Pedestrians Do Not Have the Right of Way: Returning Home After An Overseas Experience

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Near-hit, Traffic in Buenos Aires

Crossing the street in Rome could be the final exam for a 500-level course on “How to Avoid Getting Hit By a Car.”  It requires advanced preparation and specialized knowledge.  While studying abroad in Barcelona, I traveled with a friend to Rome.  We took a bus into town from the airport, hoisted on our backpacks, and began walking to our pensione.  At the edge of the grassy median separating the bus station from the main road we stopped abruptly, paralyzed by fear.  A group of travelers stood cowering like a family of pioneers about to ford a river.  In terror-stricken silence, we watched as multiple lanes of Italian sports cars raced past.  It wasn’t oncoming traffic; it was the Running of the Bulls.

Frantically, we searched for an intersection, crosswalk, or animal whisperer.  With none in sight, we resigned ourselves to spending the afternoon on the curb.  Suddenly, I remembered an obscure fact I had read in a guidebook: the key to crossing the street in Rome is eye contact.  I waited for a lull in the traffic, took a deep breath, stepped into the road, and with feigned confidence shot the Italian drivers an intense look that said, “Hey! I’m walking here.”  Magically, the vehicles slowed, kneeling graciously as we sauntered to the other side.

Fortunately, in New Zealand you don’t need wits to cross the street, just patience. You simply congregate on the corner and wait for the neon crossing guard to give you the green light.  It’s all very civilized, albeit boring.  The biggest risk is that it might be ten minutes before the light changes.  (Jaywalking was completely out of the question for me since I never could work out which direction the traffic was coming from.)  However, when pedestrians are finally given their turn, they have the opportunity to cross diagonally, thus getting two crossings in one.

The best part about being a pedestrian in New Zealand is the zebra crossings.  Alternating dark and light patches of pavement, and black and white poles indicate places where pedestrians always have the right of way.  Because the friendly, law-abiding Kiwis actually respect the road code, you can walk into the street while reading a book without fearing for your safety.

When I finally landed in Buenos Aires after a seventeen-hour delay, an eleven-hour flight, and traveling backwards in time, all I wanted to do was shower.  Before I could so, I had to walk a few blocks to the store to buy toiletries.  At the first intersection, I spotted the familiar black and white bands of paint, and mindlessly continued into the street. A gang of taxis fought each other for the chance to commit vehicular manslaughter.  I jumped back onto the sidewalk, barely avoiding an accident. Between the pharmacy and my friend’s apartment, I had three near-hits.  It seems I was a little unclear about what city I was in.

There are no pedestrian walkways in Buenos Aires; there is only target practice. Although Argentines are essentially displaced Italians, you can forget about the eye-contact strategy.  Staring at an Argentine motorist only helps him perfect his aim. Even where there are pedestrian lights, turning traffic has the self-appointed right of way. The best strategy for crossing the street in Buenos Aires is to run for your life.

Other than a few close calls at the beginning, the transition back into life in Buenos Aires has been relatively smooth.   The weirdest part is that it’s hardly weird at all. There are no suggestions of my time in New Zealand, save a few photos on Facebook, and many remnants of my former life in Argentina remain.  Most of my close friends are still around, I have an active social life, and I know where things are. It’s comfortable.  It’s home.

With everything so deceptively normal, I predicted that I would only need a few days to recover and establish a daily routine involving cooking, meditating, exercising, reading and writing.  After ten days, my biggest accomplishment was watching an entire season of America’s Next Top Model in one afternoon.  Apparently, you don’t get over an abroad experience overnight.

For more than a week, I did little more than sleep and sit on the couch in my pajamas. I felt like a character in a Jane Austen novel sent to the coast to convalesce.  Except that instead of taking a carriage to the seaside to breath in the salty air, I rode the elevator to the rooftop terrace to lie by the pool. At first, I was confused by my exhaustion and frustrated by my apathy.  After a difficult year abroad, I had been looking forward to going somewhere easy.  Now, I appreciate that reentry is harder than I expected, especially because I am so hard on myself.

Recoleta Cemetery

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires

Returning to a city where you’ve already lived is certainly less challenging than, say, starting anew in Lithuania.  But, it’s still a process and it definitely takes longer than a long weekend. Even if mentally it’s as though I never left Argentina, emotionally, I’m still tied to Auckland.  I may not need to meet new people, but I do have to catch up with old friends and make sure no damage was done to the foundation of our relationship in my absence.  There is the work of creating and adhering to a new schedule, acclimating to local sounds and smells, and seeking out the raw materials needed to facilitate my lifestyle and hobbies, both of which have changed considerably since I last lived here. Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about a job or a place to live.

Rather than reprimand myself for being lazy (or blame Argentine drivers for my reluctance to leave the apartment), I lowered my ambitions.  I set smaller, attainable goals for myself, such as getting dressed before noon or reading in the Recoleta Cemetery instead of on the couch.  Slowly and naturally, life is regaining a sense of order and purpose, and I am becoming more active and motivated.  More importantly, given that I am only in Buenos Aires for six weeks, I have reassessed my priorities.  I didn’t come here to be responsible; I came here to spend time with friends and decompress before starting a new adventure. Staying out until 6am on a Wednesday may decrease my productivity, but I am supposed to be on sabbatical. With no one to answer to but myself, maybe, for a little while anyway, I can stop being so demanding and unreasonable.


22 Responses to “Pedestrians Do Not Have the Right of Way: Returning Home After An Overseas Experience”

  1. 2 sittingpugs March 16, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    Fantastic read. I very much enjoyed the passages about being a pedestrian in other countries. In the United States, there are designated crosswalks and pedestrians have the right of way (when they have the walk signal).

    What about bicyclists? What kinds of encounters or observations have you had or made?

    • 3 amyfrances March 16, 2010 at 9:55 pm

      Funny you should ask about bicyclists – on the way home from the supermarket, I saw an overturned motorcycle in the middle of the road. The driver was nowhere to be found, so hopefully he was okay! Personally, I admire anyone brave enough to ride a bike/motorcycle in a big city. I’m too scared to even try.

  2. 4 Barbara March 16, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    Awesome writing… I really enjoyed it… I’ve lived some of those experiences… different countries, but the essential point is the same… Enjoy your time off.

  3. 5 James March 16, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    I can definitely relate to your experience… at the moment I spend roughly half the year in the UK and the other half in Hong Kong, and whenever I go back to Asia I just seem to slip back into things seamlessly. It’s like living a double life on different sides of the planet.

    I’m going to add this to my blogroll, you write some fantastic articles! Congratulations for making it onto the front page!

  4. 6 oasis March 16, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Good post.I like it.

  5. 7 Elaine J. Masters March 16, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Hi Barbara, Loved hearing of your pedestrian adventures. I just traveled LAX to New Zealand and walking there was a challenge at first. I loved the intersections in Queenstown with huge sidewalk labels:’Look right’. A few close calls had me straightened out. Never quite got the flow of roundabouts – a few flips and horns but overall the Kiwis were very tolerant!

    Spent 6 days driving the length of South Island with 4 drivers of various skill. Gripped the passenger side door handles till my hands were sore! But loved the entire trip. Home again in Southern California has it’s own driving terrors but I keep the blood pressure down at with my Drivetime Yoga stretches and breathing exercises.

    Looking forward to you future posts and living the vicarious nomadic life. Keep listening to what your body tells you and enjoying the days off.

    With a rolling namaste,

    • 8 amyfrances March 16, 2010 at 10:01 pm

      I struggled with the roundabouts in New Zealand, as well. Nor could I sort out the difference between the turn signal and the windshield wiper. Fortunately, there were never too many other drivers on the road. I like the idea of Drivetime Yoga; I might have to try that myself!



  6. 9 Julie March 16, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Wow, this is very true! When I was traveling in England, London has the same zebra crossing sections that New Zealand does, which makes crossing very convenient. They also have signs painted on the ground instructing tourists and the occasional forgetful native which way to look for oncoming traffic. In Paris, it was not as easy. Crossing the street was similar to your Italian experience. It is odd how easy we forget how convenient and nice walking signs are. Great entry!

  7. 10 Lakia March 16, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    LOL My FAVORITE thing to say is “yield to pedestrians…” This was a great article!

  8. 11 dweebcentric March 16, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    i never had trouble with traffic traveling overseas until i nearly got mauled several times by mere bicyclists in amsterdam. those people are hardcore, and europeans are altogether nuts when it comes to the understood war on pedestrians. i base all that of course on a montage of accidents i saw on youtube. drivers seemed to actually speed up when people already had a foot on the asphalt.

  9. 12 girlsguidetosurvival March 16, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    “I set smaller, attainable goals for myself, such as getting dressed before noon or reading in the Recoleta Cemetery instead of on the couch. Slowly and naturally, life is regaining a sense of order and purpose, and I am becoming more active and motivated.”

    Can fully relate to it and appreciate it. Doing the same thing these days. Good post. Keep it up.

    Desi Girl

  10. 13 mmaste13 March 16, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    That stuff happens everywhere but the U.S. China, and Brazil are possibly the worst places, because obviously no one stops, but it’s also that much more crowded in the major cities.

  11. 14 cpalabrica March 16, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    This is a fun article! You have an amusing style in writing your experiences. I loved the “pedestrians as road targets” concept; I was laughing my head off! Will drop by every now and then.

  12. 15 Kyla March 16, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    Loved this piece! When I was in Ireland a buddy of mine almost got hit by a car for very similar reasons. Though where I live in the US pedestrians don’t get the right of way even when they are supposed to.

  13. 16 susispice March 16, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    ahhhh well you havent travelled in underdeveloped countries nearly as much by the sounds of it…hehe you havent crossed a road and lived until you travel in central america, crossed roads there and lived to tell the tale. I loved it, hahahha love off the beaten track travelling. Argentina is known as the europe of latin america…too luxurious…hehe 😛

  14. 17 Hans B. Pandjaitan March 16, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    It happened anywhere but I think the best example is Singapore right of way for pedestrian. My hometown Jakarta/Indonesia i not that bad either. The key words : When you are in Rome act like Roman.

  15. 18 dreamlivedream March 17, 2010 at 2:41 am

    Haha you now make the roads in Australia/NZ sound boring… I may start speeding at pedestrians to up the ante 🙂

  16. 19 Melissa M March 17, 2010 at 10:30 am

    great read. I was in Lima, Peru in November and I too had to quickly learn that unlike here in the US, pedestrians don’t have the right away. There are crosswalks, but just when you think it’s ok to walk, a car comes zooming by. I came close to getting hit by a police officer, if it wasn’t that my friend yanked me by back of my jacket.

  17. 20 Richard March 17, 2010 at 10:39 am

    Crossing the street in Panama City, Panama, is also a death-defying act of bravery. There’s a reason the guide books tell you NOT to rent a car at the airport. No matter how well you think you can drive because driving where you live has prepared you for anything, it hasn’t prepared you for PC. YOU’LL DIE! The best preparation for crossing the street there is having grown up with American football. It teaches you how to use your blockers.

  18. 21 parttimecashmillionaire March 17, 2010 at 10:53 am

    This article should be quite inducing to challenge if one knows more than few different countries. Naple (Napoli) is worse than Rome, Rome is worse than Paris. I heard that Taiwan is incomparable. In California I don’t see many pedestrians so don’t know how to compare. Please do not forget Japan. Japan would be one of the best for pedestrians. Germany too. I see in general pedestrians are safe in northern countries and quite unsafe in southern countries…in Western Europe at least. This can be of effects caused by the fact that Latin people live with instinct and feeling rather than theory or logic.

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