I'm a big fan of driving. Though it clashes with my understanding of the environmental and political views, I'm in my element burning oil. That's not to say I'm a speed freak or a boy racer; although I am unafraid to give it some welly when caught in a difficult position it's not symptomatic of my normal behind-the-wheel persona. When I first learned to drive, of course, it was a very different story and I've changed the clutch to prove it. My initial conviction that I was a natural-born Michael Schumacher was sadly disproved when I pranged not one but two of my poor father's Vauxhalls, and both within my first year of licence ownership. Since then, though, I've had five relatively uneventful years, despite clocking up plenty of miles commuting, driving on holiday and ferrying drunken mates around in preference to joining them in inebriation land.
Like any hobby, a passion for driving leads one to take the activity in question seriously and I like to think that, by now, I've got a good handle on controlling my vehicle, coping with failure of certain functions and being aware of my surroundings, upcoming situations and passenger comfort. Then again, when it dawned on me that replacing my stolen British licence would be both more costly and more time-consuming than sitting my Swazi driving test, my confidence in my skills evaporated faster than an early snowfall. After all, passing first time is one thing (especially when one's younger, academically more successful brother didn't) but passing first time.. twice? That's a pretty tall order. On the other hand, I had everything to lose and nothing much to gain. ("You passed your Swazi driving test? Wow; that must have been even harder than eating an ice cream.")
Quite apart from the machismo angle, what swung it was the tempting concept of actually getting something done - my trading licence, work permit and Merc registrations were all in paperwork limbo and it was driving me wild - a perfect reason to waste a few hours sitting driving tests, so I got in touch with the local "Fisiwe" driving school. Hezy, the head instructor, drilled me briefly on my road signs and I stood around with a whole gang of teenagers who were also there to collect learner's licences. Similar to the British system, there is a road signs and traffic rules part of the test but the difference over here is that one must face this section twice; you need to show a familiarity with the rules of the road before you are allowed behind the wheel at all - and again when you sit the practical test. Not a bad system in theory but you must realise that the road signs in question are taken from a twenty year-old chart of South African origin, which means the speed limitation signs are the wrong colour, some of the reserved parking bays are in Afrikaans and defunct signs like the yellow diamond "right of way" indicator (now in use only in backward countries like France) are required, if redundant, knowledge.
I was pretty confident until Hezy started asking me all the difficult ones and the ones that are difficult only by context; for example, the white, curved left arrow, which means 'no overtaking coming up' but is strangely unfamiliar without a grey background or dotted lines to the left of it. I waited with two Swazi guys, one of whom was a tall and well-built but modest boy called Thabo, to whom I took an instant liking. While was quietly nervous his mate Tsepiso was short, gangly and brash. He jumped in and answered every sign Hezy asked me if I so much as thought about hesitating. Thabo, conversely, listened and pointed out which ones were similar or easily confused. I also browsed through the 40-question theory part of the test and marvelled at the brainless specificity of some questions. One example: List five places you cannot overtake. Answer: Blind rises, sharp corners, on a solid line, under or on a narrow bridge, in a tunnel. One wonders why this is not condensed to simply, "where one cannot see, or where there is not space", or even "wherever it isn't safe". I passed a few minutes thinking of other examples (on a house driveway, on a bridleway, in the supermarket etc.) and then moved on to trick questions like, "How fast must a drunken driver travel?" The answer to that one is, of course, that he mustn't drive at all, ha ha. I spotted another sly one, number 38, which ran, "When are you forced to kill a pedestrian?" but was somewhat shocked to read the answer, "when they step in front of a fully-loaded vehicle and there is no room to dodge them safely. You must not risk many passengers' lives for the sake of one reckless pedestrian." Which is fair enough, in a somewhat African way. The issue of whether one should drive at a safe speed if unobservant drunkards are on the pavement - and, in fact, how dim a view the cops would take of such an excuse for manslaughter - is conveniently ignored.
In the queue, Thabo asked me if I had my two passport photographs. I had one left in my wallet (still wrapped in a half-used book of British first-class stamps, for some reason) but was short of a second, so I dashed back to the car and prised another off my now defunct visitor's permit. It had a Ministry of Home Affairs stamp over one corner but was still recognisable. I rubbed gently with a wet thumb and some of the emulsion came off, so I left it.
Eventually, we were called in and by some fluke all three of us were in the same group, along with two girls. They ask you five questions (one theory and four signs) of which you may get one wrong and still pass. As the gleefully intimidating cop rolled down the line, I was expecting to have my wobbly nerves calmed by hearing easy questions but it was not to be as he fired away in siSwati. It's very odd how you can know for a fact that you are certain of every question he can possibly ask you, yet still imagine that you missed something, that he will suddenly invent a new question, or that a sudden vision of Michelle Pfeiffer in the nude will zap every traffic fact out of your brain at the crucial moment. I was in a bit of a lather by the time he got to me.
"Three occasions," he spat, "when you should light."
"When you want a cigarette, when you want to see a fuel leak and when heavying isn't appropriate," I didn't say. I paused a moment, then stammered, "At night, in the rain, in heavy fog."
He looked at me with immense disgust and grudgingly threw a stiff tick in my column before returning to the head of the line. I noticed at this point that one of the girls and Tsepiso both had an X and were under pressure not to drop any more points. They both got their first signs correct. My sign was the two car "no overtaking" sign and I started to calm down. On the third pass, Tsepiso failed to identify the right of way diamond, which I thought was a bit tight, and left looking grim. Thabo, after getting it right (I remember the siSwati for that: "Eish.. irateofwee"), turned to me and murmured that Tsepiso had just failed for the eighth time. I thought back to my school days, when I laughed along with my friends at a colleague who failed his British theory test (widely regarded at the time as a total joke) three times and almost missed my next sign through stifled giggles.
Thabo and I were the only ones to pass, both getting our first four right, and the two girls each dropped out before then so the cop stopped and disdainfully signed our learners' permits. Outside, Hezy took them and promised to do all the queuing at the revenue department for us. "You're testing on Friday," he said, "so I'll book that also." Turning to Thabo, he said, "and you.. you are not testing on Friday." Thabo looked shocked; he had only just picked up his licence to start learning to drive. I don't think even Tsepiso, who had by now skulked off home, would be confident enough to bank on only 48 hours. Hezy fixed me a brush-up lesson for the following morning and I left. In my car. I was later informed this was not an astonishingly bright move, given the circumstances. Ah, well.
I spent the rest of the day shopping and ran into Andy's handyman, Petros, who recently passed his test (first time) in order to make use of the VW Fox Andy gave to him. I was painfully aware of the mockery that would ensue if I were to fail where he passed and wondered if it might just happen, to continue the Karmic precedent set by my brother's difficulties in the UK. Petros kindly offered to lend me his road signs swot-sheet if I met him in town in the morning, so that I might be confident about that part of the final test. I graciously accepted and was so panicky that I clean forgot to buy any milk.
On Thursday I woke early and, shunning dry cornflakes, drove to the driving school. Interestingly, this is a communal dirt patch just out of town, despite there being fourteen driving schools based in Mbabane. Hezy, despite his professional air and efficiency in organising my learner's licence at the notorious denizen of long queues, the revenue office, was waiting for me in a typically clapped-out Toyota saloon. Now, don't get me wrong, roadworthiness failures are par for the course both for rural Swazis and for most taxi drivers, but I was still a little shocked to see a driving school car like this one. The front bumper was loose, the steering had about 25 degrees of play in it and reverse was perilously close to second. Hezy had no worries at all and cheerily showed me around the course, involving a parallel "street" park between four beanpoles and a reverse "garage" park, to be completed from the left and the right.
Unsurprisingly, he was full of dire warnings about how one can fail for the slightest hesitation or excessive movement. He attempted to instruct me, "watch for the third stick, then turn the wheel back the other way" but I cut him off by parking the car in one fluid movement (he said, modestly). Hezy ran up to the door and shook his head.
"I can see you drive nicely. Good parking, one hundred percent." He was a picture of apology. "But you must keep both hands on the steering wheel and you must stop before turning the wheel back. I know it's not the way you do it but they will be watching you for this." Visions of being the most stylish first-time pass ever melted away as I realised that being a conspicuously over-talented white candidate was going to fail me even if I was inch perfect. I dutifully showed him my best nervous-but-competent learner act and Hezy cheered up no end.
He took me for a drive around town and was hugely impressed with my hill start. We went around the main town block once and returned to the test centre / driving school / mudpatch. "You're going to pass tomorrow, one hundred percent," Hezy told me. He informed me that I should return at a quarter to seven the following morning for my test.
I rose at six and parked round the corner at the petrol station, under Hezy's advice that the examiner should not see me arrive in my own car and alone. I regretted it as soon as I stepped, shivering, into the test ground. I was alone. I pulled my coat around me and sat under a tree, cursing the grey sky and breathing steam. God, it was almost British weather. I couldn't decide if this was a good omen or not.
At half past seven, I was joined by two learners and a handful of cars from other driving schools, all as dilapidated as Hezy's. To pass the time, I asked one young guy what "Fisiwe" driving school meant.
"Hope," he said simply. Something died in my chest. Eventually, Hezy pitched and I grudgingly took another practice drive - fortuitously enough, as it happened, because I screwed up the right-turn garage park and had to adjust halfway through, which isn't allowed.
"Why did you stop and go forwards? You aren't allowed to do that!"
"I know, but I couldn't keep going, I was going to knock over a pole."
"Yes, but you can't go forwards!"
"So I can knock over a pole?"
"So which must I do?"
"But I was only practising.."
"Yes, but you mustn't go forwards!"
I gave up.
A full hour after that, and nearly two since I'd arrived, the examiner rolled in and gave a rallying, confidence-boosting speech in siSwati. I was not cheered. Eventually, he called a few names and the learners in question stepped forward to tell him the registrations of the cars they would be driving. In turn, the drivers went to their cars and started reverse-parking. Strangely, and somewhat hazardously, they would do this three at a time, in a line, making the middle car's position particularly hazardous as two potentially inexperienced drivers parked in the spaces either side of it. It seemed to work in practice though, and I was impressed that the examiner could pick out the subtle flaws against which Hezy had warned me, in three drivers at once. Even more so given that for most of the test he was gazing into space or talking to one of the instructors. There was a mild traffic jam when it got to the garage parking, though, as only one person could do this at one time.
It is hard to convey my disappointment, combined as it was with relief. I was clearly taking this far too seriously. When I jumped in the car and did my manoeuvres I doubt the examiner noticed a thing I was doing; my raised hand was almost numb by the time I got the nod to proceed from my reverse park. As I pulled into the disorganised jumble of those waiting to do the second stage I found myself next to a middle-aged Swazi in prison guard uniform; he laughed nervously as I chatted with him and I felt really sorry for the guy. At least there was scant chance of him failing.
Having said that, there were plenty of poles felled - although not by me as I took extra care over my reversing. I was in considerable pain stretching to look over my shoulder with both hands on the wheel, because of my bruised ribs, but it passed without mishap and soon enough I was in the gang of those who had made it thus far and waiting for my drive around town. Hezy stepped up and shook my hand.
"These guys," he said, gesturing to a gang of Clockwork Orange teenage blokes, "were really excited by the way you did your reversing." He was beaming and I have to admit I relaxed a little. If the other learners were impressed, I was probably on the right track.
For some reason, my reversing had trapped a nerve in my right shoulder and I was in considerable discomfort standing around waiting to get back in the car. It wasn't helped by nagging hunger and the abject failure of the temperature to rise one iota. I shivered in my coat and made small talk with a few of the other drivers. "You should ask one of the others which route he took," advised one. "The examiner will take you the same way."
"Really? But what if he doesn't?"
"He will," said Hezy.
"But it's possible he'll go a different way with me."
"Ah, it's also possible he'll go the same way every time."
"One hundred percent possible." Hezy grinned.
After another hour or so it was my turn. The instructor got out of the car and his previous victim handed me the keys, looking shaken but relieved. I swapped a manly handshake with him and climbed in first (apparently the getting-in ritual is where many fail) before, in sequence, putting on my belt, touching both mirrors (luckily, neither fell off, despite my fleeting worry as the wing mirror slumped drunkenly under my fingers) and starting the car. We pulled out into the traffic gently and rattled down to the traffic lights.
"Turn right," the instructor said, waving to a friend, so I did. There was a momentary panic as the guy opposite me failed to notice the lights had gone green but the instructor leaned across and beeped at him. I suppressed a giggle and drove off. It was an odd feeling; I would have been totally confident in most other cars but in Hezy's deathtrap you are in constant fear of brake failure or the gearbox dropping out into the road or something so it's actually quite nerve-wracking. I turned left at the next traffic lights, through a give-way lane and pulled up at a flashing, red left filter at the next junction.
"Don't stop," said the examiner. I pulled away and nearly crushed a family of four who leaped out onto the pedestrian crossing in front of me. My passenger seemed unfased by this near-fatal encounter and merely grimaced at the pedestrians as they hurried out of the way. We carried on, past the notorious Lucky's bar where patrons were enjoying some pre-lunch refreshment. Worryingly, one waved at me just before I pulled up at another red light. One step ahead, I turned left without stopping (a quirk of Swazi road law is that left on red is not only allowed but expected and you don't even have to stop.. erm.. as long as there isn't a four tonne bus crossing at the time, of course). As we rolled past the mall, I pulled out to overtake a large logging truck as it crawled over the vicious, ten-inch speed bump at the pedestrian crossing. However, the psychopathic driver put his foot down and bounced merrily over the crossing, logs bouncing, so I pulled back in behind him, feeling a right berk. The examiner, again, wasn't really paying attention. I reached the last set of lights and he informed me we were returning to the test centre.
I think I was in the car a total of seven minutes. When I'd finished, Hezy took me up to Home Affairs to have another photograph taken, for my full licence. He was fully confident.
Once everyone had done their purgatory we were transferred to the police traffic department for a final signs test and our results. Apparently this change of location was due to examiners copping one on the nose from irate failures. Again, I had to wait a good hour before I was called in; although I did bump into Tsepiso who had finally got his learner's licence, ninth time around. He was uncharacteristically jubilant.
When I stepped inside the examiner led me to a back room where most of the instructors were standing around just to make everyone as nervous as possible. He asked me four road signs, the first two of which I got easily. The third was a reserved parking demarcation with the letters, "DC" on it. I hesitated. A prickle went up my neck.
"Erm.. it's a road marking.. for a reserved parking bay.. for.. ah.. the District Commissioner?" It was a total guess. A wrong one, as it turns out, as it was actually some Afrikaans term for a customs officer. I started to panic mildly. The final sign I had to get right. It was a green square with a bizarre, square thing with a ball on top, and the legend, "20KM" under it.
"It's an information sign.. telling you that twenty kilmetres ahead is a.. a.." I had no idea what the picture was. It looked most like a suspension bridge support. "A tunnel?"
"No." The examiner didn't furnish me with a correction. I broke out in a sweat. I couldn't believe it. I'd failed! I'd failed my Swazi driving test! A total waste of E400, not to mention copious amounts of pride.
"I think you must go home and practice the signs you do not know," said the examiner. He took my passport photo and started filling out a result form, but I wasn't going to give him the pleasure of seeing me cry as he scrawled, "FAIL" all over my delicate features. I dashed outside, after shooting Hezy a despairing glance and dodged out into the crowd outside.
"What happened?" asked one of the guys with whom I'd been chatting earlier.
"I bloody failed! One road sign!" I took them through the high drama of my recent disaster. I even took out the crib sheet and searched despairingly for the sign, which I had sworn I'd never seen before. Sure enough, I didn't see it. Unfortunately, the guy I had borrowed it from did, pointed it out to me and identified it as representing a national monument.
"But he did take your photo," stated one of the girls.
"Well, then, you passed." I could't believe it. I believed it when Hezy came out twenty minutes later and shook me by the hand, though. I paid up for the test and we parted ways. He advised me to take my pass certificate straight in to revenue first thing on Monday as it was now too late. It was gone two and I'd been up at six. I bought twelve beers and a bottle and headed for the farm to celebrate.
I was thrilled to bump into Petros on the road, who gave me a toothy grin and said he was glad I was finally a proper man. Andy and Des cracked open the drinks and we had a riotous celebration.
So far, so good. On Saturday I skived cow-chasing as my ribs and shoulder were still killing me. In fact, it took me all day to get ready to leave and when I finally did the car conked out at the gate. I turned it over a few times but it sounded like something was clanging away that shouldn't. I stepped out into the freezing evening air and was a little concerned to smell burning. I popped the bonnet and saw flames at the back of the engine compartment. I slammed it shut, grabbed the keys and hobbled up the driveway, clutching my chest and calling for a fire extinguisher.
Unfortunately, I'd forgotten the generator and telly were on so nobody heard me until I was actually at the window but Andy leaped to my aid with a tank of CO2 and we dashed back down in their jeep. The Golf was no longer aflame but stank of burnt rubber; the cause of the excitement turned out to be the block that mounts the carburettor onto the inlet manifold - which was a cheery place to have a naked flame, I thought - which had sheared off completely. The funny noise had been the carburettor knocking on the back of the engine compartment. We abandoned the car until morning.
It was another car week; it took until Thursday to get the part in (all the shops in Mbabane had simultaneously run out of this exceedingly common part), and just to rub it in Betta Parts informed me mine was the first of a shipment of 1,500 of the things. But they did give me E50 off, which was nice. We fitted the mount in the dying moments of sunlight and the car started first time. Great stuff.
So I'll get my licence next Monday.. only a week later!
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