02 June 2011

I have a car!

An old beater, but it's nice to feel less exposed when I'm driving around at night. I still use the moto during the day because I'm much more comfortable on it in traffic...and I've been wondering what that says about my approach to driving. Of course, the fact that the car is a manual transmission - as they all are here - doesn't help; I've never had a manual as my main mode of transportation other than a couple days when my car was broken down and my brother-in-law loaned me his. Interestingly enough, that was in Atlanta, and the traffic here reminds me of Buckhead around the mall - a mass of people ignoring traffic laws in the hopes of getting one car-length ahead, with the aggregate result of slowing everyone down, even those who have gotten ahead.

A friend asked me yesterday if I got it for the same reason she did - that she didn't feel safe on a moto. I said yes and no. Like I said, I'm totally comfortable on the moto in traffic, so no. But should I happen across soldiers who have decided to take to the streets shooting in the air, I'd feel much safer in a car, so yes.

It's funny the way my friend E brags to people back home about the car. Imagine, in the U.S., your friend in high school getting the first car of any of you. And it's a lamborghini. And it fights crime. That's the level of excitement we're talking about here. For a 1987 Nissan Sunny, a car which my friend Carson was kind enough to research on Wikipedia: "In 1996, Jeremy Clarkson (of Top Gear fame) declared the Nissan Sunny to be the 'worst car in the world, ever' and destroyed one by flinging it from a trebuchet pulled by a tractor." Thanks, Carson! People here LOVE the car. I bought it from the consular, and embassy employees have particular guidelines about things like this, one being that they can't make money on the transaction. So he sold it to me for what he paid for it a couple years ago. The reader is at this point unimpressed; he or she is thinking "So what? You should have paid LESS, not more!" But gentle reader, to fully understand, you must take into account two more facts: 1-here, an old car means a car that has proven it can survive, and 2-the car is an import from a country where they are sold much cheaper. I bought the car for about half of what most used cars go for here, and it's in much better shape. All of the local hires at the embassy, knowing the price rule, hounded the consular to sell them the car, and when he sold it to me instead (another guideline - Americans get first shot at your stuff when you're leaving) they fell over themselves letting me know that the moment I wanted to sell it they were available. Anyway, being in the gray area of a consultant for the embassy rather than a direct hire, I'm not bound by the same guidelines, so this car can easily be thought of as an investment, not just a ride.

All that said, immediately after getting the car I had a problem with the battery. The previous owner drove the car every day, but after getting it I let it sit several days; like I said, I still prefer my moto. And then found the battery had died. The experience of getting it started again is definitely worth recounting here:

I drive my moto to my friend's bar to ask where I might find a mechanic in the neighborhood. She isn't there, but her 14-year-old helper is, so I give her my helmet (she gets a huge kick out of that) and she hops on the back of the bike to show me where to go. We get to the garage, they say they'll call the mechanic, and I bring 14yo back to the bar where she works (just had to emphasize that again). By the time I get back to the garage, an available mechanic has been found, and I tell him that my car won't start and that I'm pretty sure it's the battery, so he finds another battery and hops on the back of my moto. I take him to my house. He tests the old battery by putting a wrench on each node and touching them together. No spark. He takes it out, hooks up the new one, and does the same thing. Huge sparks. I note that he is not wearing gloves. He seems unconcerned. He has me start the car. It works. He expresses his opinion that the old battery is out of acid, and unscrews the tops to several cells to show me. It is not out. He proposes a second hypothesis: the acid is "weak." To test this theory, he DIPS HIS FINGER IN THE BATTERY ACID AND THEN HE TASTES IT. I hurriedly point out the tap in the courtyard so he can rinse off, and privately note that I now understand why his fingers seem slightly stubby. He tells me that he was right; I choose to believe him without replicating his experiment. He puts the old battery back in, connects the nodes between the new and the old by holding two wrenches across them, and tells me to start the car. I express concern again (he must think I'm one heck of a namby-pamby) that the resulting shock might ruin my screened-in porch as he is hurled through it, but he assures me that he is "ready." I start the car. It works. I drive him back to the garage, where they tell me I should drive around now to recharge the battery and replace it soon. I ask the owner of the garage how much I owe. He tells me to just give the mechanic whatever I feel like. I give him about two dollars, which is more than I would normally pay for 20 minutes worth of work with no new equipment being installed (similar work on my moto would cost about 40 cents), but I feel like it's worth building goodwill with the neighborhood mechanic. Though I'm walking a fine line between "goodwill" and becoming "that white guy that we can charge three times what we would everyone else." Both the mechanic and the owner express amazement at how good a shape the car is in, given its age. Then the owner turns to me and says, "Did a white guy own it?" I say yes, and both give the universal grin, nod and sigh of a mystery explained.

So, I mentioned above the soldiers. They're still at it. And everyone is tired of it. Really our threshold has gone way up; you don't hear people expressing fear anymore, just irritation. I won't go on a rant here, tempting as it is because it won't solve anything. I'll just leave it at this: it is still the case that foreigners are not being targeted for the most part, and there is definitely not an anti-Western sentiment. In fact, for the first time ever, last night a Burkinabé expressed concern to me that the riots may prevent foreign investors from funding development in Burkina. So don't worry too much.