Columns

A trip around the world in strange cars 2016.07.20

on . Posted in Nowhere Road

By RICH FOLEY

It’s doubtful that I’ll be taking a vacation this year and I haven’t left the country since a one hour visit to Canada back in the 1980’s, but I keep running across interesting little stories about foreign countries. Some of them are about nations I’ve never even thought about visiting, at least until recent articles caught my eye.

Take, for instance, South Korea. I recently learned that a manufacturer of yogurt drinks, long popular in that country for their purported health benefits, has employed 13,000 women to deliver its product. For years, Korea Yakult Company’s all-women sales force pulled an ice box on a cart by hand to customers on their route.

Last year, to speed up the job of delivering the drinks, the company introduced a motorized refrigerator to aid the women. About 4,000 of the new carts, described by the Wall Street Journal as resembling “a Segway with a 485-pound refrigerator attached to the front” are now on the streets.

The carts, which each hold 3,300 drinks, allow the women to deliver two million of them per day. Most customers get a delivery once or twice a week. The company hopes to have 10,000 of the contraptions on the road by next year, but the introduction hasn’t went without a snag or two.

It was hard to decide what to legally call the carts, but the government decided on classifying them as motorized bicycles. Korea Yakult wanted them to be called a car, in order to be able to use highways. They discovered that vehicles that travel under 25 kilometers per hour, about 15.5 miles per hour, don’t have to be registered at all, but can still use the roads. Since the carts have a top speed of five miles per hour, they qualify.

To dodge more stringent safety requirements, the carts come without seats, requiring the driver to stand at the rear. The husband of one driver jury-rigged a chair onto the cart, which caused the company to quickly demand its removal once they learned about it.

I think a trip to South Korea to watch passenger cars and trucks dodge the slow-moving yogurt carts might be fun. If I got bored, there’s always Saudi Arabia, where another group of women are learning to drive in another type of not-so-fast vehicle.

Women in Saudi Arabia are generally not allowed to drive cars, although the Journal says Bedouin women in remote areas of the kingdom sometimes do anyway. For the rest, an unexpected alternative is becoming more popular. Many women are going to amusement parks and driving bumper cars.

That’s hardly the same as driving a real car on real streets and roads, but it’s a start. Many women take it seriously, refusing to hit other cars but instead driving lap after lap, practicing their driving skills in the only way they can, hoping for a chance to do it on an actual road in a genuine car someday.

 They often take advantage of the situation to enjoy a vacation from fashion restrictions as well. Some parks host ladies-only night for the bumper cars, where many of the women lose their head scarves and gowns to “reveal the latest trends-ripped jeans, tank tops, and tossed-to-the-side ‘80s-style hair.”

But the attraction for many is simply the opportunity to drive, with participants asking others not to interrupt their driving practice by running into them. One woman who attempted to chase and hit other drivers reported she raised the ire of the rest of the participants. Arwa al-Neami, who was documenting her activity for an art project, said other women would scream “‘Please, don’t bump me! I am trying to drive!’”

 At the parks where both genders are allowed in at the same time, a black curtain is raised around the bumper car area to hide the “driving” women from onlookers who might  be offended by the sight. After the women are done, they leave and wait for a man to drive them home. 

It appears men probably aren’t allowed to watch the women drive bumper cars in Saudi Arabia and South Korea is really a long way to go to see a five mile per hour yogurt cart so staying home might actually be a better option. After all, I could easily outrun a bumper car with my Buick. It would be nice, though, to have someone deliver my yogurt.

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