Peace Corps Volunteers can’t drive. For whatever reason—maybe a bunch of volunteers in the past wrecked it for everyone else, maybe because we don’t fall under the State department and thus don’t have diplomatic immunity, maybe because we’re seen as a bunch of kids who shouldn’t be trusted to operate heavy machinery—it’s officially in our contracts we cannot drive. We can walk, we can bike, we can take taxis wherever we want, but under no circumstances are we allowed to climb behind the wheel. And so for many of us this inevitably leads to a deep yearning desire to drive a car.
Through much of my time at university in Los Angeles I didn’t have a car, and that was hell. Not having a car in LA is like being a shut-in. Cars and traffic and smog are the lifeblood of the city, and abstaining from all that you feel cut-off, imprisoned. I feel like that’s also true in Samoa to a certain extent. Los Angeles is a sprawling city where landmarks and museums and places of interest are so distant from one another, taking public transportation would literally take hours. Samoa doesn’t have the same history of corporate and governmental greed, but its nice spots are still far between. In Apia the grocery store, the open-air market, and the department store may all be conveniently across the street from one another, but taking a bus out to the beaches on the south side of the island almost always means spending the night out there. It’s a hike.
For whatever reason, the Peace Corps does allow volunteers to rent and drive cars provided they take a vacation day. So I pulled some strings yesterday morning and got my paperwork streamlined in order to drive the rental car yesterday afternoon. And then Dustin and I, along with Koa and his brother, toured the island today.
It was an eye-opening experience.
On one hand, having a car was great. I love to drive. Love it. The thrill of the open road, the meandering esses climbing mountains, the satisfying hum of the downshift—it’s fantastic. And it’s so liberating to go across town on a whim, to skip the taxi, to not lather up in sunscreen or worry about sweat stains. In all of these matters, having a car was fantastic.
On the other hand, we got a lemon.
The lady at SouthPac Rentals had promised a Hyundai Getz with a manual transmission. When we showed up it turned out the Getz was already booked, but she upgraded us to a Toyota RAV4, free of charge.
Looking back now, I’m guessing the RAV4 was the owner’s own car, scarred by many years of wear and tear. The odometer showed 200,000 miles, and that was no surprise to me.
I watched the mechanic dump a pint of water into the radiator before we left. It was a sign of problems to come. By the time we’d climbed the cross-island road, the motor was emitting steam and the temperature gauge began to climb. It dropped a little going down the mountain, but on the relatively flat roads along the south island, the temperature kept climbing into the red. We pulled over.
At Faofao this morning we put over a gallon of water into the thirsty radiator, and headed out on our way. The car was happier for the water, and we got through most of the day unscathed. We stopped off to tour some of the resorts on the south side of the island. It was nice, and Phil’s host sister from Fausaga gave us a couple of free bottles of soda. When we got back to the car, it wouldn’t start. No power in the battery.
We got a jump from some tourists at the hotel. After that we opted to cut our trip short and make a B-line for Apia. The clutch was old and worn, and I had a difficult time telling when it was and was not in neutral, and so a half-hour after we’d got the jump (the battery having ample time to re-charge), I accidentally killed the engine when we dropped off Koa and his brother. But had the battery charged? Nope.
We were back in Apia by then, and the rental agency agreed to come pick up the car. What a mess.
I do indeed miss having a car, and I think it would make life here a lot easier. But dealing with the maintenance and agitation involved, maybe it’s preferable to simply call a taxi.
I hope you’re well.
5 weeks ago