Although both were settled by people related to each other and both have the root “Moor” in their names, there are many differences between the two neighboring countries in Africa where I have lived. This is part two of a semi-regular series in which I will choose a topic at random and natter on about it for hours.  Today’s topic: Driving (read part one: Sharks here)

Did I mention we got a car? We did, finally. I feel like an adult again, because I have keys; house keys, car keys, keys to things that I own.

Our car is brand-spanking new, and a beautiful dove-grey, so we’re sort of nervous about it. A friend of ours told us, that very first day, to just go ahead and take a hammer to it and put the first ding in ourselves. “It’s easier that way,” he advised. We couldn’t do it.

The kids don’t like the smell. “It smells like when you throw up in the car and it’s all icky,” they tell me. “What? Are you crazy?” I respond. “People LOVE this smell. You can buy air-freshener that claims to replicate it.” They just roll their eyes.

Our new car is supposedly four-wheel drive, but it is “légère,” light, not heavy-duty. It’s basically for suburbanites who like to pretend they need a 4WD. This is a little sad for us. In Mauritania, you need a real 4WD to go just about anywhere. When we arrived in 2001, only about 4 roads were actually paved, and even when we left in 2007, it was still possible to need to put your car into four wheel drive after getting stuck in soft sand while dropping off a friend, for example. No residential streets were paved.

After Nouakchott, Rabat initially feels like Europe. Everything’s paved, and there are enormous roads, 3 lanes in each direction–theoretically, according to painted white lines. Although you can go most places in Morocco and find paved roads, things are rough enough in the countryside that Donn wanted a Land Rover, as his job takes him off road fairly often. But I wanted something smaller for round town, and we had our budget to think of, so we went for our beautiful, dove-grey compromise.

But in one way, the two cities are alike–the habits of their drivers.

I had never seen, never even imagined, anything like the Mauritanian drivers. They sit at red lights with their hands trembling on their horns, like Jeopardy contestants, so that the split-second the light turns, they can begin to honk. Before you can physically move your foot from the brake to the gas pedal, the cacophony has started up. Not content with that, they drive up into the lane intended for oncoming traffic, so that when the light turns green, they are up front, blocking every body else so that they can go.

“Sorry! I forgot YOU were the king and these roads were created for YOU!” I used to shout in annoyance. Or I would whip off my glasses and hold them out… “Obviously you need these more than I do!” This was on my good days, the days I’m telling you about. You don’t need to know how I responded on my bad days, when the children weren’t in the car.

On the “highway,” which I put in quotes because it is divided by a sand ditch that cars turn around in and bordered by wide sand shoulders so that you can just drive up the wrong side of the road, sometimes donkey carts in the right lane would suddenly turn left, just in front of me. I would slam on the brakes and, well, let’s just draw a curtain of seemliness across the ensuing scene.

I’m kidding. I’m a paragon of patience. I just want to make the rest of you feel better for losing patience with the jerk who cut you off, when you really have no idea.

Mauritanian drivers are, seriously, beyond what you can imagine if you have not traveled in Africa. (It’s not just me, others have said the same) Please don’t leave me a comment about how someone double-parked once in front of your office, unless you don’t mind being mocked behind your back. Because we dream of simple double-parking, when we’re stuck in one of those pointless traffic jams caused because everyone tried to go through the round-point at exactly the same time, where no one will let anyone else go first. If you can inch forward a mere centimeter, you do it, and the cars stick every which way. It’s like driving with a lot of 5 year olds who have not been taught to share. And who pick their noses without the slightest hint of self-consciousness. And who know bad words in Arabic.

Since Rabat feels so much more like Europe, I had this fantasy that driving would be more like Rome, for instance, where the drivers are fabled but it is possible to have an undinged car. But instead, it’s Mauritania all over again, paved so that you can’t drive onto the wide sand shoulders, and with six times the number of cars. It’s beyond crazy. It’s like 5 year olds with car keys AND whiskey.

Then there’s the motorized scooters whizzing in and out, sounding exactly like mosquitoes, diving RIGHT in front of you and then stopping suddenly. It is a sadly common sight to see one of them downed, their drone quieted. While I can never be unmoved by the sight of a car accident, at the same time it can be hard to summon up a lot of pity for someone who drives like the road is empty and always, only, all for him, when in real life the road is packed with larger vehicles, all of whom feel the road is all for them.

I mentioned the roads with the theoretical 3 lanes in each direction. In practice, there are 6-8 lanes in each direction. This makes it especially fun when the road funnels into an arched portal carved into the meter-thick ancient city walls, one-lane-wide only. All the cars have to be patient and let others go first sometimes. This works out great, and it’s heartwarming to see the politeness of the drivers, pausing to let the overstuffed bus go first, smoothly letting the taxis in, etc. It brightens my morning, yes it does!

Ahem. Meanwhile, back in the real world, Elliot got hit by a car yesterday. It was just outside the school, where people seem to view the children crossing the road as an opportunity to rack up points! How many little ones hit today? Only 4? I got 6. This is in spite of a painted crosswalk (What do those stripes on the road mean? Nothing. They’re decorative, just ignore them.) and a policeman, stationed next to the guy selling candy so they can chat.

It was a very light bump that didn’t even knock him over. I don’t even know if he’s bruised. But still. I hoped we could get through a year without one of us being hit by a car; instead we only made it 8 months.

To sum up: In Mauritania, the drivers are bad; in Morocco, they are worse.