A Major Shift

If you read 2Summers regularly, you know I have transport issues. I’ve been living in car-centric Joburg for two years and have never owned a car. I get around by walking, cycling, begging rides, and borrowing cars from friends. When I get really desperate, I call Rent-a-Wreck.

Rent-a-Wreck is exactly what is sounds like: a place where you can rent old cars for cheap. I’ve written about Rent-a-Wreck before  so I won’t go into detail. I’m one of Rent-a-Wreck’s best customers.

I’ve got a new (old) Wreck this week — a fire-engine-red Ford Laser. Let’s call him Flash.

Meet Flash. For some reason, Rent-a-Wrecks look nicer in photos than they do in real life.

Flash’s interior light is broken. His radio barely works. He takes several tries to start in the morning. In other words, Flash is pretty much the same as all the other Wrecks I’ve rented. Except for one notable difference.

Flash is a MANUAL. That’s a stick-shift to you Americans.

You Americans might not be aware of this, but the rest of the world still drives manual. In South Africa, automatic-transmission cars are nearly impossible to come by. People often look at me as if I have two heads when I say I don’t drive manual. Either that, or they give me the patronizing, “Well, that’s because you’re A-MER-i-can” look.

I can’t say why it has taken me so long to address this situation. I know many other people who have come here from America and learned to drive manual without serious incident. I realize that I’m perfectly capable of learning too. And there are very few things in life that scare me anymore. I can take pretty much anything that’s thrown at me.

Yet I put off driving manual for months after I moved here. The months became years. I developed a total complex about it. I did try driving manual once or twice last year, when Jon had a manual hire car for a few days. It didn’t go well. Jon got so tense that he actually put on his seatbelt. It was the only time in five years of knowing Jon that I saw him buckle up.

My non-manual driving situation reached the height of lunacy over this past month, when I was traveling a lot for work and needed to rent several cars. I had to remind my client repeatedly that I needed the rentals to be automatic. It was embarrassing.

This weekend, when I returned from my last road trip, I ran out of excuses. I bemoaned my shifting phobia to a friend over lunch. She offered to give me a lesson; I reluctantly agreed. We went for a spin around Melville and it wasn’t half as bad as I remembered. Two days later, I called Rent-a-Wreck and got Flash.

It took me an hour or two to work up the courage to drive Flash after he arrived at my house. I had never driven manual alone before. I was tortured by images of myself stranded inside Flash on a steep uphill, with angry drivers honking (that’s hooting to you South Africans) and giving me the finger as they drove around me.

I erased those images from my mind and stepped purposefully into Flash. I thought through all the steps I’d learned. I turned the ignition and Flash spluttered to life. I pushed in the clutch and shifted into reverse. In a squeal of burning rubber, Flash lurched from the garage. It took a few tries, but I got him into first gear. We were off.

That was two and a half days ago. I’ve driven all about town since then — to meetings and coffee dates, and even to boxing training in Hillbrow. It hasn’t been pretty and the ride hasn’t been smooth. I’ve stalled out many times, including two separate instances on the hill in Melville outside the Service Station, in which the traffic light changed at least four times before I was able to get through it. (If you’ve ever driven in this area, you know the hill I’m talking about. It’s a manual-learner’s worst nightmare, and it’s just around the corner from my house.)

I’ve been honked at a few times, and people have driven around me. But you know what I realized? I don’t care. I’m way too pleased with myself to give a sh*t what others think. And to be honest, most drivers are way more patient than I expected. Even in Hillbrow.

George, my boxing coach, helps me celebrate Flash’s arrival in Hillbrow this morning. (Photo: Anita Powell)

This might sound silly considering everything I’ve been through since moving here. But learning to drive Flash has been one of my greatest accomplishments in South Africa. I’m sure I’ll stall out again tomorrow, and probably again the next day. But that won’t make me any less of a bad-ass.

I love you, Flash. Although I wish your rear-view mirror would stay in place. And please, please stop dying on me in front of the Service Station. Thanks.

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  • Reply Arlene August 23, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    Congratulations on conquering that beast! Those hills ARE tortuous. You go girl!!! That is if ur wreck starts!! hehe

    • Reply 2summers August 23, 2012 at 10:01 pm

      Haha, thanks. Yeah, Joburg hills are certainly an effective learning ground for driving manual. Sink or swim!

  • Reply miadidthis August 23, 2012 at 10:10 pm

    Well done! I still break out in sweat every time I approach that hill outside Service Station, and I have been driving for over 10 years. It is atrocious. Enjoy your freedom!

  • Reply jeanie August 23, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    Heather you must be expecting this comment from Mom.
    I tried teaching Heather to drive my car, a manual shift Nissan Stanza, when she was 16. She did drive it once or twice but then announced she couldn’t do it. I told her she might need to know some day. The rest is history. By the way, I love manual transmission cars and I’m an A-MER-i-can. I don’t drive one anymore – with my cell phone I’m left with no hands on the wheel.

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 6:57 am

      Hahaha! This is very funny, Mom. In my memory (which I recognize now must be very flawed), I tried learning a few times but then you got fed up with me and decided to give up teaching. Your recollection sounds much more plausible. Oh well, it took 22 years but I’m finally getting there.

  • Reply Slowvelder August 23, 2012 at 10:27 pm

    Oh my – that’s a mean hill and would be an issue for anyone learning to drive a manual transmission

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 7:09 am

      I know! Especially with this particular vehicle, which is prone to stalling under the best of circumstances. And I have to face that hill pretty much any time I come home from anywhere.

  • Reply Shelby MacKenzie August 23, 2012 at 11:48 pm

    Good job, trial by fire IMO is the best way to learn to drive a stick shift and doing it alone cuts down on embarrassing yourself in front of your friends. With the dreaded starting on a hill, try this. Put your e-brake on until you feel the pull then let it out and you will go forward without worrying about rolling back or stalling, as long as your brakes don’t stick you got it made.

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 7:11 am

      Thanks Shelby, you’re so right about the driving alone part. I actually tried the emergency brake hill start thing when I was on that horrible hill for the first time. But I think there is something wrong with Flash’s emergency brake. The car just kept stalling and stalling. But maybe I’ll try again next time and see what happens.

  • Reply taxslave August 24, 2012 at 12:43 am

    “Flash, aaahhh aaahhh Saviour of the Universe” from a Queen ’80’s song

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 7:13 am

      Hehehe. It was also the name of Deputy Roscoe P. Coltrain’s dog in the Dukes of Hazard, my favorite childhood TV show.

  • Reply Owls August 24, 2012 at 1:17 am

    Remember, the clutch is your best friend. 🙂

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 7:13 am

      Indeed. Love the clutch.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough August 24, 2012 at 1:20 am

    Wow, I never thought of Americans not knowing how to drive standards–maybe because I’ve had one for years–and have been know to have automatics overseas. Weird.
    At any rate, good luck learning. It really isn’t hard. You can do it.

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 7:15 am

      I think things really started to change in the U.S. around the early 1990s, which is when I learned to drive. Lots of people my age learned to drive manual, but most people I know who are younger than me didn’t.

  • Reply Howlin' Mad Heather August 24, 2012 at 2:53 am

    Congrats on Flash…he is cool!

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 7:16 am

      Thanks. I wish he were a little more functional, but I really can’t complain.

  • Reply thirdeyemom August 24, 2012 at 4:09 am

    Great post! My first car was a stick and I actually prefer it except for when you drive in traffic!

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 7:17 am

      Yeah, I must admit it does seem more fun (when I’m not stalled on a hill).

  • Reply Mark Wiens (@migrationology) August 24, 2012 at 4:39 am

    This is great Heather – and an awesome accomplishment! Brings back my experiences of learning to drive standard when I was in high school in Nairobi, and I would go with my dad to the national park to practice. You’ll never want to drive an automatic again!

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 7:18 am

      Thanks Mark. Yesterday I actually just read your post about your family getting charged by a rhino while your mom was learning manual in the park. Haha! It made me glad there are no rhinos in Joburg 🙂

  • Reply Gert Malan August 24, 2012 at 7:42 am

    Wait till you’re driving automatic again. I once had to drive my father-in-law’s automatic Mercedes and I had an incident with that large break pedal. After instinctively stepping on the (non-existent) clutch, hitting it as hard as you are supposed to hit it, I hit the breaks and the car came to a sudden halt with me and my wife almost going through the windscreen.

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 12:58 pm

      I’m sure I will do that eventually.

  • Reply tomorrowslices August 24, 2012 at 7:49 am

    Well done, Heather – good for you! I’m so sorry, but I had to smile when I pictured little red Flash sitting on that hill in Melville watching the traffic lights change and change, other cars coming and going. In my mind it played out as a speeded up time-lapse video 🙂

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 12:58 pm

      It would have made a great time-lapse video. I certainly sat there long enough to make one.

  • Reply Yashik August 24, 2012 at 7:53 am

    Fek driving manual, YOU GO BOXING IN HILLBROW!! Impressive stuff!

  • Reply Gail Wilson August 24, 2012 at 8:14 am

    Well done it will get easier with time!

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 12:55 pm

      Thanks Gail. It already is to some extent…

  • Reply chuckv88 August 24, 2012 at 8:48 am

    There will come a time that you will not want to drive an automatic anymore.

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 12:54 pm

      Believe it or not, I almost feel a little that way already! I actually enjoy the challenge.

  • Reply beeseeker August 24, 2012 at 10:03 am

    Great post – English here and remember being very worried when driving in the States and Canada that i would have no control of the car’s behaviour because it was automatic ( the same story in opposite eh?) – glad you confronted and bested this “beast” … what’s next?

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 12:54 pm

      Thanks. I learned long ago not to speculate on what’s next in my life. I’m almost always wrong 🙂

  • Reply Mr Bunny Chow August 24, 2012 at 10:05 am

    congratulations, if it makes you feel any better I learned to drive in a manual and still occasionally stall. To make you feel any better I occasionally end up in a borrowed or rented automatic and find myself hitting the brake with my left foot and juddering to a holt when my brain thinks I need to step on the clutch. Like all things though practice makes perfect, in no time you’ll be just driving and shifting without giving it a seconds thought.

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 12:53 pm

      Haha. That does make me feel better. I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like now when I go back to America for a visit. I’ll have to re-adjust to driving automatic, while also re-adjusting to driving on the right side of the road. That should be interesting.

  • Reply Nina Neubauer August 24, 2012 at 11:19 am

    You rock! I consider it one of my biggest or most useful accomplishments here too 🙂

  • Reply 76jozi August 24, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Manual is great, … except when you are standing there at Bamboo…. I know all about it! And many more places…!

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 12:57 pm

      Haha, glad I’m not alone.

  • Reply lisa@notesfromafrica August 24, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    Go for it Heather! Even people who have been driving a manual for years stall on very steep slopes.

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 6:30 pm

      Thanks for the reassurance, Lisa. I’m feeling pretty confident now — can’t believe I waited so long to do this.

  • Reply shweetbru August 24, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    A couple of things:
    “Manual” is a Portuguese guys name
    A shift is what you do from 9 to 5 or 5 to 9 depending on whether you’re a day or nighter
    In South Africa the type of wreck you speak of we call a “Skedonk”, a wreck is a kugel who can’t cope with her non jewish husband “Manuals” new stick “shift” cause she wanted an auto.

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 8:29 pm

      Wow. You have rendered me speechless.

  • Reply Tenney August 24, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    Once you stop stalling out, you will also get better gas mileage.

    • Reply 2summers August 24, 2012 at 9:58 pm

      That’s good to know. I have noticed that I seem to be burning a lot of gas with all the stalling.

  • Reply Emily Cannell August 25, 2012 at 9:37 am

    Did you mean to say you “didn`t give a shift”?

    The world is now your oyster. Just wait until it won`t start. Just get two friends to push it, put it in 2nd and it will crank right up. Voila. No jump required.

    • Reply 2summers August 25, 2012 at 9:49 am

      Dammit Emily, why didn’t I think of that?! Sadly I do not have your comedy-writing skillz.

      It’s a good thing about the push-start thing. I have a feeling I’m going to need to exercise that option at some point while driving Flash.

  • Reply Sine August 25, 2012 at 10:35 am

    Loved this Heather!
    And you know my mantra: it could always be worse. In your case, you could be living in Cape Town And having to learn driving a manual there. Even for someone who grew up on manuals, shifting with your left hand is quite a challenge. My husband once left me to pick up a huge RV in New Zealand when our boys were babies that drove like a truck and it was a manual. Backing it out or the car park was my worst nightmare. I don’t think I ever have broken out in such a cold sweat as that time. Felt like the whole world was staring at me. It’s great when you realize you don’t have to care though, is t it?

    • Reply 2summers August 25, 2012 at 11:14 am

      Indeed, things can ALWAYS be worse. I think I’ve had a relatively easy time this week, comparatively. Hopefully that will continue.

  • Reply Jeroen August 28, 2012 at 11:48 am

    Instead of driving right up to the traffic light on the steepest part of The Hill Of Burning Rubber, simply idle further down where it’s flat and then shoot up when it turns green 🙂

    • Reply 2summers August 28, 2012 at 1:34 pm

      That’s a good idea! As long as there are no impatient people behind. I’ve actually gotten lucky with that light lately — I keep catching it on green. But I think I’m comfortable enough in Flash to handle it now 🙂

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