I Got My Colombian Drivers License

Getting a drivers license in Colombia is not as easy as it is in the USA.

Drivers license topOriginally published in the Fenton Patch newspaper June 2012

I passed all the tests and now have my Colombian driver’s license. Compared to what is done in the USA to be allowed to power a killing machine down the road, this is a feat that I am thinking should be on my resume. And it is not because everything involved communicating in Spanish.

Though I have 40 years of experience behind the wheel, I still had to take driving classes. Driving in Bogotà is like no other place in the world. My wife and I frequently debate about that. I say that motoring around Mexico City is easier. She thinks the Mexicans are more crazy drivers than Colombians. Many roads and highways here are wide enough for three lanes, but there are no lane markings.  Consequently it is not unusual to have four or five cars across with each seemingly making their own determination of where the lanes should be.  Colombians also take all driving laws as suggestions. Turn signals are something that most taxi drivers do not know are on their vehicles. If you think Michigan has pot holes just wait until you see Bogotá. Many people call it Huecotá. Hueco is Spanish for hole.

You can forget that multiple choice paper test that they give you in Michigan to see if you know the rules. In Colombia you have to demonstrate knowledge of the laws, and that you can perform them while driving. Of course this is done over the sound of blasting music. For most Colombians it seems the car is incapable of moving unless vallenato, bolero, reggaton, salsa or some other form of music is blaring. While they loathe the use of turn signals they are in love with the sound of their horns.

Next part is that I had to supply a photo of myself like the one used for a passport and a certification of my blood type. This is for the driving school files. Then I needed copies of my Colombian identification card called a cedula.

That office directed me to a government building to register that I had completed my driving. Here they scanned my fingerprints into the computer. My wife leaned over and said, “If you get stopped by the police they can verify it is really you.”

After that finished we went to a medical office building. I presented to the receptionist my papers from the first two places. She also asked for my cedula. What seemed like ten minutes passed as she typed information into the computer. Finally I was advised to go to the second floor.

Very few words in Spanish start with the letter “K.” Plus my name is an unusual one for Colombians. Therefore, as usually happens, I heard a young lady from one of the two rooms call the slaughtered version of my last name. She administered the eye test. It is very similar to the one given at the Michigan DMV but more extensive. This test included vision, color blindness, distance recognition and comprehension of moving objects.

Again back to the hallway and soon yet another attempt at my name from the second room. A young lady led me to one of those soundproof  booths, gave me instructions and placed headphones on me.

I have tinnitus and that morning was not one of my best. Already a good buzz resonated in my ears. The lady gave me not a clue as to my success or failure, but directed me to wait in chairs on the first floor next to the receptionist desk.

I figured that was all and now just to sign my papers. But no, another attempt at my name in a rough sounding voice carried to my ears from a room down the hall. “What test is this?” I asked upon entering.

“Psychological exam,” came the reply from the older lady whose face and actions told me there were other places she would rather be. While the almost 100 questions covered a variety of areas, there seemed to be a focus to determine my road rage susceptibility.

Next came the manual dexterity tests. The device in front of me looked like the two knobs of an Etch-A-Sketch. On the monitor behind the device were two roads on the screen. Each knob controlled a car on the roads. As the video played the roads would curve. Sometimes they went in the same direction. Often times their directions were either opposite to each other or the turns went at different angles. Using the two knobs it was my job to keep both cars on their respective roads as they moved simultaneously. Maybe for a young video game player this would be a cakewalk, but for me it was a challenge to watch both roads and move the knobs in different directions and different amounts.

Still not done, I was given a metal rod and placed before a spinning disk with a slight opening in it. For three minutes I had to stick the metal rod in holes that appeared beneath the opening of the wheel as it spun around.

Even that did not satisfy them to my coordination talents. My next test involved sitting in front of the mock up of a steering wheel and dashboard. Two pads were at my feet. Yup, whenever a light lit on the dashboard or when I heard a beep sound they tested my time getting from the accelerator to the brake.

Finally back out in the hallway I noticed that the building had one remaining door. Sure enough a man wearing a white lab coat with a stethoscope around his neck and name badge that started with DR. got my name correct. In his office came the questions similar to those when checking into an emergency room. Do you smoke? Do you drink? Are you using any drugs? Have you had any surgeries?  He asked about 40 questions before taking my height and weight. Then it was to the examination table for blood pressure and checking of the heart and lungs.

Again back to the waiting area. Finally the receptionist motioned me to her desk. I signed several forms and gave my fingerprints to their computer.

Three days later I finished the process at a different building than the first three. This time the scene was more like a Michigan DMV. Stood in line to get a number for help. It took about 20 minutes before my number popped up on the two 32-inch TV screens and announced my window number.

The young lady looked at my papers and instructed me to place my finger on the fingerprint reader. It took a couple tries before her computer could find me in their database. Now the comedy of photos began. One must remember that most Colombians have some color to their skin and are short. The instructions came for me to stand against the white background for my photo. The light on the camera attached to the computer flashed. A funny look surfaced on the lady’s face. She asked me to move a step forward and took the photo again, another funny look. An attempt was made to point the camera higher. Finally she asked me to bend at the knees. The flash was followed by a thoughtful look. “Please turn the white background around to the blue side,” she said. The following photo evidently didn’t work and I was asked to remove my sweater that I noticed was the same color as the background.

“What is the problem?” I asked.

You’re too white with white hair and you’re too tall,” she said.

A couple more tries with frustrated looks and finally I received a thumb pointing up. Forty minutes and $70 dollars later they called my name and gave me my driver’s license. It had photo of me looking jaundice that had been cropped chopping off one of my ears and making me look bald.

The license does not have my height, weight or color of my eyes on it. But it does have my fingerprint and blood type. They told me the license was valid for driving in the USA.

On my trip to Michigan in April I had the opportunity to observe the people at the DMV office. There were those there demanding another license even though the police had taken theirs away. There were people there that I knew would never pass the coordination exam in Colombia. And by the angry complaining of many I really wondered if they had a chance of passing the psych exam. I know there are many excellent drivers in Michigan and other states. But for some, I believe they should be thankful that America is so lenient in dispensing of their driving permissions.