I’ve done something I swore I would never do in Dubai. I was so nervous that I had nightmares; proper wake-up-in-the-night-in-a-cold-sweat nightmares. But now I’ve done it. And do you know what? It wasn’t as bad as I expected.
I got behind the wheel of a car, put it in drive, took off the handbrake, and pressed my foot on the gas. I actually did it. I drove in Dubai.
My fear started shortly after arriving here three years ago. I didn’t have children then, so I was quite happy to wait on the side of the road and hop in cabs as they drove past. On these countless journeys to malls, work meetings, and airports, I watched the cars alongside swerve so heart-stoppingly close that I gave myself a full-blown phobia of driving.
Even after the birth of my son, I refused to do it. While friends professed that they would never put their babies in a cab in this crazy go-karting track of a city, I was quite happy to strap his car seat into the back and let a professional negotiate the roads for us. What my friends didn’t realise was that my son was a lot safer with this mode of transport than with a mother at the wheel who screamed, flinched, and suffered from heart palpitations for the sake of getting from A to B.
The crunch came when I realised we were running out of time on the portable car seat front. With a quickly growing toddler, the time would soon come when I could no longer move him from buggy, to cab, to buggy again. The husband bought a car and a second stage car seat without consulting me – and the rest, as they say, is history.
Well not entirely. I had never driven an automatic car before – and on the return leg of our first trip out, it took three attempts to get through the security barriers to my apartment block. You can picture the scene. I pull up just a little too far away from the scanner, just a hair width away from the longest possible stretch of my arm. I nearly dislocate my shoulder trying to reach it, but eventually admit defeat and step out of the car to scan my pass. By the time I get back in and work out how to pull away, the barrier comes down again. This repeats three times before I manage to get through (it takes me back to my failed driving test in 1997 when I stalled so violently that the examiner hit his head on the roof of my mini metro). Meanwhile, a queue builds behind me; my delightful neighbours giving an encouraging honk of the horn to send me on my way.
Oh the honking! When will I ever get used to the honking? When will I be sat at traffic lights and manage to stay calm when I fail to pull away the very second the lights turn green and am met with a barrage of beeps and honks? At this point I am usually trying to distort my heavily pregnant body 180 degrees to pass a tub of rice cakes to the whining child behind me - or perhaps attempting to find Hickory Dickory Dock on the CD player (the only nursery rhyme that appeases him when he’d rather not be stuck at the traffic lights, you know the score). I haven’t yet succumbed to a Baby on Board sign for my rear windscreen, but it would be worth its weight in gold if the drivers behind me gave me a few more seconds at the lights in parental camaraderie.
Despite finding driving in Dubai a lot easier than I ever imagined, I have had one rule since taking the wheel – thou shalt not drive on Sheikh Zayed Road. That was until recently when my GPS did the dirty on me and I found myself on a slip road hurtling towards it. I was utterly terrified – and I don’t think my son felt much better when his gibbering wreck of a mother screamed at the top of her lungs Hold on! We’re heading onto Sheikh Zayed Road!
My heart was beating so fast I thought it might jump into my mouth – and while I didn’t dare avert my eyes to the back seat to check, I would lay money on my son’s knuckles being as white as snow as he gripped on for dear life. Of course we made it home just fine – and I’ve rarely felt prouder or more relieved than the moment when the barriers lifted and we drove into our car park (first attempt too, in case you were wondering).