Okay, so I admit it. I like driving in Sao Paulo. There is something so liberating (and altogether terrifying) about getting where you need to be HOWEVER you can. If you are slavish about traffic rules, you’ll hate driving here: Lane markers are merely suggestions, and two marked lanes usually host four lanes of traffic, with a fifth trying to feed into it before a turn; it is common for drivers to make a right turn from the far left lane or vice versa; motoboys hate to slow down; and buses ALWAYS have the right-of-way, even if you’re currently in the lane they need at this moment. Don’t fight ’em; you WILL lose!
The other day, I drove to a meeting in town at 12:30. This meant: 1) driving alone, 2) driving in lunch hour traffic (with all 8 million vehicles in the city on the road, 3) navigating among the lunch crowds on the roads and sidewalks (crossing lights and walks are merely suggestions), and 4) driving in 97-degree heat with thunder and lightning (though, blessedly, no rain). I gritted my teeth as I exited our condo grounds, squinted my eyes with purpose, and launched myself and our 11-year-old Toyota Highlander into the free-for-all.
I actually enjoyed myself, once I admitted how much I like driving where there are no hard-and-fast rules. True, it is a little nerve-wracking when you come within millimeters of clipping a motoboy or a pedestrian with a side mirror, but hey, we all know the risks!
And I never one had to feather my fingers limply out the window, signaling, “I’m an idiot, please let me change lanes!” (That’s a real signal here, and people honor it! … actually, I used it in San Francisco in September, and it also worked there.)
Driving downtown at night, as I did at midnight one recent Saturday, is a whole different ballgame. The streets were still crowded with traffic on the main boulevards, but the quieter streets become more dangerous. Late night is the time to get robbed. The red lights last an eternity, and so you just sit … easy prey for thieves on foot or motorcycle. We’ve been warned about that. The “rule of law” says you must stop at a red light, but at night, once you stop and verify that the road is clear, you drive on. No sitting at red lights. I feel like such a felon! (But, when in Rome…)
Speaking of felons, at night we also turn left near our condo — where, of course, a left turn is prohibited. In order to go left into our neighborhood, we must take a right, and then two lefts (a retorno) through a very dodgy back alley area. So, after eleven pm, we hum the James Bond tune, check for police cars, and blatantly break the law by turning LEFT!
Driving here is like one big smashup derby, with surprisingly few smashups. I think that’s because speeds here rarely get above 25 miles an hour, and typically are more like 10-15 mph, leaving time to react. (Frequent traffic jams keep road speeds sub-walking speed. A few weeks ago, we endured a three-hour, 17-km jaunt; turns out, we were in the midst of a 260-km traffic jam.)
The real danger while driving is clipping: either being clipped by another car or motoboy, or clipping the mirror of a car parked in a lane (quite common here). The other danger are the potholes, enormous sinkholes which abound, both at the sides of the road and smack-dab in the middle.
A sometimes-hidden danger are the “humps” in the middle of the road, speed-control bumps that appear across the lane out of nowhere, even in the middle of downtown, necessitating crawling speeds to navigate. Once upon a time, these had yellow caution stripes painted on them, and yellow warning signs before them, but the paint is long gone and trees typically obscure the signs. These things are nerve wracking, especially at night. You miss one and you hear all kinds of mysterious things plummet to the asphalt from underneath your car.
We have to be extremely careful to avoid an accident any time we drive, of course, but odds are that sooner or later, it’s going to happen. So, it’s vital to have bucket-loads of car insurance, both accident and uninsured motorist insurance, because locals say that you’ll have more luck finding good Mexican food here than you will getting another motorist’s insurance to pay (if they even have insurance).