Sunday, April 5, 2009

You Should Know This

Before you embark on a trip around the world -- or a trip anywhere outside of North America, actually -- you should really learn to drive with a manual transmission. Automatic cars can be hard to find in a lot of places; they'll also cost you more to rent. Let me tell you a story.

Before we left in 2007 BG had driven standard exactly twice. He assured me he knew what he was doing and could also show me. (I had shifted from first to second, once, in my ex-boyfriend's parents' pickup truck.) On our first day off from SANCCOB in Cape Town, we decided to rent a car and drive down to Cape Point. We chose a manual transmission to save money.

We were living in a guest house situated in the suburbs, so the neighbourhood was quiet and peaceful, a perfect place to brush up on driving skills. The first problem was that the car rental company, which normally delivered the cars, had us come to the office in downtown Cape Town instead. "Are you SURE you can do this?" I asked BG again. "Yes" was what I heard over and over.

Once the car was in our hands, BG got in the driver's seat. He adjusted the mirrors and seat meticulously. He shifted into first and we cruised slowly (downhill) down the street to a stop sign; we turned right onto Long Street (perhaps THE busiest street in downtown Cape Town) and came to a stop at a red light. At rush hour.

So apparently there was a 0.005% incline at this light, because at this point we found ourselves in a difficult situation. Every single time BG tried to get the car in motion again it stalled. Then it would roll backwards and he would slam his foot on the brake. The light changed three times. I sat completely paralyzed and unable to help, as he grew more and more flustered. People behind us were very angry. A kind taxi driver on a break approached us and offered to help. BG declined at first, but after three more stalled attempts sheepishly called him over. "I was wondering if you could help me... (playing it cool, not admitting he has no effing clue what he's doing)... I'm not used to this rental car and I can't seem to find first gear." Mr. Nice Taxi Driver Man tried to direct from his place on the street, but it didn't help. People were honking and yelling. Finally BG said, "You know what, maybe you can just drive us back to the rental place and we'll get an automatic." "No, no," the driver insisted, "I can show you how to drive this car. It will take 5 minutes. Very easy." So he got in the driver's seat and whipped around the corner to a quiet parking lot. "Here, get in and drive, I will show you how and then you will be fine." BG got into the driver's seat. I took a seat on the lawn with my book and waited.

It all happened so quickly. BG started the car and shifted into reverse. Then he let out the clutch and gunned the engine hard... and hit the tree that was right behind him. There was a loud crash followed by an awful silence. Then the instructor said, "Shit. These trees are not supposed to be here anyway, in these parking lots." BG said, "I think you'd better drive us back to the rental place." This time, he agreed.

In the end, we actually had to learn to drive standard because the truck we had hired to drive through Southern Africa was standard. We ended up taking lessons -- each of us spent two hours in the car with a cute medical student/driving instructor named Hannes, and he taught us how to do it all. It wasn't hard, actually, and grew to be an almost enjoyable experience. By the time we had to drive the truck, we were pros.

If you could learn how to do this before you leave, it would be good. However, I'm glad that we didn't, because it's given me my favourite story of all time -- the one where BG backs into a tree. Ah, sweet vengeance.


LittleSpots said...

That's something I would have never thought of. I've tried to learn standard a few times but I've always chickened out. Good for you for succeeding.

Cindi said...

Hilarious! J and I both know how to drive a manual - but had a had enough time driving on the wrong side of the road - I can't imagine dealing with both at the same time. Glad you survived!