Our first road trip in a foreign country was in Italy. We rented a car in Pisa, drove to a farm near San Gimignano and did day-trips all over Tuscany. Due to my lack of organization, and absolutely impossible directions from Google maps, we were completely unable to find the farmhouse on the first day without getting a lot of help from some kind Italians. Apart from that we did just fine finding our way around mainly because our travelling companion, Ruth, had an iPhone and could plot directions for us. We also used an old-fashioned map. This is not to say it was not without its fraught moments, but in retrospect it seems all generally went smoothly enough.
Tuscany was followed a few weeks later by a three-day journey from Barcelona to Nerja on the Costa Del Sol, and twelve days later making the return journey along the same roads, and staying at the same hotels in the same towns. To say Spanish road signs are confusing is an understatement, but even without GPS, an iPhone, or detailed maps, we managed to find our way there. For the two overnight stops on the way, and again on the way back, with inadequate maps we’d head into small seaside towns, get in a panic, start snapping at each other, and eventually find our way to our pre-booked accommodation. On the final day of the return journey the signage didn’t correspond with our map and we headed unwittingly towards France for a while before we realized our mistake. Eventually we were able to make a U-turn, find the road we were looking for and head back into Barcelona only about an hour or so later than expected.
A few years later we decided to do a one-week road tour of Cyprus, using only some local maps. I don’t remember many details, only that we had trouble finding our accommodation in Paphos, but after trying a few different approaches we managed to get there, and apart from that all went well. By this time, when having difficulties with directions, we managed to not panic or start yelling at each other. Road signs in Cyprus are in English as well as Greek, which made things easier. I don’t remember the driving, or the traffic, or other drivers being particularly difficult. We did a tour through the mountains to see the hidden painted churches of Troodos, and then headed down to the coast at Paphos to explore a few Roman ruins.
We have done several road trips in Australia, and for the first time were introduced to the wonders and joys of having a GPS, which we’d borrowed from my sister. With great originality we named it Tom since the brand was tomtom. Tom spoke kindly to us as we travelled from Canberra down to the Great Ocean Road on the south coast, across to the Dandenongs and back to Canberra. He was rarely wrong. It was a smooth and easy trip.
In Australia’s far north we managed with maps, and it was pretty easy considering there are few roads there anyway.
We borrowed Tom again for five weeks travelling around New Zealand. How wonderful it was to be able to simply program in our next destination and follow instructions in Tom’s Aussie accent. I think it cost us about seventy Australian dollars to download the maps of New Zealand and it was worth every penny. Having a GPS made us both relaxed, and adventurous. Tom would always lead us home.
Now we have just completed a road trip in Turkey . . . . .
We rented a car in Izmir to drive around the southwest Aegean-Mediterranean coast.
Driving in Turkey is challenging: it is almost essential to have two pairs of eyes searching the visual space in front, behind, and out both sides of the car at all times. We were almost sideswiped by a large semitrailer on our first day because I didn’t expect anything to overtake on the right: silly me!
Posted speed limits are widely ignored: to keep up with the flow of traffic we typically drove at 80 kilometres per hour through towns where the posted speed limit is 50. Driving on Turkish toll roads, where the posted speed limit is 120, required constant vigilance, especially when overtaking slower vehicles, because you never knew when a BMW, Mercedes, Peugeot, or Audi would suddenly appear out of nowhere doing some speed I estimated to be in excess of 150. For some reason these vehicles were invariably white.
What made matters worse was that left turns on divided highways are indicated by a slight kink in the highway, and rumble strips, as you approach them. The turns are narrow, so cars wanting to make a left turn have to slow right down in the fast left lane to negotiate them: it made for an interesting experience when a big Mercedes or Beemer was right up their ass, flashing it’s lights and trying to pass anyway!
Driving on regular Turkish highways was even scarier because of the number of farm vehicles and ancient Euro-boxes travelling at less than 50 in 90 zones, while the big white cars continued to drive at any speed they liked.
Navigating roundabouts in Turkey is the stuff of legend. In theory cars already in the roundabout have right of way, unless they are in the inside lane and proceeding around for more than one exit, in which case they are supposed to stop and give way to traffic entering the roundabout: theoretically! Drivers like me who are from countries used to the rule that cars already in a roundabout automatically have right of way, have no idea what to do to avoid the possibility of either a) running right into someone already in the roundabout who was supposed stop, or b) getting rear-ended by a driver who expected you to just keep going! My solution was to drive slowly as I approached a roundabout and then watch to see what other drivers were doing – with fingers crossed.
Just to make things more interesting some roundabouts are also controlled by traffic lights. The lights are positioned so that the first car in line can’t see them, so the driver has to rely on the person behind blowing his horn when it’s safe to go. There are countdown lights beside most traffic lights, and the lights change from red to red and yellow at one second. That’s the moment you start to go. Unlike India, where driving on the horn is essential and universal, there is not a lot of horn use in Turkey apart from at traffic lights.
Turkish drivers don’t relate to lane markings: they wander over the centre line or over the inside line as they drive along the highways. Similar to in India, there are as many lanes on a Turkish road as the road can accommodate: lane markings don’t count. Prepare to be overtaken on either side, and if you leave any room between your car and the car in front someone from the next lane over will dive in.
Cars, buses and vans stop or park anywhere they want on the side of the road, often reducing the flow of traffic from two lanes to one. This is worst in towns and cities where the main street through town can often be reduced to one lane in each direction.
One-way streets seem to be optional: if a Turkish driver needs to go the wrong way up a one-way street he does so. The use of turn signals also seems to be optional. I did see a couple of large tour buses signal their turns, but they were the exceptions.
Despite all of the above-mentioned challenges I became more accustomed to the driving style here after being on the road for a few days, and adopting some of their strategies. I didn’t get to the point where I felt able to relax completely while driving, but I did move out of panic mode.
We share the driving, not quite half and half. Don does a little more than I do. In Turkey we had a tomtom again. This time we named her Angela due to her dulcet tones and perfect British accent. Angela, being two and a half years behind the times, shared directing duties with a map app on the phone. Her name was Miss America. Her voice sounded jarring and harsh when compared to Angela. Driving from Antalya to Pamukkele feeling the car dancing on the rough patched asphalt surface, I was glad for little traffic and a two-lane freeway almost all the way. Overtaking was always a red-alert situation – lane drift was common: so pedal to the metal all the while hoping I’d get by before the car I was passing started drifting towards me.
We get braver by the minute. I asked Don if he would have considered doing a self-drive tour of Turkey five years ago, and his reply was a resounding No way! I doubt we will ever drive in India, or most of Southeast Asia. We’re braver than we were, but not yet suicidal.
Photos of the day: Above – Mindil Beach, Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia. Below – Mother and child. Istanbul, Turkey.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.