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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride

One of the joys that I feel that I have been denied here in Nairobi is my love of driving. I thoroughly enjoy jumping behind the wheel turning the radio on as loud as possible, singing in my horribly off voice, and flying off to my destination. One of my favorite memories of Buena Vista was a morning drive to work, where I was coasting down our street at 7am; the sun was just rising over Mt. Princeton, hitting the gold grove of fall aspens just below our house as Chris Martin’s voice was intoning, ‘slowly breaking through the sunlight,’ into my ears.
Yes, we don’t have a car and largely I haven’t had many chances to get behind the wheel because the opportunity just has not presented itself as often as it would at home. We’ve been able to rent cars from Rosslyn and I have been able to drive on those occasions but usually I am quite happy to allow Scott to get behind the wheel. Now why would I let my husband drive when I seem to love it so much? Because driving in Nairobi is a pants wetting, dashboard gripping, jaw clenching experience. It’s like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride on methamphetamine, with the hallucinations, because half the time you can’t really believe that you saw what you just saw.
First I will tell you about the roads. Picture un-leveled bright red ground, pour asphalt on it. We are done. As you can imagine there are so many potholes and cracks in these roads you begin to wonder if small families have not taken up residence in them. There is no shoulder, or sidewalk, if you go off the road you are on dirt or in a canyon. There are no lines in the roads or demarcations of any kind, which you begin to realize is because no one would heed them anyway. In some neighborhoods there are speed bumps, they are not painted, which means that you regularly encounter them at full speed. The roads also do not have stoplights they have roundabouts, when in of themselves are not bad, but Kenyan roundabouts are manned by Kenyan cops who ‘direct’ traffic. Now these cops let one line of cars go for ten minutes, then allow another line to go for two, and then allow another line to go for five minutes….all while texting on their phones.
Second add many people walking alongside the road. Third add people on bikes on the edges of the road, which often veer into your space. Keep in mind that many of these bikes have large bundles of straw on the back which triples their width, and they veer more because of the weight and imbalance.
Fourth add broken down cars which when broken down are repaired right where they are in the middle of the road. It is not uncommon to drive by a large broken truck and see some mechanic legs sticking out of the bottom of the truck.
Fifth add the other drivers. Now my Canadian friend gave her Kenyan fiancé driving lessons for his birthday. She learned that the Kenyan instructors did not teach her beloved to look behind him when backing up, they taught him to idle in second, to shift up while going uphill because a higher gear equals a higher speed, etc. So in knowing that the driving instruction is sub-par you can only imagine the amazing things that we have seen on the road. Kenyans love to pass each other on the road (which considering the shape of most cars you begin to realize why), today someone just passed me on a residential street while I was driving 30mph. Oh, right, there are no speed limits, there may be but they are not posted.
Sixth add the matatu drivers, so if you have read previous blogs you have read that they are the fifteen passenger vans that are used for public transport. If one wants to be a matatu driver they have to buy their route from the Kenyan version of the mob. So you can begin to understand the kinds of people who drive such vehicles. Now, there are plenty of good people who drive matatus and who drive safely, there are many more who do not. They ‘speed,’ they drive up on the shoulder, they create four lanes when the street should only have two, they cut people off like it’s cool, I have more than once been pretty sure that a matatu just shaved off the mirror of the car we were driving.
So this is driving in Nairobi.
Even though it is harrowing it is still necessary and still the best mode of transportation for us. So we want a car, and where we live we really kinda need one, so imagine our excitement when our friend Muhia decides to lend us his extra car. Ecstasy and excitement. Now the car is 1971 bright red VW beetle nicknamed ‘Scarlet.’ Needless to say the car is adorable; really it looks as if it should be hanging from a keychain. Or should be being pushed by a four year old. Or should be a stylish accessory for a famous person, like a purse or pair of shoes. But it is our main form of transportation. Scarlet is a very basic car, as said by her owner, she only has four knobs on her dash and one lever poking out behind the steering wheel. Muhia loves this car, it was his first car and he has maintained it ever since. Scarlet is a quirky little vehicle and I will list her quirks from ‘cute’ to ‘Muhia is the bravest man I know.’
1. To honk the horn you have to touch a hanging exposed wire to an exposed patch of metal underneath the dashboard’s enamel.
2. You have to unplug the battery when you turn the car off or else it will drain and you can’t start her up. So you have to remember to unplug and re-plug in the battery every time you park. The battery is located underneath the backseat, just so you know. SO you have to lift up the backseat cushion, which comes completely out, plug in the battery and place a flap of plastic over the connection and replace the cushion before your passenger gets in, I don’t know if this kills chivalry or enhances it. I like to think of it as an anti-theft device as well.
3. Scarlet is not a morning person, does not like to drive in the morning. I stalled out five times on the way to work. That’s a five minute drive if all goes well.
4. The driver is oft heard uttering the phrase, ‘I don’t know what gear I’m in, am I in third?’ Or at least that’s what Scott and I say. I think Muhia knows what gear he's in.
5. She randomly stalls. For no reason. You’re just hanging out in idle and, bam, she’s off.
6. Occasionally the gas gets stuck, and you have to pull over and unstuck a lever in the engine.
7. The gas pedal flips over, forward, towards you. This likes to happen when you are trying to down shift while turning a corner.

Oddly enough writing this list has endeared the car to me. She’s cute, she’s high maintenance, she’s cherry red. She is presently sitting in Rosslyn’s upper parking lot with a broken belt. She starting smoking today and was acting more rough than usual, and upon inspection we deduced that the belt hanging out in the carriage was once attached to the engine. We rented a car from Rosslyn to get home.

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