Friday, June 12, 2009

Clutch & Shift

photo courtesy of Flickr

So somehow I fell through the cracks and here I am a 29-year-old girl (I don’t know if I’ll ever be a woman) who doesn’t know how to drive a standard, 5-speed, or whatever you call that kind of vehicle with the thingy-ma-bob in the middle. Unless you count various lessons from various friends during my teenage years in some parking lot or dirt road, I’ve never learned the art of clutching (is that even a word) and shifting. The closest I ever got was with our Subaru – it had sport shifting – which I gather is mostly just for the fun of the driver on steep mountain roads. For 29 years I slid by – until now.

Imagine my surprise when upon my arrival at Common Hope I was told that one of my job responsibilities would be giving the community tour in a big 15-passenger van – a 5-speed van. Gasp! Immediately my mind was flooded with images of people snickering while I sit sweating behind the wheel, stalling at every corner, with impatient drivers honking and gawking at me. I secretly agonized over the mere thought of it for days. Luckily since it’s a requirement of the job, part of my orientation also includes driving lessons. Once a week I head out into the streets of Antigua (secret streets that hardly anyone travels) with my coach Alan where we drive in circles, practicing my clutching & shifting. After the first lesson where I drove a half mile loop about 50 times, I was feeling quite comfortable (I suppose my lessons back in the day gave me a smidge of head start), so Alan proposed that we head to the hill by the cross. Uh-oh. Even with my limited experience, I know that the hills are where it gets tricky. I’m sure you can picture what happened next. That horrifying thought that had consumed my mind just weeks before was about to come true. As if it hasn’t been hot enough lately, of course the old Mercedes Diesel van that is now my guinea pig, doesn’t have AC. So with my t-shirt glued to my back, sweaty palms on the wheel, and no sunglasses to hide behind, I gave it my best shot. Just how many times can a car stall out before it just shuts down? I’ll tell you what – at least 30. Even though we weren’t in the heart of the city, there were still plenty of gawkers watching the gringa learn how to drive. As it is, when Guatemalans see a gringo driving, they tend to look scared (or impatient). I’m not really sure what this is all about? After all, we gringos are the ones who actually know and follow the rules of the road. Anyway, on this particular day they had reason to be scared as they climbed up the hill on bicycle or foot, keeping one eye on oncoming traffic and the other on the gringa rolling down the hill backwards. Not my finest moment.

In more recent lessons I’ve made improvements to the “hill scenario,” but I’ve still got quite a way to go before I’ll be comfortably navigating the streets of Antigua and it's surrounding villages, dodging street dogs, chicken buses and speedbumps! If you’re interested in tagging along on a Common Hope community tour, never fear – the other drivers are fully capable and hopefully with time, I too will clutch & shift with ease!

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