learning on the bug

Monday, September 9, 2008

I have to avoid talking about work right now. It’s almost the three-month marker, which means the end of the first quarter of the project and the end of the “assessment phase.” But there are many reasons why work isn’t a fruitful topic right now. For one, it’s a huge reason (a good one, of course) why I haven’t updated in a while. Work is also so full of intrigue, betrayal, menace and infantile posturing that I have to be very careful about what I say. So I’m not going to talk about it. Instead, I’m going to talk about my car. (It may be that the more whimsical these posts get, the more intense the (hidden) work situation is. Let’s hope not.)

The Wiki article has a list of the different appellations for the car. In some parts of the world, it’s a ‘bug’ or a ‘beetle’. In this part of the world, it’s a frog, a very appropriate name given that the car croaks more than it purrs. My roommate, Julie, calls it a grasshopper. I’m not sure about that one. I won’t say anything though because she’s come a long way from calling a cockroach a ‘beetle’; now she calls them “Fred.”

I think it’s the roundness of the car that makes me swoon. I just want to give it a big fat hug every time I see it. There’s a certain ring to the way the metal reverberates when I open a door or the hood or trunk that says 1970’s. I think that’s what people call “class.”

Some Burundians stare a little bit when I drive by but I think they are more curious about me than the car. Ex-pats however do double-takes and have huge grins when I drive by. I love it.  It’s probably a response to the hearty smile I have on my face as I rattle by. You and they and I all know this is the sweetest car in Bujumbura, and I’m driving it.

The first thing I think of when I squeeze open the chrome cardoor handle is, “This is awesome.” It’s not ‘awesome’ like, “Whoa, I found five bucks in my other pocket!” It’s awesome like I am inside the Chartres Cathedral or the Sears Tower for the first time and for all their philosophical and architectural flaws, it’s still pretty darn swell. And grand. And well, awesome.

The first thing any passenger notices once seated in the car is that it smells like a gas tank. There’s really not much more to say about that; the less the better. It might explain why I keep running out of gas though.

Running out of gas is inevitable in this car – there is no fuel guage. It most likely has terrible mileage, too. So far, I have run out of gas four times, the last time this evening when I had just entered the gate to my house. While this phenomenon may seem catastrophic and contrary to the purpose of a car (‘Pt. A to Pt. B’), it reveals a neat fact of Burundi (and probably many parts of Africa). If a car breaks down, people will gravitate toward it. While this can be a little intimidating given the circumstances, a decisive gesture of the thumb toward the back of the vehicle sets in motion a host of ready and willing pushers. It’s like the trust-building exercise where you expect people to catch you as you fall back. In Burundi, I trust that if my car breaks down or runs out of gas, four sets of hands will catch the back of the car before it rolls off a cliff and slowly guide it toward a gas station.

These experiences teach new valuable skills: the skill of negotiating with gas station attendants to fill the empty water bottles I store in the car for this purpose; the skill of refueling with water bottles; most importantly, the skill of explaining how I keep running out of gas. It’s not that hard to understand, really. If it doesn’t damage my newfound resolve to be on time (in the face of all logic), generally, I find it a worthwhile experience.

When I broke down as I was driving up to the house tonight, my security guards jumped into action. I find out that Dieudonné, my guard who was advising me on gardening, is also a mechanic.

“Do you know how to fix cars?”
“Really? Are you a mechanic?”
“You’re so talented! Why are you my security guard?”

Back when I first started driving this car, I couldn’t figure out how to shift into reverse. I know – that sounds blatantly ridiculous. It’s true though – I just could not shift into reverse. I learned this because I kept moving forward as I was looking backward. It was like the worst car insurance commercial over and over again. Turns out, to shift into reverse, instead of moving the gear to the right and down, I have to push down on the stick and shift to the left and down. Now who would have ever thought of that? Well, I didn’t, but I did think to ask my house team to give me a push. Being pushed backward to turn around is terribly awkward. I have to sit in the driver’s seat and steer but every time I look forward, I see three contorted faces, straining from the task of getting me oriented in the right direction, lunging toward me with each effort. When I finally accelerate away with a stupid bashful smile on my face, I look in the mirror and see my house staff waving to me, smiling brightly. They must be so happy to see me leaving.


Next: A report on how the car drives.

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