What’s it like to drive in Canada?

Most people who live in South Africa know that driving on South African roads can be a stressful experience. Even those who don’t own cars, but utilise public transport, know that the road is a stressful place to be. Apart from poor road infrastructure and massive road maintenance issues in both rural and urban areas, driving on South African roads is stressful for two other reasons:

  1. Congestion – especially if you live in Cape Town or Johannesburg which are the two most congested cities in South Africa; and
  2. Lack of adherence to the traffic rules – or what Canadians would call “disrepectful driving“. Without pointing fingers, most of us who have used the roads in South Africa know that rules are often bent – sometimes a little; i.e. rolling over a stop sign instead of coming to a full stop before proceeding – and sometims a lot; i.e. blatantly disregardig a red traffic light and driving into uncoming traffic whilst expecting other road users to make way for you.

For those of you who don’t know, Canada has reciprocal license agreements with certain countries. This means that if you immigrate to Canada, you can visit your nearest provincial driver’s licence office and hand in your original national driver’s licence from your country of origin and they will issue you with a Canadian driver’s licence. Unfortunately, Canada does not have a reciprocal license agreement with South Africa, which means that you are legally allowed to use your driver’s licence from you country of origin for your first 90 days in Canada; after which time you have to take a knowledge and road test again in order to obtain a Canadian driver’s licence.

If you fail to complete the knowledge and road tests, you will no longer be allowed to drive in Canada and will be forced to use public transport to get around or you have to sign up for their learner driver programme, which is a two-year programme that prescribes that you are not allowed to drive by yourself. You always have to have a licenced driver with you when you are behind the wheel and you must complete a specific number of driving lessons and must wait at least two years before you can do the road test; unless you can provide reasons why your application should be expedited.

Fortunately, the public transport system in British Columbia is pretty good. See a previous blog post about this. However, as I mentioned in another blog post about buying a car, access to trains and buses depends on where you live and you might still have need of a car for grocery shopping (it is easier to transport groceries with a car – especially when you are buying in bulk), or for long distance travel and sight-seeing. So it is advisable to try and obtain your British Columbia driver’s licence. I found that because we are from South Africa, we value having our own car and being able to get around without having to depend on public transport. In South Africa, you get used to your independence simply because you are not living in a system where you have to adjust to a public transport schedule. Unreliable and unregulated public transport in South Africa, makes it the mode of transport for those who simply cannot afford a car, but not the first choice for anyone who has the means to buy a car.

Most people in Vancouver and the surrounding areas still own cars and use their cars on weekends and for road trips, but they use public transport to travel to and from work. This is the option we have chosen. My husband uses public transport to commute to and from work and I use the car for errands and emergencies. It was an adjustment but hubby seems to be getting used to public transport now. There are some nice benefits to using public transport for your commute; i.e. he doesn’t have to sit in traffic, and he can use his travel time to work, read or listen to podcasts – which is a much nicer way to start and end your day than navigating your way to and from work in the chaos that is Johannesburg peak traffic. The West Coast Express, is particularly nice for getting work done on your commute. The train is quiet and has space to work and is a fast and efficient way to get to work – with less stops between destinations. But again, you have to stay in an area where you have access to the West Coast Express.

Either way, obtaining a British Columbia driver’s licence was a “must-do” on our to-do list and because we did not want to end up in the British Columbia learner driver programme, it was one of our top priorities on the to-do list. We only had 90 days from the day or our arrival in Canada, before we would have to surrender our South African driver’s licences. It is important to keep in mind that you book your knowledge and road test online and that the system generates a test date for you. Oten your test date will be at least a month (sometimes two months) in the future. So it is important to book your test date as soon as possible and then work towards it.

Taking the tests

The knowledge test is an online test that you complete at your nearest ICBC branch, which is the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, but strangely enough also what we would call the “traffic department” back home in South Africa. You book your test date online. Then you download their road user manual to study British Columbia’s road signs and rules for driving. ICBC’s website also offers free practice tests that you can take before you take your knowledge test. The knowledge test is a multiple choice quiz that tests your knowledge of road signs and the rules of the road. You need to get 40 out of 50 questions right to pass. The tricky part is learning all the signs that you have never encountered in South Africa before.

In British Columbia there is a heavy emphasis on responsible and conscientious driving. You are required to drive cautiously and slow, but also to respect other road users and demonstrate kindness, by letting a driver into the lane ahead of you, waiting for pedestrians and cyclists to cross the road before proceeding etc. There is a whole section in the manual on sharing the road safely with other users. And here everyone abides by the rules. You start with zero points on your driving record when they issue your licence and gain points for being convicted of breaking certain traffic laws. Demerit points stay on your record for two years from the offence date. If you collect enough points, you can lose your driver’s licence. “Enough” points is 4 demerit points in a 12-month period. On the ICBC website there is a list of fines and points for B.C. traffic offences. Looking at this list, you realise that you can very easily get to 4 demerits by driving the way people drive in South Africa. Demerits also mean an increase in your insurance premium and of course you are legally obliged to take out insurance with ICBC when you buy a car. No-one can buy a car without taking out insurance, as uninsured vehicles are not allowed on the road.

The road test is a 35 minute test with an examiner. There is a thorough vehicle check and hand signals test before you start driving. After your car has been checked out and deemed safe, you start your road test. The examiner takes you through a pre-set route to test your driving skills — like turning, changing lanes, and parking. The route includes city streets, commercial areas, and highways. You also go through different kinds of intersections: ones without traffic signs, ones with stop signs, and large intersections with traffic lights. Your examiner also asks you during the test to spot and point out potential hazards and to park your car either uphill or downhill.

Once you get back to ICBC’s testing centre, you will know whether the examiner wants to pass or fail you on your driving test by the fact that he/she will either ask that you stop anywhere (fail) or that you back into a parking (pass – if you succeed in parking). After you’ve finished your test, the examiner goes over your test with you and provides you with feedback on what you did well and where you need to improve. If you did not make more than 3 mistakes, you pass the test.

So what is it like to drive in British Columbia?

The most difficult part of driving in B. C., is learning to drive on the left side of the car and the right side of the road as opposed to driving on the right side of the car and the left side of the road. Left turns at intersections are tricky. When wanting to turn right at a or red traffic light, you are allowed to stop and then proceed with caution (i.e. treat it as a yield sign) even though the traffic light might still be red – unless there is a sign indicating that you have to wait for a green arrow before turning. Another thing that is a big part of driving in Canada, is driving in wet and snowy conditions – something we almost never have to think about in South Africa. These were also the most tricky test questions on the knowledge test – knowing what to expect from melted ice on a bridge or how to handle skidding on slippery roads etc. – which actually happens quiet often when driving in snow.

Something to keep an eye out for, is pedestrians that cross the road without checking for oncoming cars, because they always have right of way and cyclists moving into your blind spot from bicycle lanes on the right-hand side of the road. And of course the speed limit, which is 30 km per hour in areas where there are schools or parks, 50 km per hour in the city and main roads, and 80 km per hour on the highway. The lower speed limits end up being a blessing in disguise as you try to get used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road, because you have more time to think before turning or changing lanes.

Mostly, once you start getting used to the weirdness of it all and relearn where all the blind spots around your car are, the driving experience is quite a pleasant one; simply because everyone follows the rules. Roads are well-maintained and on snowy days, the municipality scrapes all the snow from main roads and sidewalks, ensuring safe driving for everyone.

Canada Sevens at BC Place

Rugby is one of the three most popular sports in South Africa – the other two being soccer and cricket. So, when the only other South Africans you know in Canada, invite you to go and watch the Canada Sevens, you figure you might as well; even if only to do something that reminds you of home and for the opportunity to meet other South Africans. Neither my husband nor I are big rugby fans. We watch the occassional rugby game, but we are not die-hard supporters. Most of our family would actually consider themselves rugby fans. So when we announced that we would be attending the Canada Sevens, our families were both surprised and envious…

The Canada Sevens is an annual rugby tournament that takes place every March. It is held at BC Place. BC Place is a multi-purpose stadium located at the north side of False Creek, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and is currently the home of the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League (CFL). The stadium also served as the main stadium for the 2010 Winter Olympics and 2010 Paralympics, which Vancouver hosted.

Construction on the stadium started in April 1981, and the stadium was opened a little over two years later on June 20th, 1983. At the time of its completion in 1983, the stadium was the world’s largest air-supported domed stadium until May 4th, 2010 when it was deflated for the last time in preparation for the erection of its new retractable roof.

BC Place is British Columbia’s largest and most versatile venue; with capacity for 54 500 people. The cable-supported fabric roof is the largest of its kind in the world – designed and engineered specifically for Vancouver’s climate. BC Place is able to hold events in comfort all year round. The annual events hosted at the stadium contribute more than $100 million in economic activity.

According to BC Place’s website, the retractable roof over BC Place is a technological marvel. The retractable centre portion of the roof measures approximately 100m x 85m – effectively covering the area of the entire playing surface. Seated guests remain covered – rain or shine. The roof takes approximately 20 minutes to open or close, and before any major event, weather conditions and other circumstances are taken into consideration, to decide whether the roof will be kept open or closed during an event.

A view of the retractable roof from inside the stadium
BC Place is illuminated from 06:00 am to sunrise, and from sunset to 23:00 pm on most nights. On event nights, the roof and Northern Lights Display are lit until the conclusion of the event.

It was a spectacular sunny day on the day of the Canada Sevens, but the roof was kept closed, because despite the sunshine, it was still relatively cold outside. It was about 8 degrees Celcius outside and given the outrageous nature of some of the costumes that some of the fans chose to wore, this was perhaps a wise choice. Otherwise these fans would probably have enjoyed the day a little less. The stadium is surprisingly warm inside, despite it being an open-air stadium. We took off our jackets and scarfs upon arrival, and did not really feel a chill until much later in the afternoon.

When you arrive at the stadium, you can immediately see why it is a popular venue choice. The place is well layed out and a lot of thought has gone into, not just the roof, but also the concession stands and bathrooms. What was particularly nice for us, visiting with a toddler, is the family bathrooms that allow parents and small children to use the same facilities together. Not only are these family bathrooms well-situated between the other bathrooms, but there are officials who also point them out to you if they see you have a small child with you.

Large screens in the stadium allow you to see everything that is happening on the ground, no matter where you are seated in the stadium. The event organisers put a lot of effort into ensuring that fun is had by all, with music and roaming cameras looking to zoom in on people dancing, and finding colourful ways to express their support for their respective teams. That being said, the fun is never allowed to get out of hand. When buying drinks from the concession stands, you are only allowed a maximum of two drinks per person at any one time; effectively ensuring that no-one can get too drunk and curbing any unruly behaviour that might stem from uncontrolled drinking.

Safety officers also ensure that people have fun without endangering their safety or that of other people. If someone tries to hang over a railing for example, a safety officer will come and have a friendly chat. And these chats are friendly and civil. Something that is rare to observe, since people tend to get out of hand at stadiums in South Africa, and many sport events often end in fighting or violent outbursts of some sort, simply because people have gone overboard and drank too much.

Deciding which team to support during each match, was at times easy and other times proved more tricky. We sat with fellow South Africans and screamed at the top of our lungs when South Africa was playing.  What was amazing though, was the sense of cameraderie that we also shared regarding team Canada. We found we could support our new home with the same amount of gusto and enthusiasm. In most instances, since our arrival here, we have been welcomed with warmth, sincerity and kindness. Canadians are genuinely nice and kind people and if I had to support a team other than South Africa, nothing made me prouder, than being able to support this kind and generous nation.

I think the best game for the day was actually the game between Canada and the US. The stadium was roaring with Canadian fans who bellowed a loud “boo!” in unison every time the US team scored a try and leapt off their seats and burst into song every time the Canadian team scored. Unfortunately, Canada lost. But it only put a damper on things for a few short seconds, before people burst out into song and dance again and continued being merry and very, very silly, but in a really good way.

Despite my general lack of interest in the game of rugby itself, I haven’t had this much fun since we left home. It was awesome being among entusiastic spectators and observing people having fun without taking anything too seriously. Unfortunately, we did not make any new friends. But that is simply the impracticality of trying to strike up a friendly conversation in a stadium full of screaming rugby fans. For us, that was not the aim of the outing. The aim was to simply enjoy the day for what it was – good clean fun and merriment.

It was with a small note of sadness that we walked back to the train station to catch the train home that evening at 18:30, because we realised how we actually felt safe despite the hour of the day and the crowd of people pouring out of the stadium. It was with a heavy heart that we had to admit that we never felt this safe leaving a stadium after an event in South-Africa. Noticing the clean city streets and how people just let each other be – how someone who had had too much to drink could prop himself up against a wall and sleep off the worst of his inebriation without any threat to his safety or his life, made me feel a little sad.

Listening to conversations had by fellow South-Africans in the stands, we realised that we were not alone in what we felt since we arrived in Canada. People miss home every day. They miss their friends and families and they feel sad on happy days like these, because they do not get to share it with those they love. But the fear and the sense of desperation you often feel in South Africa, is the thing that convinces them to stay; even on the days when the burden of their loneliness and their longing for something familiar becomes unbearable.

P. S. For the die-hard rugby fans and team South Africa supporters, you can watch seven of the best tries from the Canada Sevens here.

A world of colour and glass

What a privelege to get a second opportunity to visit the beautiful city of Seattle. It was only a two-day trip, but two days were just enough to pick a bucket list activity to do in the city. So I opted for the Chihuly Garden and Glass.

It was a cold and rainy day outside, but that did not stop us from exploring.

Some history on Dale Chihuly – the creator behind the Chihuly Garden and Glass and who it is named for

Dale Chihuly was born in 1941 in Tacoma, Washington. He was introduced to glass while studying interior design at the University of Washington. Chihuly was enrolled in the first glass program in the United States, at the University of Wisconsin. He received a Fulbright Fellowship and went to work at the Venini glass factory in Venice. There he observed the team approach to blowing glass, which is critical to the way he works today.

You can read more about Dale Chihuly and his work here.

There is a mini-theatre at the Chihuly Garden and Glass where they feature short films about Chihuly’s biggest glass projects. In one of these videos, he talks about his time spent in Venice. He said he spent an entire year all by himself, just studying and observing. He reckons, this year spent by himself was actually more critical to the development of his creative talents than any of the other years he spent studying. I found this resonated quite a lot, considering how alone I feel right now.

There are 10 exhibitions in the Chihuly Garden and Glass gallery.

  1. As you enter the gallery, there is the Glass Forest, which looks more like flamingos on a black lake to me.
  2. The Northwest Room houses some glass bowels and beutiful woven tapestries.
  3. The Sealife Room has one spectacular centre piece that you can pose in front of for a complimentary photo. You receive a card to collect your photo just before you exit the gallery at the end of your tour. You basically use the card to identify your photo and then provide your e-mail address for them to e-mail the photo to you. Very efficient. I received my photo that same afternoon.

    Chihuly Garden and Glass
  4. The Persian Ceiling is exquisite. The entire ceiling is filled with beautiful handmade glass bowls and flowers and as the light comes through the ceiling, it scatters the wall with colour.
  5. The Mille Fiori is a beautiful glass forest filled with glass flowers, glass cylinders and glass balls. It is breathtakingly beautiful and a bit eerie at the same time. The entire room is black and the “forest” is in the centre of the room…
  6. The Ikebana and Float Boat are two wooden rowboats filled to the brim with glass works. The first boat is filled with glass balls of different sizes and colours and the second boat is filled Ikebana elements – which are basically flower-like glass stems arranged in a similar fashion to the Japanese art of Ikebana.
  7. The Chandelier Room is another room that is painted black and filled with giant colourful chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. It is incredibly striking.
  8. The Macchia Forest are giant colourful glass “flowers” placed on iron stands. These flowers are speckled with colour by rolling molten glass in small shards of coloured glass during the blowing process. To complete the process, a lip wrap of a contrasting colour is added.
  9. The Glass House is my absolute favourite exhibition. It is a giant conservatory with a massive glass flower display suspended from steel beams. The display weighs about 7 tonnes. It is breathtakingly beautiful and the conservatory is a nice place to sit and take in the scenery both overhead and outside. It is a quiet sanctuary where you can just sit and think or be.
  10. The Garden is a garden filled with natural trees and schrubs and interspersed with some of Chihuly’s biggest and most colourful displays. Chihuly is right when he says that when you walk through his gardens, you feel as if the art belongs there and is part of the nature scene. The display of colours both from the flowers and the glass art pieces create this beautiful other world where glass and forest meet and merge.

Once you have walked through the whole gallery and garden, you can finish of your tour with a delectable meal at the Collections Cafe, that houses some of Chihuly’s drawings.