Sunday, February 26, 2012
It was mid-afternoon at the airport in Olbia, Sardegna. Rushing around trying to get a car rental because although the island looks small compared to the whole European mainland, it is huge and mountainous.
The desk clerk lady said 'blah blah blah... but we only have manual transmission left'. Do you know the film scenes where the back ground seems to rush away because of camera focus tricks? Well that was what happened. And when they said the car was a Fiat it happened again because, J-Lo's advertisements in the US aside, I had heard bad things about these vehicles.
After finding the silver Fiat Punto among the other vehicles along the row, I did the usual 'walk around' to make sure there was no damage. Just a few scratches and someone had removed the letter 'N' badge on the back, leaving 'PU TO'. Damn good thing I wasn't going to be driving anywhere that people knew Spanish...
The last time I had tried to drive a manual transmission car was before college when some friends were alcohol-comatose. I remembered it as an unpleasant lurching experience with too many pedals on the floor. So, resolved to my fate, I stowed luggage and started reading the manual there in the parking lot for tips and tricks on the finer points of driving manual.
Armed with sufficient knowledge like Neo in 'The Matrix', I started the car up and managed to get it switched to reverse gear. The clutch / brake confusion made backing up a weird mix of terror about hitting parked cars behind me and impatience because I was doing everything in slow motion.
I spent 40 minutes that afternoon driving around the rent car parking lot, turning, shifting from first to second, parking, reverse, avoiding people walking around, backing out again. People were really beginning to stare, so with utmost confidence in my newly aquired abilities, I decided to leave the warm nest of the rental car parking lot like a baby bird and make my way in the cruel world.
Not one minute after leaving the parking lot towards the highway I needed, I noticed that I had a police escort (they had probably seen me practicing in the parking lot and were making sure I wasn't drunk, or Scottish). Through the first roundabout (thank god I didn't have to yield), they must have decided that I wasn't going to kill anyone and went off on their way.
Driving on the open highways towards Baja Sardegna where I was staying was great, I really enjoyed the manual transmission feel of the road. My Garmin maps were a bit miscalibrated though, so when I arrived close to my hotel it indicated that I should go down a dirt road. The road kept getting smaller and smaller with brush closing in on the sides of the car.
I got out and hiked over the large stony hill for a while and found someone who pointed me in the right direction. So, I backed up the several hundred meters, really starting to understand the car so I thought.
At the beach hotel on the mountainous hill, I parked on a large slope. Not fully understanding the inner workings of manual transmission vehicles when starting from a parallel park situation on a slope I was in for some real fun the next day. Let's just say, any accidents that may have occurred left no marks (on my car or anyone else's), again probably because everything was occurring so slowly.
The next day a nice day trip to La Madelena (Trinity Beach) was on the itinerary, and a few times I had stalled out while yielding on the roundabouts with impatient people behind me. A few angry looks and honks at me were the worst things I had to deal with luckily. For the most part, in this difficult mountainous terrain I had conquered something which I was always nervous to try. I can drive manual.
One thing about the Fiat rent car though, it was equiped with a bizarre feature. Coming back from the beach to a parking lot in Palau, I started up and noticed that the steering was super difficult and was worried that I had a car problem.
The municipal police came out of nowhere (must have been watching an obvious stranger) and offered to call the car rental place for me, but then one of the officers thought about it and pushed a button on the dashboard that turned back on the steering. HUH??!!? There was a button that TURNS OFF YOUR POWER STEERING on this car? Why stop there, why not have a button that maybe jettisons all of your fuel, or makes the wheels fall off? I thanked the officers in what I was sure at the time was perfect Italian, and made my way back to Baja Sardegna in the dark.