One Wild Journey, One Crazy Couple, One Life to Live
Last week was the first small step on the big journey. We drove the car with its newly assembled engine from Jalalabad road’s RMA Group office to our home in Thaimani. RMA Group in Kabul and Emilios Beetles in Ireland have been amazing. We brought a suitcase or two of parts back from Emilios a few months back and the team at RMA Group have put humpty back together again! I hope to soon learn from the best at RMA on how to keep humpty running.
I went to RMA Group with a good friend of mine, with whom I knew I would feel safe driving back through the city. I am very glad I did! Imagine this: a blonde woman with a bright pink scarf driving a ’68 Bug through the streets of Kabul. Not one single person on the street or sidewalk did not stop to gawk and stare.
Back in the day, Volkswagens were the car of choice for car bombs. They were cheap and expendable. Maybe for that reason, there are not many VWs left around Kabul. Everyone who is anyone drives a Toyota. In fact, the previous owner of our VW removed the VW symbol and replaced it with a Toyota symbol. Some of the younger children on the streets had obviously never seen a VW Bug before and either laughed and shared the experience with their friends, or stood and stared in disbelief. Beyond that, I am a woman driver. These are about as rare as Beetles.
On the road, many women in full burka were peering at me from the backs of taxis and the backseats of cars (never the front seat, heaven forbid). As I couldn’t see their faces, I couldn’t read any expressions, but the body language said it all. Normally demure women were sitting upright and if inside, were almost plastered to the window. I have no idea if they were astonished or excited, but they were more animated than I have ever seen burka-clad women in taxis!
Unfortunately, the Bug has a few glitches to work out. Getting the car into first is a real challenge and moving it to second is even trickier. Coming onto Jalalabad road, the car stalled. There was just enough of a hill that starting the car again (without an operational emergency brake) was a test. I would just get the car revving and it would stall again. I was creating a backlog of traffic and the traffic police were getting annoyed. We had asked a driver to follow us in case of emergencies, and he was right behind me. The police started waving him ahead, but he would not move. The police finally came over to the car and was about to yell when he saw me – the female driver. He laughed and motioned for me to move ahead. I raised my arms in despair and tried to let him know I was trying. Finally my friend grabbed the gearshift and instructed me to stand on the clutch. He rammed it into a gear and told me to hit the gas. The gear was definitely not first, but we chugged and jumped ahead regardless. Close on our tail was the driver. In the review mirror, I could see him laughing out loud.
The rest of the way continued with my friend trying to find first and second while I tried to steer us through Kabul rush-hour traffic. The blind leading the blind while occasionally yelling ‘clutch’! When we reached the airport road roundabout, I steered to the right side of the road and tried to squeak past a mini-van full of peering passengers on my left. Unfortunately, the driver did not see me and decided to veer right. As he did, his wheelwell got caught on our front fender. This was our first fender-bender in the Bug – at the busiest roundabout in Kabul of all places. The traffic cop came over. First he stared at me. Normally this would be a perfect situation – a foreigner in an accident- for him to demand money. As he contemplated this option, a large crowd appeared. This is normal. Any incident anywhere in Afghanistan – even in the most remote places – will attract every person within a certain radius, like pins to a magnet in a pin box.
The policeman, instead of demanding anything from me, turned and expertly directed everyone. He had the driver of the minivan rocking back and forth while exercising crowd control. He was wonderful. Finally my friend got out of the car, leaving me as the lone occupant of the VW locked to the minivan. He joined the crowed of bystanders, traffic police, passengers of the minivan, shop owners, cabbies, and soldiers and reached under the bug to lift it. At that moment I spotted the driver who was to be following us. He also grabbed the bottom of the car. Soon at least fifteen men were lifting me and the car and jiggling it until it was free from the minivan. Everyone applauded and motioned me on my way.
My friend hopped back in the car and said “that’s the old Kabul we all knew and loved; everyone lending a helping hand and no one taking advantage of the situation”. I turned the car on and magically it slipped into first gear. I made my way around the roundabout towards home. With a little practice, patience, and a few helping hands; I think this just might work out!