– I love driving in South Africa
– I love driving anyway, but in South Africa it’s especially rewarding. In the States I approach driving the same way one approaches a chess game. I plan out my moves well in advance, assess the mindset and temperament of my opponents, try to gauge just how much I can get away with and, when circumstances allow, undertake every move with a flourish. Of course I can’t drive like this all the time. Sometimes I have something on my mind, or a passenger to converse with; sometimes the road conditions are so static and boring that thinking about something else is a form of self-defense. Be that as it may, to me driving is very much a competitive sport, one that I get great enjoyment in winning. South Africa is a perfect place for this particular mindset, as giving it any less attention is asking to end your trip prematurely, in flames, and probably stuck in a ditch somewhere.
– Two factors contribute to this situation. 1) Everybody drives on the wrong side of the road. Not really of course, I’m sure they think they’re behaving quite naturally, but to an American the road conditions are a mirror image of what we’re used to, and you can’t forget this for an instant. 2) Half the roads are unpaved, filled with potholes the size of Labradors, and are single track. It’s like navigating a three dimensional puzzle. Every moment presents a shifting tableau of obstacles, possibilities, and passes that may or may not be passable. Intellectually it’s incredibly stimulating.
– I drive an old, manual, 4-wheel drive, diesel engine pick-up truck. As previously mentioned there is only one seat belt, and there is no power steering. Even on paved roads it shakes and trembles like it’s contemplating a sudden transmutation into scrap metal. The speedometer doesn’t work at low speeds, or at high speeds, which is all right since I don’t really know what 90 km/h means anyway. There is an extra indicator light on the dashboard called “engine coils” and before starting the car you must turn the key past a mysteries point on the ignition (recognizable by the sound of a faint ‘pop’) and wait for this light to turn off before igniting the spark plugs. Every time I drive it, I expect the steering wheel to fall off in my lap. We get along just fine.
– Hloniphani didn’t have high hopes the first time he took me out for a driving lesson. He gave the impression of fully expecting to end the day plastered on someone else’s windshield. I myself was slightly ambivalent about driving on the wrong side of the road, but I was confident in my off-road abilities, and my grasp of the basic driving mechanics once I got familiar with the clutch. Getting to know an unfamiliar manual vehicle is like getting to know a strange horse. Each one has its own personality, its own quirks and inconsistencies, and each requires its own brand of coaxing. This is less true of new manuals, but only slightly. Above all you must remain cool, confident, and never show any fear, as that will just make them skittish. Treat them well, and they’ll return the favor.
– I quickly graduated to driving into town. Once he was assured that I had a basic idea of what I was doing, Hloniphani was more than happy to give up the wheel. On my very first trip, Norman asked if he could tag along. I wasn’t exactly thrilled to have another spectator on my maiden voyage, but at the same time I didn’t really mind. To be honest I was rather surprised he was willingly putting his life into my hands so easily. The trip itself was uneventful. I had a few mix-ups with the gears, but that was only to be expected on my second time driving the car and was nothing to panic over. When we arrived, Norman wouldn’t stop gushing about how surprised he was. “Like she has been driving in this country forever. I had my doubts, I was ready, oh boy was I ready, but she completely blew my mind. Blew my mind.” Hloniphani also expressed his admiration, though in less colorful terms, as he had recently taught Monica how to drive manual, and although she grew up with these reversed driving conditions, she had insisted on driving him into oncoming traffic at every opportunity. At any rate, I was pleased and more than a little smug. Anything you can do, boys.
– The smugness didn’t last long, as on the way back I was promptly pulled over by a traffic cop. I hadn’t done anything wrong, mind you, this truck just attracts cops like honey attracts flies. Traffic cops in South Africa work on a bribery system. They don’t have quotas to fill, so they aren’t worried about handing out tickets. When they see a truck like mine they figure it will be easy money, since invariably these old wrecks aren’t registered, have broken taillights or indicators, or are missing their stickers. It’s actually a mutually beneficial system. The cop gets a little cash, and the citizen gets to keep driving his vehicle without getting a ticket. To be honest, people treat this as more of a friendly community service then an abuse of the system. Of course this is only true of the male cops. The female cops don’t take bullshit from anyone.
– After he had pulled me over, the cop walked around my truck looking for problems while I was busy panicking. I didn’t have my license with me. I had taken it out of my purse for safe keeping, before I had started driving. I was hoping he would just wave me on after seeing that nothing was wrong but he insisted on knocking on my window, already looking bored. Hloniphani and Norman were also relaxed, they had no idea I didn’t have my license with me. I rolled down my window, gave him a winning smile, and handed him my proof of insurance, which was the longest document I had in my purse with the smallest type that still was related in some way to operating a vehicle. The cop was obviously confused. He squinted at the document, reading it line by line, getting caught up in the jargon and the unnecessary legal stipulations. I handed him my international student ID card (expired in 2007), for good measure. Finally he looked up and asked me what the document was. I told him that it shows that I am financially responsible in the event of an accident and in the states you need it in order to drive a car. “This document allows you to drive in the states?” …Yes, you definitely need it in order to drive legally. He looked at me, looked at the document again, and handed it back. “How long will you be here for?” I knew the correct answer to this: “Not long, I leave in about a month. …though I’ll be back again next year.” “Where are you staying?” “Wits Rural.” Ah, I could see him thinking, one of those people. He gave me a nice smile and told me to enjoy the rest of my day.
– Neither Norman or Hloniphani said anything, and I stayed quiet as long as I could before I told them I didn’t have my license with me, still amazed at my close call and expecting the cop to track me down any second. They couldn’t believe it, they wanted to know what I had handed him, and they kept saying how they thought nothing was wrong, finishing by telling me I was pretty clever. Yes, pretty damn clever, I thought to myself, feeling a little smug again. But I still hurried back as quickly as I could, not wanting to press my luck.