Monday, October 15, 2012

Driving Backwards

During our time here in South Africa, we've had the privilege of using the owner's car. Here it is:

Blast from the past!
Is that a 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit? Why no, it's a 2006 Volkswagen Citi! The Rabbit was produced in South Africa from 1984 to 2009 with minor face lifts here and there (The Internet, 2012). Apparently, there is a little problem with car theft around here, so while it doesn't have power steering, power windows, or airbags, the Citi does have the most obstinate factory car alarm that's ever been installed. The unlock button disarms the alarm for approximately 1.3 seconds, in which time you must enter, sit down, and shut the door before it re-arms and detonates. Once we're in, we sit in fear of touching anything lest we set off the alarm. Don't touch the radio! It's rigged!

Driving the car is a whole other matter. Here in South Africa, they drive on the left side of the road. I think they started doing this in the '60s when The Beetles were really big (The Internet, 2012).  Before arriving, several people told me, "Don't worry about it. Driving on the opposite side is easy. Five minutes and it will be totally natural." After experiencing it, I have come to the realization that these people are either:
  1. Supremely gifted ambidextrous drivers.
  2. Total liars with good intentions.
  3. BSers who have never driven on the opposite side of the road in their lives.
As it turns out, driving on the opposite side of the road in a backwards car is wicked hard! Something that I can normally do in my sleep (but try not to), has become an experience that ranges from mentally exhausting to completely terrifying. If I manage to get into the car on the correct side, I reach over my left shoulder for the seat belt, but it's not there. Then, I grab the window crank with my right hand and try to shift. Once I realize that the gear shift is on my left, I grope for it blindly until I'm convinced that it's gone missing.

The fun doesn't end there. Once we've made it out of the driveway, it takes me about 30 minutes to realize that the rear view mirror is on my left side, not the right. Also, much to Natalie's dismay, the left side of the car doesn't exist to me, making for a thrilling passenger experience. So far, I've managed to run over several obstacles on that side. Cyclists and traffic cones, beware! I have also manged to hit the brake pedal instead of the clutch. That would wake you up if the brakes weren't complete rubbish...

Hover over different parts of the picture to learn more!
Then, there is the mental challenge of driving on the "wrong" side of the road. I live in fear that cars are coming from every possible direction, because they are! I can't take a right-hand turn without looking over my right shoulder in the unnerving belief that someone is coming up behind me. If someone isn't in front of me at a red light to guide me through an intersection, I just aim for anything that isn't headlights. In other words, nothing is automatic. If it is automatic, then it's a good sign that I'm driving into oncoming traffic.

Like most travelers, I generally strive to fit in and avoid drawing attention to myself. Well, the other day, every one of the aforementioned challenges clearly outed me as the guy who's "not from around here." We stopped for gas at the petrol station where the local fishermen were refilling their boats and exchanging fish stories (cuz that's what fisherman do (The Internet, 2012)). While the attendant filled our tank, the car determined that more than 1.3 seconds had elapsed without engine operation and re-armed the alarm. When I started the car to leave, the alarm detonated, blasting the horn and flashing the lights. I tried pushing the disarm button, but to no avail. In my panic, I turned on the windshield wipers, which up to this point I'd never learned to activate (or for that matter, to deactivate). As I fumbled around, I could sense the annoyed looks of the fisherman penetrating through my freshly cleaned windshield. Thinking it would be best to leave the scene and deal with this down the road, I bucked and lurched the car out of the station with horn blaring, lights flashing, wipers wiping, and driving down the wrong side of the road. I'm pretty sure that no one noticed.