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Story Publication logo April 24, 2017

Life Skills on the Road

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Mahal, an orangutan who was rejected by his mother at a Colorado zoo, at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Image by Mark Hoffman for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. United States, 2017.
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The closer the contact the greater the risk humans and animals will pass devastating diseases to...

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RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – If you can't get to a location, you're dead in the water as a photojournalist. If you're a reporter, being on the scene and speaking to people add depth and color to story.

Driving is a skill most of us take for granted and let's be honest: Most of us don't put a lot of conscious thought into it. We get in the car; turn the key and away we go.

When Americans get into a rental car in many emerging nations, and Europe as well, they are confronted with three pedals instead of the usual two. There is no shifter with big bold letters for 'D', 'P' and 'R'.

Being able to drive a manual transmission is a life skill everyone should master.

While in Brazil reporting a story about zoonotic diseases, which are transmitted between animals and humans, I was the only one in our group who knew how to drive one.

I enjoy driving and the thousand miles behind the wheel allowed me to notice little things I would have missed while dozing in the back seat.

Driving a vehicle with a manual transmission is an easy skill to learn in less than an hour and you can achieve proficiency in a day. But driving in Brazil I faced a challenge I had never had before: severely underpowered cars.

Our first rental was a Fiat Doblo, an Italian version of a minivan with a 1.8-liter engine putting out a maximum of 128 horsepower. My motorcycle has slightly more horsepower. Our second rental, a small Renault SUV, wasn't much better.

With four adults with luggage, there were times I wasn't sure I was going to make it up the steep cobblestone streets in Rio even in first gear.

The good news is that nearly everyone else has the same problem.

Outside the bigger cities, large semi-tractor trailers would struggle to climb steep inclines on twisty roads forcing other motorists to pass where there were solid yellow lines. Brazilian drivers are assertive. A couple times, when I was passing another motorist, a car used the shoulder of the oncoming lane to pass me.

Basic life skills like driving a manual transmission car can make the difference between a great story and one that could have been great.

Many of us are accustomed to using our smart phones to navigate our way to unfamiliar destinations. One problem: No service, no navigation. Use a GPS and a map instead.

On a related note, you should also know how to change a tire. It takes just a few minutes and you never know when out in the middle of nowhere your cell phone will have no service.

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