Pasadena home, I make a phone call to a Car Rental Company. I wanted to hire a car to drive around during my stay there. After this call I made early that morning, I crouch back into my warm bed to enjoy the rest of the slumber. No sooner did I doze off did I receive a call. It was the rent-a-car company who had come to pick me up to escort me to rent the car. That sounded too cool. I thought to myself, "What a VIP service! I love this place!". We get a lift to the car company if we want to rent a car? So I got dressed, not forgetting my jacket as it was a freezing American winter even though it was the west coast and no snow to worry about.
With a friendly African American voice ushering me into this huge dazzling Ford truck, I was in a bit of a dilemma to step in as I would be traveling in a stranger's vehicle. But I knew I had nothing to fear as the car company was recommended by my host. Having hopped in I was still very cautions, ready to jump out, if I smelt something strange. Circumstances could push human beings to be ready for any situation to defend themselves. I usually program myself to get into a high-alert mode in such situations. A huge price we pay for freedom is to sometimes put ourselves in risky situations. To many, such a situation is not a big issue. They may say, what is the fuss about!? But to me I had to take extra precautions just in case, as I am in a foreign land, though globalization has made lifestyles not so foreign. So I was like a spiky backed frightened kitten, ready to charge. But my face did not show the tsunami inside of me. Luckily some of us with natural tan skin don’t turn red easily. So I was okay.
This situation would never have come by, if I had come to this land, feeling safe with friends and escorts. So here I was alone and I passed my first test. When I finally got dropped off in front of the car rental store, I walked in feeling like a rodeo star.
Little has the man behind the desk guessed the celebration of victory that was going on inside of me, when I approached the front office of the place. He was Julio, a macho-looking man of Puerto Rican origin. Yet Julio did not come any closer to the stature I felt about myself, at that moment.
I finish up all the procedures to take the most affordable car which was available there - a Hyundai Accent, which would cost me $600 for a month. The rates of the mouth-watering American gas guzzling or continental cars were worth only looking at, for they were three-times the rental rates of that of their Japanese or Korean counterparts. A modest alternative for convenient commute is what I needed and so I chose ‘The Accent’.
What came up in moments made me realize how naive I was. Like a little puppy dog I was living for the moment. I never carried anything with me but my purse and insurance documents. So I was taken by surprise when Julio handed over the Hyundai keys pleasantly saying that the car was all mine.
I was in panic because I never did in my wildest dreams, think when I pranced out of my house that I will have to find my way back home in the new car.
In my mind I could not stop hitting my head for being such a fool…to think I will get escorted back! I called myself "moron" for not carrying with me the Thomas Brother’s Map book which McKay had suggested I carry everywhere, if I am driving.
If one drives in the country of the United States of America, one goes nowhere without at least a mapquest/google print-out of directions. Treading outside without that is the tastiest recipe to get lost.
Now again, I am on my own without a map and with no American road sense.The first time I would drive a car in such a huge country and that too in the unforgiving roads of LA, with no map-in-hand, new in town and not knowing how to understand directions in terms of east, west, north or south. All whom I asked for directions did so this was by saying for instance, "...go east then take a turn to the north"....etc etc...and I look all dazed and confused the whole time.
I kept thinking ….this is not happening….Is this a joke? No, I am not going to give up even before getting started!?
So I drove the car. At least driving seemed normal because in Dubai where I came from, we drove on the same side.
With this as a consolation, I drove on. However I was completely aware that I was so confidently driving away from the direction of home. And I knew that I had to turn right back by the nearest U-turn.
But that was the question! I looked out for the type of U-turn I am always used to seeing 'back in Dubai'. To my horror, I never saw one for the next 10 minutes. And I kept going on and on. The nearest U-turn seemed to never come. My greatest worry is that I must not hit a freeway, because if I do I would never know how to turn back nor be able to figure out where I turned off. And before I know it I maybe in another city. This was quite early in the morning, so I was at least relieved that I was quite far from nightfall when I may have got thrown into more horrors.
I see a green light and I cross it with full throttle as I am used to back in Dubai. In actuality we should actually look and then pass a green light. So the difference here in LA was that I hear a bunch
of honks when I just drove past the green signal. When it happened the second time I realized
with embarrassment, that these LA locals driving past ….were singing…."The brown
girl in the rain tra la la la?' And the honks were for me….but why? I was not
breaking any traffic rules? I wondered before I realized the problem.
So I dial Julio, the only person I thought could help me navigate back home. With much of toiling with words and my mind to figure out Julio’s directions, I finally figured this:
When a green light falls in California, you move forward only after looking if the road is safe. Not as pampered as from where I came, where one just drives ahead when the green light falls. But the right thing is always to look and then go if safe. That is the international law. I should have gone for a couple of driving lessons with that international license. Just the license to drive there, is no good coming from where I drove and worked. I was disgusted with myself!
However, in my defense I cannot defame myself as allegedly calling myself a bad driver. I am not, but I just failed to perform as well that day in a completely foreign scenario, caught off guard with no directions and the worry about the unfamiliar traffic regulations.
In USA the directions are communicated in terms of North-South-East-West. By now my mind was reeling because I found when I stop to ask for directions, it is either an answer, like you take east along Magnolia or a person responding in pure Spanish. Nobody told me when I took my international drivers license to drive in LA, that I needed to know Spanish?
Well of course if I told friends I am coming on a holiday here, they would have driven me and I would have never learned all this the right way. So I have no regrets, deciding to make this trip alone.
In the places I have lived and worked before this, we just spoke in terms of landmarks and went by directions in the names of localities.
I can't believe even this crossed my mind... should I have noticed which side the sun rose from that morning? How pathetic was I! Also, little did I know that there were so many non-English speaking migrants in LA? That was a surprise! I had to tread out on my own in USA to learn up all this. However, I wondered why and how did all these tips and tricks not come out of the immigrants who came here. I have never heard anyone advice a newcomer coming to the USA about any of this.
This is what we become when we visit a new land and have always had gracious friends and family to entertain us. I was pleased I made this decision to take this adventure.
This was one big lesson in life for me. Though it could never be compared to daring experiences like that of Richard Branson or the marine biologist, Jacques Cousteau. But this small exploration was huge for me which perhaps taught me the same lessons they too would have in a different way. Although, mine was not life-threatening as theirs but life-turning, if I may say so.
This is very amusing to a non-American. At every stop sign in LA we must slam the brakes and stay
with the foot on the brake for 3 seconds in order to show proof, also to make sure that when we stop the
brake lights come on. Otherwise we could get cited for a traffic offense. Now who
would have told me this particular driving rule if I had not driven here on my own. Every tiny finding I made this way was a pleasure although it was figured out in such anxiety. As it all happened suddenly, I was again okay.
As a newbie LA driver, one of the first few days, I was faithfully performing this new ritual on a straight school-road of slamming the brakes by the stop sign. Every time I stopped and counted three, I would hear a jarring honk and a rude heavy brake just behind me. And I would shout inside my car at the top of my voice! Of course with the windows all up, “It is the city rules, which I am following! Why do people have to honk?" Finally, after I turned into another road and was waiting at the signal, I saw a mammoth LA-style macho truck slamming the brakes almost startling me, just beside my tiny Hyundai, the cowboy face actually cussed me and drove away.
That night I kept jumping up in my bed after nightmares of that cussing face.
LA’s drivers hold championships for this kind of behavior. I have only read in books or seen in the movies. But I was living testimony to see it live.
"Every state in the USA has their own driving rules" is another surprising statement I heard my American citizen colleague say once. So much so that people driving in other states land up occupying prisons serving various capital crimes for ignorantly breaking road rules.
In the state of New Jersey, there is no way one can take a conventional U-turn like in the rest of the world. There is something called the jug-handle curve. I don’t want to even get started with explaining that. Maybe I could make it a whole new chapter. (Wink!)
With people honking at me all the way on that first days drive
on the road, left me completely shaken up, shuddering whenever I saw the cop
vehicle at every junction. I realized I just could not figure out where the
U-turn was. I kept driving straight down till I decided that the safest thing
was to turn off at the next block and come around to closely look for the
U-turns I may have missed. Unfortunately for me, I would see the cop’s vehicle
where I did not want to see. I was terrified of getting stopped by them after
I come to their notice that I was clueless and driving around, pointless. And when
they would hear my ethnic accent, they won't need anymore explanations. Well these were all my fears that finally never did happen. I was just blowing everything out of proportion, in sheer panic.
I kept asking myself, "Where on earth was the U-turn?" With no answers, I finally decided to watch for any vehicle ahead of me who maybe taking a U-turn. Much to my rare luck that day, I found a car do exactly what I wanted. On seeing this I hit the gas, all excited to see where the sign was placed so that I could turn like him. When I did finally figure out, I could not believe what I saw…..The U-turn was artistically printed on the road! Which foreigner would ever guess, especially someone like me who was among those who have been absolutely given straight-forward rules to follow and from a modern road system with digital signs in Dubai.
A vast and beautiful country like America had road systems in order, since many years ago, and here I am trying to debate and compare the age old road system to a new city like Dubai where new rules are coined by the minute as everything is just in formation and transition. It was far from a system like in the USA where it has been tried and tested for years that nothing could be changed without years of research.
Oh wow! Now that I took the much sought after “U-turn” after driving for miles, I head back to the direction of home-sweet-home. Shaking my head thinking that I have done enough of work for that whole day although it was just 11 in the morning.
On the way back, I realized that all that driving had sucked away the Accent's gas and I needed to refuel her. My next problem in life was how to fill gas into the Accent, for I saw no assistance at the petrol station. With just the machine and I staring at the meter, I decided to call my only reachable friend at that moment in the United States, who stayed in another state in Minnesota. So Anne started off what I thought would be remote instructions to help me fill gas into my Accent in LA. In minutes, to my amusement I realized that the procedure of even filling gas in LA was foreign not only to me but to Anne. There is quite a culture gap/lifestyle difference between California and the Mid-west. I landed up doing it myself with Anne on the phone for moral support.
Having said this, I finally must admit that I wouldn’t unravel my flag of pride by saying I did all this travel in the States and made this adventure a success all by myself. I couldn't have gone at least so far, without my friends who were constantly there to my rescue, performing remote-robotics being Good Samaritans all the way. (Smiles).
By now I got a hang of the streets with me looking for the directions, U-turn, avoiding cops, doing merry-go-rounds around blocks, avoiding one-ways. And without further ado let me tell you, that I finally reached home in all that maze.
What I have discussed here is purely my perspective with no intention to hurt anybody's views on the above. This was just my take of my experiences in USA as a foreign country.
Thanks for reading and I hope to be back narrating another adventure on this America trip in 2006. Drive safe!