Hat and I drive to town to buy Hat’s friend a birthday present in a tiny, dark Indian owned duka that sells mattresses, fans, bicycles and an assortment of trinkets. Hat likes to stand pressed against the glass counter admiring all the cheap jewellery laid out beneath it; her eyes sparkle as Aladdin’s must have done when he copped an eyeful of that cave of his.
Our journey, for me at least, is an exercise in angst. My husband sold my car, whilst I was in England so couldn’t see what he was doing, to help pay for next year’s school fees he said. We had discussed this. I had said, ‘Yes, sell it’ because I thought that was the right answer and because I didn’t think he’d get round to it. Or – indeed – find a buyer in mostly bicycle driven outpost.
How stupid can you be?
By the time I got home, my own car was gone and I found myself – in the event I wanted milk or bananas or a birthday present for one of Hat’s friends – in a twenty year old land cruiser which has been salvaged and painted gold. I think the gold was a mistake. I think it was rather like looking at colour swatches when you’re planning on redecorating the living room and discovering – too late – that oatmeal looks like cold glutinous grey porridge once it’s on the walls.
I tried to be graceful, to understand the fiscal need to get rid of a car which was only 17 years old and had central locking, electric windows and air-conditioning (which, admittedly, didn’t work). But it was hard when the 20 year old substitute failed to start. Or, and this was much, much worse, broke down in the middle of town so that I endured first the indignity of having to push it (aided by Hattie as Ben steered it out of the middle of the road) whilst all the cyclists in town whizzed past us laughing their heads off.. And then the additional and much weightier humiliation that the reason I’d come to a grinding halt was that there was no diesel in the bloody thing. That the fuel gauge no longer works and the car bleeds diesel in the same way as we bleed money to educate our children leaving a distinctly un-environmentally friendly Pied Piper trail as to where I’ve been during the day is neither, apparently, here nor there; I ought to have known by instinct that there was enough – or not as the case was – to get me from A to B.
So. Driving now is reduced to an exercise in angst as well as a one in upper torso toning as I battle with something that drives like a tank and has no power steering. I must change gears manually (I have been used to an automatic for eight years); I must wind my own window down whilst trying not to lose control of the heavy steering and I must guess whether there’s anything behind me or ask Hat to have a look since the rear view mirror keeps dropping off it’s perch.
I don’t think I’m being unreasonable here?
The car belches smoke and coughs and farts and rattles so that everybody in the outpost knows something old is coming. And when they see the gold, they are left in no doubt as to exactly who it is (that mad white woman who keeps having breakdowns, literally and metaphorically some days).
The angst is exacerbated because the car’s papers are out of date as is my Tanzanian driving license (my English one doesn’t count even though it’s kosher and I didn’t bribe to get it) and since the First Lady is in town this week (she has relatives here, God knows it’s the only reason a person would visit frankly) the place is crawling with dazzling Omo-bright uniformed traffic police desperate to show everybody they’re doing their job. They crowd – half a dozen of them – around the junction I am headed for.
Happily the Indian duka is on the left immediately before the cross roads where our less than friendly public servants have gathered.
Hat deliberates over her purchase whilst I nervously eye the cops, hoping they’ll move off before I need to, knowing that both the colour of my car (and my skin for that matter) will make me an easy target to pick off. And with the multitudinous traffic offences I am flagrantly committing, I shall either have to pay a lofty fine or negotiate my way out of a mess with an expensive bribe.
The Indians giggle at my anxiety. Hat revels in being allowed to cogitate for much longer than I’d normally let her (move, move, I’m willing the policemen). Hat buys a pair of earrings and a key ring and begins to get bored of waiting for me to pluck up the courage to go. That’s how long I’ve been here: long enough for Hat to tire of admiring trays of gaudy bracelets and paste necklaces.
Ok. Let’s make a run for it I say (run is not a word one ought attach to the 20 year old wreck I drive).
We scurry to the car hoping not to be noticed.
Put your seat belt on, I tell Hat (not wearing one has recently been a fineable offence).
She tugs ineffectually at it.
It doesn’t work, she says.
Nor does mine.
OK. Just drape it over one shoulder I tell her.
I try to start my car as quietly as I can (quiet is another word one oughtn’t attach to my car).
Just as I get going, a fight breaks out between two street boys and pedestrians begin to merge towards the junction where the action is taking place.
Everybody is distracted. Including the bevy of law enforcers who are forced to make a difficult decision: arrest street violence. Or me – a much more lucrative prospect that is barreling its way towards them.
Suffice to say, I did not add to their expanding waistlines on this occasion. Bribes are called chai or posho for exactly that reason; it’s why you rarely see a skinny policeman in Africa.
Which probably meant the scuffling street boys got away too, they’d have been able to run much faster than their portly pursuers.