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.

%d bloggers like this: