Once Were Road Warriors

My last night in the state before the flight to New Zealand wasn’t spent getting on the piss with friends. No cuddles with some lover, whispering of love knowing no border security checks, either. No, it was spent filling up the bathroom sink and watching the water drain clockwise down the drain.

Worst test drive ever

Worst test drive ever

I should have spent that time preparing for the other things that work backwards here. The realisation that my free time could have perhaps been put to better use came very, very suddenly.

For some, the light at the end of the tunnel is salvation. For me, it was oncoming traffic.

It was within my first 10 hours of acquiring a New Zealand driver’s license.

I had turned left from a gas station, already wary of city traffic and driving after sunset. As I pulled into the right lane, I remember thinking, quiet calmly, “Geez, those lights ahead are getting brighter. This can’t be a good sign.” Three seconds before becoming the lead character in another New Zealand commercial about bad driving, my arms moved me into the right…er…proper lane.

I would like to chalk the experience up as an absent-minded incident beyond my control, just something every new driver might do on accident. But my previous pedestrian troubles should have been a warning sign.

About the time I would walk to work, all of Timaru seemed to breath a collective sigh of relief. The whole town leaves after-school activities and work like a breaking damn. Walking down Stafford st, I’d see everyone rush home as fast as possible. Sometimes it felt like I was a trout moving up stream.

The problem has been in relying on years of instinct to lead the way. Coming up to people on the sidewalk going the other way, I naturally move to my right. And just as naturally, they move to their left and we come to that awkward situation where both parties try to casually avoid running into each other by moving in the same, mirrored direction.

It’s taken me awhile to realise that no matter where one is on the globe, walking patterns are directed by the flow of the society’s vehicle traffic. Hell, even the escalators here are placed in the same way. The idea of driving on this-or-that side of the road becomes so ingrained that even walking down the street becomes a problem for the unfamiliar.

So I should have been ready when I finally made the wrong decision going 50km and surrounded by a tonne of steal.

Aside from that little incident, there’s been no other trouble. Apart from turning on the wipers when trying to indicate with the blinkers, my driving experiences have been disappointingly average. I still wonder how many points I’d get in a video game if I ran over that little punk or the feeble old woman 100 metres ahead. I said “thank you” to the cop in the unmarked car who ticketed me for not wearing a Seat belt moments before I cursed him loudly for 10 kms. And I still cuss violently at all the idiot drivers who shouldn’t have been given a license, period.

Then again, I can understand why some people choose not to get a New Zealand license.

I sauntered into AA on a whim, thinking I’d pass the test with ease. When the girl behind the counter wanted $80, I knew I’d finally found a place to call home.

“This is great,” I thought. “I just hand over some cash and poof! I get license to kill. Everything’s for sale here.”

I chuckled audibly through the silly test, knowing full well that since I’d already handed over the cash and gotten my picture taken, even if by chance I did miss a few questions, my debt was already paid-in-full.

It was the girl behind the counter who did the chuckling when she saw I had scratched out “Increases your driving senses” for the question regarding drinking driving. (To be fair, I’d been assured by several Kiwis, who swear on a bottle, that answer was correct.) She told me I could come back in an hour to take the test. “No” she said, AA doesn’t give refunds for failed tests; and “Yes” I’ll have to pay another $40.

Most of the questions I had failed had to do with strange mathematical equations dealing with the metric system, so I asked where I could get a study guide.

“We sell them for $35”

Back home, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is a bare, lonely place. While they consider educating people on how NOT to kill others a public service by offering a free study guide, and while they might have been able to produce a license for you on the same day as your test, the office is a depressing hole. The white-washed concrete reminds me of the kind of barracks built in communist countries. But no shabby digs for AA. NOOOOOO. That place looked better than most local banks’ lobbies.

Why does every AA office look so well-kept? How do they publish two glossy magazines and a whole rack of maps? Sure, the top-dollar test cards that you have to rub like lotto cards are a gaudy waste of ink and paper, but even that doesn’t account for every easy penny made from the Joe-blows coming in for the right to use the road.

Something was amiss. This was straight-up racketeering. The only thing missing was some guy in the back named “Sonny” who speaks three words and will bust your knee caps whenever fingers snap.

Three tests and $160 later, I had my New Zealand driver’s license. Sort of. The poor lady at the AA handed over a little slip of paper and said the actual card would come in the mail in about a week. What a sham!

After all that hard work, money spent and raised blood pressure, the payoff is being able to hold that little piece of plastic. Where was that framed mug shot where I was caught mid-blink? Where was my signed philanthropic commitment to bodily donations? It felt like winning a million bucks then told it would come in 75225 installments of $132.90. Just another empty victory.

When the license did finally come in, I looked over the new card carefully. It felt good seeing the Kiwi flag and all my information on the same officious document. The only oddity was the strange lines laminated over my picture, unmistakably moko-like in their placement and appearance. I had become a moko-marked road warrior.

Jake the Mus never has any problems on the road

Jake the Mus never has any problems on the road

Now with my first international license in hand, I can’t wait for my first little fender-bender. Instead of jumping out of the car, flipping the bird and screaming obscenities, I’m going to perform a haka.

If that fails, I hope Sonny is included in the AA’s roadside accident service.

Timaru Herald, July 16, 2008

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