Author, Editor, and intrepid traveler, Sathya Saran is one of India’s most respected journalists. She shared her adventurous experience of driving solo in Ireland with us. She also gave some valuable travel tips when driving abroad.
Tumbling out of a long-haul flight which included a security check at Heathrow that made me feel like an ant under a microscope, I found myself in a shuttle bus that dropped me at the end of a long queue.
All prospective drivers like me, but unlike me, people who had been there, done that, many times over.
“What are we going to drive off in?” A drawl unmistakably West American was asking, and the answering drawl responded with, ” I always upgrade at the counter. Remember the BMW?” A question that was answered by a giggle most unbecoming of the rather elderly throat it emerged from.
I had no such aspirations. I was driving solo for the first time in a foreign country, and small was what I had ordered. Small, light, manoeuvrable. When the lady at the counter pointed out the relevant section which showed a natty Volkswagen, I nodded happily. It was not The Bug of course, but any relative was good enough for someone who had once loved the Love Bug!
Painless procedures, and a signature later, a key was thrust into my hand, along with a brochure with innumerable conditions and small print. Anxious to be off, I stuffed it into my bag, reached out to take the GPS unit I had thoughtfully remembered to ask for, and realized I did not know how to install it.
“No problem”. A young lad trotted out with me and stood waiting while I walked purposefully towards a white VW. ” This one,” he said. I stared starry-eyed at the gleaming VW logo. ” This one,” he said again, from behind me, and I turned to be introduced to the car who would be my traveling companion for the next three days! A white Suzuki! But of course. The catalogs always showed the unattainable!
Then I was off! The engine started with a cat-like purr, happy to be active, the automatic shift stick was easy, the tyres floated just above the ground, as I headed with a faster-than-usual heartbeat towards the highway to Killarney, 308 kilometres away. My helpful Hertz assistant had set the GPS for me, I was told the toll had been pre-paid on my behalf, and all I had to do was press the accelerator and keep my tiny craft on the road, till I reached ‘ Home’.
Obediently, as I hit the road, the GPS came on, telling me well in advance which way I should turn, and which exit I should take. It was a well-modulated woman’s voice, and somehow I felt glad. Did not quite fancy taking instructions from a man, even an invisible, all-knowing one.
As the road straightened out and we hit the highway, I felt again the usual joy I feel when driving and relaxed my shoulders that had till then mimicked a prize fighter’s. The road stretched ahead; houses, then fields, trees slipped past. The photographer in me raised a protest. How could all this beauty go unrecorded it asked? What would I post for my Facebook friends to see… But the driver won. I kept relentlessly on.
Driving here is easier than in Bombay, I told myself, even as I flinched as a multi-axle rumbled past. Everyone obeys the rules. If only I knew what the rules were, I could ensure I broke none. Double white lines, single and double yellow lines, dotted lines… By the end of an hour, I had worked out what they meant. At least, I hoped so.
Everything was admirably sign-posted. Lush countryside swept past marked by a running deer sign. I slowed, in deference, and was the only one to do so. Perhaps because I do not eat venison.
Imagine if we posted signs like this on our highways, I thought loudly. We would have signs showing cows, sheep, goats, the occasional camel in some parts, dogs, cheeky, hopping crows, CHILDREN. .. Signboard painters would never be out of work!
By now I was talking loudly to myself. The eight hours of half wakefulness in a tiny economy class airplane seat coupled with the near monotony of driving alone was soporific. My smooth-voiced companion had told me to continue for the next 113 or so kilometers and shut down for a nap herself.
When the rain clouds massed up, it gave me the right cue. Nonsense rhymes knit themselves into a tune, and I sang in what sounded like a rather tired, tuneless voice.
Be kind, I am a guest, Mr Rain. From spoiling my trip, please refrain… you get the gist? It was all so bad that my sleep slunk away, shutting its ears.
On, and on, past county towns, and children playing in a park, past cows ruminating on fields eyeing the greener grass on the hill beyond. “After one kilometer”…I jumped at the voice. Then realized it was my formless friend who had come awake. “You scared me,” I said, and laughed. Thenon, I kept up a chatter. Asking her if she had fallen asleep when she fell silent; telling her to shut up when she repeated instructions as if I was deaf or slow-witted. It began to feel like fun.
We reached a toll gate. I slowed down to read the instructions. It would only take coins. And I had none! Pulling to one side, I waited trying to think. Perhaps I could beg or borrow the 2 euros from the next car to drive up…
“What is the problem”, the driver in the parallel lane asked. I explained. He waved me to the last cabin…”See the sign? It is manned, you will get change there”. Relief! And a pinch for being unobservant!
Hundred kms to go. I am zooming along like a lark on the wing. Enjoying the feel of the car swallowing the road at 100 kmph. Sometimes she shudders, and I realize I have got carried away, and the rush of adrenaline has made me push the accelerator to 120, then 130! I slow down. Too many movie scenes of flashing lights and screaming sirens forcing speeding highway drivers to stop…all unpleasant. Calm down, I tell myself. Fifty kms to go; the Killarney signs have been regularly swinging by. Poing! An exclamation mark pops up on the screen. My heart lurches. My car is telling me something, and I cannot understand it!
I drive slower, hoping it will go away. I concentrate to feel if the tires are wobbling, the engine rattling, or there is a smell of burning. Neither. Then what is this car telling me?
The fun is gone from the ride, I have visions of the car falling apart, and me sitting on a milestone, sorry, kilometer stone, waiting for a relief vehicle! Ignoring my trepidations, the car sings along. I promise myself I will get someone to explain car lingo to me, to make me understand what lies under the hood, and elsewhere. For now, I only know how to change a tyre…in theory at least!
Finally my destination. My heart quietens down. My stomach takes over, I am ravenous. It is my day of fasting and all I have had is some orange juice and a bowl of curds.
Where is my hotel?
“Turn right at the third exit”, my throaty friend tells me, ” then turn left and you have reached your destination.”
I lumber into the hotel car park. Ask a fellow driver about the exclamation mark. He shakes his head. “Aah it’s just fussing”, he says, “Perhaps a little drop in the tyre pressure. Nothing to worry!”
Now he tells me! Trust me to get a four-wheeled diva , I tell myself. But maybe the VW would had been more so!
By morning all is forgiven. And for the next three days, we make a lovely threesome. My car, my formless woman friend and I, as we zip about discovering the beauty of The Wild Atlantic Way! For women who care to take a solo drive in Ireland
Sathya’s Solo Travel Tips
- Ask for whatever you think you might need for the trip when ordering the car from the car hire company.
- I did not know Vodafone has a wi-fi service for the car, and there was none available at the last minute. Luckily the GPS had been ordered beforehand.
- Ensure all insurance for the vehicle is up to date, and it is fully covered.
- Do ask about tolls to expect en route. Ask if they can be paid in advance. Or keep change handy, as required.
- *Ask someone from the company to help you set up the systems. And do a quick run-through on gears, lights etc. my car had everything in new places, light switches were a knob below the steering wheel, and so on. You do not want surprises on the road.
- Ask about road rules anyway. I learnt as I went along that the right blinker had to flash during overtaking manoeuvres.
- Avoid the temptation of ‘ a single glass of wine if driving back. You are in a foreign country, and mistakes can be expensive.
- An Indian driver’s Licence, if in English, is valid. You do not need an international licence for Ireland or the UK. There are other countries too where your Indian licence is respected.
- Be aware of where you park. You do not want a ticket or find your car has been clamped.
- Do not honk. I did not need to even once. Be patient. Learn from watching the other drivers on the road.
- Try to maintain speed at an even level. Do not overshoot the speed limit, even if other cars do so. Do not drive too slow, especially in the fast lane.
- Remember many town and villages have designated cycle paths and bus lanes. Avoid driving in them.
- Small village towns appear on your route. Slow down to their speed limits
- Switch on lights in dim mode if the weather is cloudy, misty, or if it rains.