Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The joys of driving

I'm bored, so I'm going to reminisce. There's nothing about politics or current affairs here, so feel free to go and read the paper or do something more constructive instead. There are short-shorts, but I don't want to build them up - it only ever leads to disappointment.

As far as car ownership goes, I was probably something of a late starter. Although I learned to drive at 17, and drove a selection of family cars from Nissan Micras to, gah, a Renault Modus, it wasn't until I lived in Zambia for six months in 2002 that I first owned a car in my own right. And it was beautiful. It was a 1982(ish) white Toyota Corolla, the same model as below, and it had nearly 500,000km on the clock. It had come up, legally I hope, though you're never entirely certain about these things, from South Africa, and had evidently been caught at some point in a traditional African hailstorm, as the bodywork was pitted with tell-tale pockmarks.

What it was though, was more or less unkillable. I'm a history graduate, with about as much mechanical aptitude as the next arts student. If I open the bonnet of a modern car I see two things. An electronic box containing computer chips and other scary things, and a notice from the manufacturers telling me that unless I close the bonnet instantly, and forget I ever opened it, not only will they never repair my car, ever, but they'll send hired goons around to insult my dog. When I first opened the bonnet of the Toyota, I saw an engine that was connected to a battery. Which didn't work.
Until, of course, I put water in it. I'd always assumed that water and electricity were unnatural bedfellows, and was rather surprised at how thirsty my battery turned out to be, but Africa has always been the place where political ideologies and cars come to die, when they have been thoroughly outmoded in the West and I had a lot to learn. Soon, and when I say soon, I mean after a lot of bonnet openings, I knew enough to clean the connections, top up the battery, swear at the engine, change the oil, burn myself on the radiator and all manner of useful and invigorating things. Now I was man: hear me roar - admittedly usually with pain and frustration as I cut myself on something jagged that shouldn't have been, or burnt myself on something hot that, OK, should.
But I loved it. I loved the way that you had to keep the revs up when starting it, I loved the way that occasionally the steering wheel would drift off to the left like a second term Labour Government. I even loved the way the only radio channel it would receive was the World Service. I especially loved the day I got a speeding ticket on the way to play cricket - I made the policeman give me a copy of the ticket that proved I could get over 100kph. At about a fiver it was cheap reassurance.
That's not to say there weren't problems. I wasn't overly happy with the age of the windscreen - it had reached the stage where incoming light fragmented into a million shards of iridescence. Lovely to look at, but unhelpful when facing oncoming traffic. I used to drive home from cricket matches and parties with my head out of the window like an eager dog, and used to have to clean insects off my forehead when I got home. Niggles apart, however, it was a perfect car. Cheap, economical, sturdy and easy to maintain. The fact that I had a gardener helped too. I had told him at first that I didn't have a garden, which was true, but he asked if he could look after my car instead. I've never seen a car washed so often.
When my brother came out to visit me, I thought it was best to take him down to the one undeniable attraction of Zambia - the Victoria Falls. Lusaka has its attractions, but they aren't really designed for the tourist. Livingstone, for all its decay and sleaze, is a party town. So, I picked my brother up at 6am from Lusaka international (welcome to Lusaka, where local time is 1958) and started the trek down south. 500 km, or thereabouts, on roads that vary from surprisingly good to merely surprising. Still, off we bounced and everything was gas and gaiters. Massive baobabs by the side of the road, dusty little towns with one shop and two corrugated iron churches, police checkpoints and so on.
Until, about 120 km out of Livingstone, there came an enormous bang from the exhaust and we rolled to a halt. An ominous cloud of blue-grey smoke billowed out as we came to a rest between two hills. We were about 40 km on from the last garage, and 120 km away from the next. Something of a problem. I let the car settle for a minute then tried the starter. We started, idled and stalled. In neutral. I tried again, giving her plenty of welly with the accelerator. That seemed to work, and we lurched off, sounding about as far from well as a 1 litre engine can.
The problem was that to keep the engine running, I needed to keep the revs incredibly high. If they slipped below about 2,500 she stalled. I stalled at 60kmh, which I didn't even think was possible. However, with the speedo registering a surely fictitious 130kmh and with all stop signs, traffic lights and crossroads being cheerfully ignored we sailed through Livingstone making judicious use of the Zambian air brake, or horn. Fortunately, Livingstone is an easy place to navigate, as it consists of one main street, leading to the Victoria Falls bridge.

Enquiries revealed that there was one mechanic in town who was reliable and cheap. He had only one drawback - he was a big Afrikaner who hated the English. This was a problem, but one I felt that could be overcome. I'd been living in Lusaka for half a year, was tanned deep mahogany and had been playing cricket for a Zimbo/white Zambian cricket team (the options were Indian teams, and they wouldn't let me in). My accent had slipped south to such an extent that my girlfriend didn't recognise me when I rang her. I could handle this.
So, off we drove backfiring and spluttering, to the mechanic's. He came over as I popped the bonnet, and he looked hard at me before jabbing a finger the size and colour of a boerewors sausage into the vitals of the engine. A blue spark about a foot long shot up and earthed in his mullet.
'Man. Your car's fucked,' was his considered verdict.
'Is it hey?' I replied 'the fuck is wrong with the fucker?' I was pleased with how this was going. He looked at me sharply.
'Where you from?' Shit. Here we go, would this work?
'Aww, I've been up in Lusaka a while now hey? But my folks are back in England now.' Smooth. This was working, I could practically see the prices coming down.
My brother got out of the car to have a look. Freshly landed from England he still had the dazzling whiteness that I had never noticed back home. He was wearing a stripy collared shirt, shorts with pockets and long socks. All he lacked was the pith helmet and he could have been the advance party come to recolonise the place. I readjusted the price upwards. Going into the back office to negotiate, the Afrikaner (whose name has completely escaped me) asked the obvious question.
'Who the fuck was that hey?' Obvious dilemma. Family loyalty... Bargain repair...
'Aw he's a relo from back home, first trip over...' Honour just about saved, discount preserved. About £30 and a fistful of new points later we drove out feeling much better. I didn't tell my brother how close I came to disowning him, but he got his revenge anyway. On the drive back to Lusaka I found that he'd promised someone (a girl. Obviously) that he'd bring a package up to Lusaka for her. On closer inspection this turned out to be a bucket of feta cheese. There are some things that never quite leave you. Your first African sunset. Your first kiss. Your first car. But the one that really never leaves you is the smell of a bucket of feta cheese in the back of a Toyota after 500 un-air-conditioned kilometres through an African summer.
UPDATE: I notice I forgot to mention the short-shorts, so I apologise to any of you who slogged through in anticipation. I'm afraid they were being worn by the Afrikaner mechanic, together with a short-sleeved shirt with cigarettes in the arm pocket and a stupendous mullet. On what basis he was making sartorial criticism of my brother is quite unknowable. But sorry, I'll try and remember a story that has girls wearing short-shorts for next time.

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