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How driving around the world gave me a crash course in cultures

Where are we going next?

Bentley

This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.

Summer nears, and it’s time to travel. The world’s nooks and crannies call, beckoning me out of my apartment / state / country and to the horizon line. And likely, into a car. There’s nothing more tantalizing than the road not yet driven. Over the years I’ve put key to ignition in locales as diverse as China and Colombia, Iceland and Ireland, Montenegro and Mongolia. Like my Twitter bio says, my world view is from the driver’s seat.

Train travel has its advantages in a place like Europe, and for exploring on a local level I prefer a bicycle or my own feet. (Going for a run is the best way to learn a neighborhood, especially when you get lost.)

You learn things about a culture when you drive its city and rural roads that you wouldn’t otherwise

But for the ability to instantly switch plans, you can’t beat a car. Take a detour to the castellated tower that you spy in the distance rising into the blue Tuscan sky. Abandon Buenos Aires and make speed toward the rustic and friendly hills of Mendoza and its delicious wine. Follow random curiosities and enticing road signs to places like Hellhole Palms and Asbestos Mountain. (Both near Palm Springs, CA, incidentally.)

You learn things about a culture when you drive its city and rural roads that you wouldn’t otherwise. Learning a language is the best to way discover a culture from the inside, but driving — excuse the phrase — is the crash course.

For instance, perhaps you've heard that South Africa is a scary place. Which leaves aside the amazing hospitality I’ve found in Johannesburg and Soweto. But I really got a sense of the country’s enduring kindness when I took a 600-mile-round drive from Cape Town, north to the Little Karoo desert, through the Swartberg mountains and to Cape Agulhas, Africa’s southernmost point.

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Rolls-Royce recently held media drives for the Dawn in South Africa. (Rolls-Royce)

South Africans motor on the left side of the road, but the most challenging and charming part of the trip was keeping an eye out for road-crossing baboons, often with their fuzzy tykes in tow. I was driving a BMW 335i coupe with a manual six-speed, and the powerful car made easy work of the loping coastal and interior roads. (It was less suited to the dirt and gravel switchback roads up into the Swartberg mountains where I was basically off-roading.)

When approaching a slower car on a two-lane road, I invariably found that the forward driver would use his directional signal when it was clear to pass — and often pull as far to the side as possible. I’d easily slip by, and was delighted each time. I’m so used to American drivers’ boorish behavior behind the wheel, this was an especially wondrous courtesy. The common response once you pass is to briefly flash your hazard lights as a thank you.

On my final day of the trip, I blew out not one, but two tires on a Titanic-sized pothole outside of Cape Agulhas. I limped into the town, famous for its blustery seas, shipwrecks and copious seafood, and tried to find replacements. Well, said the town tire shop, they could order the special run-flat summer tires, but it would take a week. I was flying out of Cape Town, 125 miles away, at 8AM the next morning.

The powerful car made easy work of the loping coastal and interior roads

I checked into a B&B and started making calls. My cell didn’t work in town, so the owner, a kind local woman in her sixties, let me use the house phone. Finally I arranged a tow truck from Cape Town to pick up the car in two days’ time. But there were no taxis or car services in town to get me to the airport in the morning. I was stumped. "I’ll take you," the owner insisted. And she did, getting up in the morning dark and driving me the two-and-a-half hours to Cape Town.

I’d have experienced none of that if I hadn’t been driving myself.

So too do I believe you can’t really understand Italy or the Italians until you’ve driven in the car-mad nation. The north of the country is the birthplace of Fiat, Lamborghini, Maserati, and Ferrari, but most of Italy has a deep and abiding love of all things automotive and motorsport. I’ve had occasion to motor around Italy in a Ferrari, whereupon I was welcomed as a long-lost cousin. Usually followed directly by, "Would you mind if I got in the car and took some photos?"

It’s easy to romanticize Italy, but we Americans are patronizing, too, viewing the country’s easy relationship with chaos with great unease. What’s with the talking-with-hands gesticulations and speeding scooters?

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Fiat 500s old and new. (FCA)

It is on the roads of urban centers of Rome and Palermo where I finally discerned the order in the seeming disorder. I once drove round and round Rome’s famous Piazza Venezia while piloting a creaky old Fiat 500 from the 1960s. I considered it a cultural study, and eventually found enlightenment on the infinite circle. I looked into the eyes of the bus and lorry drivers who seemed to be intent on running my tiny Fiat down, and I understood. I’ll avoid you, you avoid me (narrowly), a circling, buzzing ring of nearly colliding cars that never actually do. There’s harmony there, a sweet center which doesn’t allow things to fall apart after all. You have to be in that center to actually see it.

I wouldn’t trade a mile behind the wheel in a new place. I’ve learned too much.

Sometimes the lessons are sobering. I lived in Brazil for a year in the early 2000s, and it is one of my favorite places in the world. But among the joyful music and fabulous beaches and inspiring people was the danger. I knew better than to linger on Rio’s famous beaches after dark. More shocking was the practice in São Paulo of navigating certain city streets past midnight: if you were driving, you’d approach a red light, slow, and then run it. This was tolerated (and perhaps even encouraged) by the police. Better to dash through rather than be car-jacked. One night in Rio, a good friend, a local Carioca who fancied himself the spiritual descendant of Brazilian F1 hero Ayrton Senna, got us lost in an iffy neighborhood. I’ll never forget his rising panic as he drove faster and faster down a warren of dead-end streets. It was a lesson about the darkness that can be found even in very sunny places.

On a short trip, renting or borrowing a car might not be worth it. I’ve spent a lot of time lost and frustrated, or embroiled in an quixotic adventure like trying to drive every single road on a Caribbean island. But for all of that, I wouldn’t trade a mile behind the wheel in a new place. I’ve learned too much.

So, yes, summer approaches and the road is calling. The only questions is, where to next?