Archive for the ‘my old car’ Category

Whose in charge anyway?

August 21, 2007

Yesterday I was obliged to push-start my old landcruiser. Not having too many places to go in Outpost, unless am accompanied by husband in which case we take his infinitely more reliable and signifcantly less ancient car, landcruiser hasn’t been driven for a bit and battery was flat.

Push starting isn’t a problem. I’m as used to it as the old banger is. But space is. My driveway – I use the term loosely – is about 6 metres long.

There will be enough room, announced garden boy James, if you know what you’re doing, Mama.

I know that, James, I said observing lack of length doutbfully.

James, the Askari, who had woken up with all the excitement of James instructing me how to get my car started and I, attempt to push the car out up and backwards out of the shortest driveway in Africa. We aren’t terribly successful, the car grunts in manner of old lady irritated to be woken from a lengthy nap and shifted only inches. 

Weka free, Mama, weka free! instructs James bossily. It is free I yell back, “See!”, I say rattling the gear shift to demonstrate the car’s in neutral.

OK, says James, I’ll get Asina, and he races off to the kitchen. Asina and James loyally followed us to Outpost because I hiked their salaries by about three times. Asina is endlessly pragmatic (when I misplace car keys she says, in tones of eternally patient mother, ”well they can’t have gone far, you haven’t been anywhere today”) and utterly tactless about her new home, ”the people here are very lazy and stupid”, she says, ”not like in Arusha”.

Anyhow, Asina comes to assist and with a heave-ho we get the car rolling whilst James shouts instructions as to whether I ought to pull steering wheel (from my pushing position at the driver’s door) down a little or left a bit.

Our first attempt fails. Just as I thought, the drive really wasn’t long enough to get enough speed up.

We’ll open the gates, says James, and push you out onto the road behind the house, that’ll give you more room to get going and then you can park the car like the bwana told you to, in the garage.

Right, I say, hoping to sound confident. Hat, who has been plucking naajis off a tree by the gate, wisely moves towards the house.

The gates are opened with great ceremony by the Askari (gate opening is his job after all, important he puts  his all into it) and we begin again, huffing and puffing and pushing the old bird up the slight incline with James, who by the way is no more than 5 ft tall and weighs about 100 lbs, giving instructions as to how I ought turn the wheel again.

Then, in full view of anybody who happens to be outside in the lane – including the entire working population of the local Anglican diocese from whom we rent this house and whose office is right next door – I leap into the driving seat, James, Asina and the Askari pushing like mad and James yelling at the top of his voice, ”fasta mama, fasta”!

With only feet to spare before I take the garage out, the car shudders to life.

Now don’t turn it off, says James, or we’ll have to do that all over again tomorrow.

I don’t plan to: turn it off, or repeat the exercise. Hat creeps cautiously out to inspect any damage and resume naaji harvest, car belts filthy black smoke into our neighbourhood and I wonder – not for the first time since I got to Outpost – precisely what my role is here and whose in charge.

Not me today, that’s for sure.

Eking the life out of all things old

April 12, 2007

Have spent long, hot morning in town with husband. He is great believer in keeping old things going for absolutely as long as he can, drawing from them their very last breath before he admits defeat and discards them: matters not whether they are cars, watches or lawnmowers.

Consequently spent hours trawling dodgy end of town for a headlight for our really, really old landcruiser (the one before the really old one I drive now which we’d hoped to sell but which every prospective buyer has turned their nose up at). Spent as many hours again trying to find a place to recharge old batteries of really, really old cruiser in hope of getting it started (so that we can return it to where it was parked before I pushed it down the drive in futile attempt to get it going; failed, so it has sat since – for past ten days – like white elephant in middle of lawn looking tired). I discovered there are literally hundreds of kiosks with ‘batteri charji’ facilities.

And then we collected the really, really old lawnmower from the workshop which has failed to do anything other than drag out its demise by a few days at a time whilst dragging copious amounts of cash from us in ‘repairs’. It’s complaining loudly as I write, begging to be allowed to retire.

Off to have a cup of tea, to ‘charji’ own ‘batteri’.

I suppose I ought to be grateful: perhaps husband’s apparent affection for all things old means there’s less chance he’ll discard me and opt for younger, faster model when he hits male menopause?

Surviving Breakdowns

April 11, 2007

It is only today, as I come to after our eventful journey home and am fishing about in my cavernous handbag for something I inevitably cannot find, that I come across the business card we were presented in the garage where we spent several hours on Monday evening: “Home Boyz Auto Garage Ltd” it reads importantly. It is decorated with images of gleaming vehicles, none of which bear even passing resemblance to anything I saw there, including my own car.

Considering this rather flimsy piece of marketing, I am prompted to reflect on the many places the children and I have passed time whilst waiting for a breakdown to be remedied.

Once, when Ben was a babe in arms, we lost a rear wheel. Oddly – when you’re travelling at 70 mph through the African bush – and a rear wheel disengages itself, it actually speeds past your window in that micro-second before you come crashing down onto the tar. And for one really mad moment you think, ‘Gosh, I wonder whose lost a wheel’, even though you can’t see anybody in your rear view mirror nor any traffic ahead. The wheel bounced into the distance, across the savannah and past dozens of termite mounds. It took several hours to locate it and get it back in situ and whilst husband busied himself with that, I, to entertain a ten month old Ben, strapped him into his pushchair and bumped him across the plains in the direction of the meager shade of a couple of acacia. Several minivans full of astonished tourists of their way to the Serengeti rubbed their eyes in disbelief as they sped by: they quite expected to see red-robed Masai here, not a white woman pushing a baby in a pram.

I have read quantities of books to children in dodgy roadside garages. I have fed them too much Coke Cola and too many bars of melting chocolate. I have pleaded with them to hang on for a pee (or worse) until we’re back on the road as I can smell the state of the loos from where I’ve sat and I have watched my mother teach them how to plan Hop Scotch in the dirt.

On this occasion – having fed them obligatory Cokes – I watched Hattie attempt to give Amelia (twice her height) a piggy back – to the amusement of the Home Boyz as both collapsed giggling in a heap in the dust; I watched all three collect nails and pieces of scrap metal and then I had heard myself explaining to them why it was not a good idea to bring it all home. I dispatched Amelia – complaining of boredom and hunger and needing a pee – back to the bar (useful distraction tactic) where we’d bought said Cokes with money for a bottle of water, she returned with water but no change; that’ll be the biggest tip the waitress has had all year. I kept losing Hat who wanted to ‘watch the traffic’, never a good thing for a child to do and I had to explain to Ben, from a polite and discreet distance, why it might be wise to disentangle himself from the grip of a stoned Somali with whom he’d struck up an animated conversation.

So the wait, you see, wasn’t as bad as it might have been.

Having a Breakdown

April 10, 2007

Back home after five glorious sun-kissed, sand-sloughed days at the beach playing at being the millionaires we will never be: stayed in a house – sourced by a friend – that sat perched up on the cliff like an eagle’s nest from where we had views of tides and gulls and waves crashing upon distant reef. We drank cold beer, ate prawns by the bucketful, dug oysters from rocks with a screwdriver and enjoyed them there and then clad in only our swimming costumes and then we embarked on our journey home.

Which was when we returned to our more usual reality with jarring bump; trust my car to be the one to put us firmly in our places.

Four hours into our six hour drive back she breaks down.

Ironically in exactly the same spot as she did last time – six months ago – with precisely the same complaint: a hole in the fuel filter.

For those who have never endured a hole in the fuel filter, let me describe to you what happens. One moment you’re sailing along counting the hours until you can sink into a hot bath and the next you’re juddering to an unexpected halt.

You look anxiously at spouse hoping he’s just suffered temporary aberration of memory and has forgotten how to keep his foot on the accelerator, but no, sadly his anxious look mimics yours and both of you say, at exactly the same, ‘Oh crap’ (or words to that effect), ‘not again’.

No such thing as auto rescue in this part of the world, you’re on your own now: broken down in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

You open bonnet and peer into car’s innards, each hoping the other might spot something that looks recognizably at fault and reasonably easy to fix. But since each is as poor a mechanic as the other, this is unlikely.

Except in the case of hole-in-fuel-filter scenario, of course, because the symptoms (car losing power and juddering to feeble halt) and the smell (quantities of diesel being sprayed from beneath you and onto surrounding, baking countryside) are horribly familiar.

Bloody fuel filter again you say simultaneously.

It is at this point that husband directs me to locate the spare filter we had stowed in car last time, congratulating ourselves smugly that we had the foresight to consider same problem arising in future.

Except, of course, that in the six month interim somebody has taken it out. We glare at one another accusingly.

Husband then sets about car searching for strips of rubber he is also sure he stowed therein; strips of rubber being endlessly useful in similar African predicament. He can’t find that either, can only find six inches of rather corroded old inner tube. It’ll have to do; he bandages the filter and we manage to limp a mile back down the road to the safari hotel we limped back to last time which is why we know it has a workshop and plenty of mechanics who won’t peer beneath bonnet in quite such a confused fashion as us and who will be keen to make some pocket money.

Except that this time its Easter Monday and there is no help to be found; we must, the hotel manager informs us, return to the nearest town, 30 miles back the way we’ve come. On seeing our crestfallen faces he gives us a whole old inner tube to strip as bandages to plug filter’s hole, which is what we spend the next hour doing, stopping and starting and replacing bits of black strapping and kangaroo-ing back to town.

The children settle down on the back seat wearing expressions of bored resignation. No tantrums or complaining or even much (which is unusual) scrapping. Not – I must add – because I am a paragon of maternal virtue who has raised cherubs that demonstrate tireless grace and patience under trying circumstances, but because long journeys are familiar in Africa. And longer journeys still are especially familiar when borne in my old car with her apparent susceptibility to breakdowns.

Husband and I are very hot and very smelly and very bad tempered by the time we finally get back to the town we passed through several hours ago whilst I was breezily anticipating home and a hot bath. We source the jua kali (literally translates as hot sun since such enterprises generally pop up out of nothing on the roadside) garage the hotel manager has directed us to; a dusty shed surrounded by old heaps (not unlike our own). The garage manager is called Patrick; he has an air of great importance and summons a crew of overall clad fundis to assist. Swiftly our filter is replaced and the cause of the hole identified and rectified – it would appear that my old car suffering automobile equivalent of middle age spread and her innards beginning to shift, as a result something that ordinarily wouldn’t be close to the filter has pierced it. A marifa – make-do – arrangement is implemented to create a distance between filter and offending sharp object and then, with assurances ringing in our ears that we will, absolutely, make it home tonight, we press on, back the way we’ve come, up the dusty road that forms a lonely, scrub-laced corridor between Kenya and the border with Tanzania.

We stop several times to ensure no nasty jets of diesel springing from under the bonnet and once confident they’re not we press on with rather more speed that we ought. In the fading light we hit – well, husband hits since he is the one behind the wheel – a block of cement in the middle of the road and we write off a front tyre. We come to rather more grinding halt this time.

Husband swears loudly, ‘shouldn’t have effing well been there’, he roars. No, I concede, great big chunk of cement probably oughtn’t to have been in road but then he ought – perhaps – given its size – have seen it.

Happily – though there is probably no coincidence in this – incident occurs by tiny roadside village. Several Africans leap from the dark to assist with our ‘puncture’. One helps to jack the car up, another sets to with the wheel spanner and Anthony tries to get the spare off the back. Only the securing bolt is broken and he can’t undo it with the wheel brace.

Who broke this effing thing? He shouts at nobody – though probably me – in particular. We all shuffle in the dust and say nothing. Several more Africans appear to help us break the wheel free – in somewhat unorthodox fashion –with the aid of large hammer and chisel.

Time ticks by, we’re reduced to seeing what we’re doing with the tiny bulb in my cell phone.

Finally we’re got the spare off the back and on the front and the flat off the front and hanging, somewhat precariously, on the back and we’re all scrambling into the car again, shelling out 200 shilling notes in gratitude.

It’s too late to make the border now; it closes at 7, we’re still 40 miles from it and it’s half past already.

We remember a camp we’ve stayed at on this road before and mercifully – and more importantly – we remember how to get there. Which we finally do, by 9pm.

How we don’t hit the roadside buffalo which ambled out of the bush, or run up the backside of an elephant that stood in the middle of the road as we rounded a bend, I have no clue. But thankfully we don’t.

The camp staff are very kind and locate a couple of tents where we can have a hot shower and wash quantities of diesel from our skin.

And then they feed us a late supper.

Hattie reclines in her chair and says with a big sigh, ‘I feel drowned’.

Overwhelmed? Exhausted? Drained?

Whatever; I know exactly what she means.

On the Road Again

March 30, 2007

Got a lift into town to collect my car from the garage where it has been languishing for past two days.

Went via ATM to draw the necessary to pay for car’s equivalent spa-experience. I approach ATM with some trepidation – not only because last time it swallowed card whole but because current predicament means financial health somewhat compromised and so I live in perpetual fear that my request for $20, $50 or – on rash days – $100 may be denied. If I were an adrenaline junkie, and I’m not, I’d be very happy with the predictable, quiet life I do not have, a visit to the ATM would bring on same rush that bungee jumping, parachuting, swimming with sharks and white water rafting apparently does.

Anyhow, ATM obviously not yet aware of dire financial straits and sweetly obliged by proffering precisely what I’d asked for and giving my card back.

On to garage which is owned by charming Sikh gentleman with whom – on account of my very regular visits, not because I fancy him but because my car is lazy cow who seems determined to spend more time dossing in his workshop than on the road – I am on first name terms.

Morning Koga

Morning Anthea

I pay my money and make for a hasty retreat lest I get a lecture about state of my car. Am not fast enough, Koga’s faster.

‘We had to weld the whole of the underside of the chassis’, he tells me sternly, ‘the whole of the rear end of your car is cracked and buggered’.

Buggered! Unfortunate turn of phrase I feel, but I don’t say anything.

Instead I smile sweetly, ‘she’s very old I explain, 16 this year’ (which, on reflection, makes me sound like sick, mad old bat who holds annual birthday parties for a set of wheels).

Hmm, mutters Koga sternly, he is not pleased that I seem to find his discovery amusing: I ought to be taking warning of car about to fall to bits very seriously and I would – really I would – were I not so excited at prospect of getting behind the steering and being mobile again.

Not that I’m going anywhere – just home. Bouncing down the 12 klms of potholed dirt rejoicing that the banging in the back isn’t quite as bad as it was a few days ago.


Last night I bumped into somebody I knew years ago. In the interim his beautiful teenage daughter has died of malaria. He was a news photographer once and has recorded hundreds of images portraying every angle of Africa’s tortured face. He said he though that perhaps Africa prepared us for tragedy. I don’t think anything can prepare us for the death of a child; I don’t really think he thought so either.

Ignoring the car

March 26, 2007

To add insult to serious injury, I think my car may be in need of urgent attention; she is old (not unlike me) and complaining loudly about the abuse she is presently being subjected to (also not unlike me) as I bounce to town and back (between court, cop shop, lawyer and kind, obliging money changer) with scant regard for her ancient bodywork which creaks rheumatically at every bump (and there are a lot of those).

Concern for her welfare does – at least – offer brief distraction from my numerous other woes. But – despite the fact the air-conditioning has gone – again – and it is hot – in the run up to the Long Rains – I do my driving with the windows up because I find her whining tiresome, not to say worrying. Having paid legal fees, I don’t have the wherewithal for a new suspension so car will just have to manage on arthritic chassis.

You see: I was not joking when I said that in my next life I want to come back as an African lawyer: it will mean I shall be able to afford a car that I do not have to listen to whining, and nor for that matter does every body else in the vicinity, often long before I appears over the horizon.

We are expecting a visit from a neighbour; indeed he has just pulled into the drive. I only know he’s arrived because I can see his headlights: he drives a shiny new 4×4 which you cannot hear coming, it does not grumble loudly like my car, it whispers in subtly contented fashion. He is rich and likes to crow about his own (many) successes whilst being prophet of perpetual doom as to our (many) failures. Anthony and I have taken bets that he will tell us – on account of own recent debacle – to skip the country.

Watch this space!