x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Keep the car running

Last word The wonders of the horseless carriage no longer impress Peter C Baker, who wants to get back on his feet.

The wonders of the horseless carriage no longer impress Peter C Baker, who wants to get back on his feet.
I remember the day I picked up my car. It was a Tuesday, and I'd just returned from a trip to Doha. Leaving the airport, I decided that it would be nice to drive myself home. I was fed up with Abu Dhabi taxis, for all the usual reasons. It was early in the morning, so most of the airport's rental agencies were closed. Of those that were open, most were out of everything except for SUVs beyond my price range. Just as I was about to give up, a sharp-eyed salesman - who had spotted me bouncing wishfully from agency to agency - opened his door halfway, leant outside and beckoned: "Come."

One credit card swipe and six signatures later, I was standing on the kerb, waiting for the car - my car - to be fetched from the lot. Though I don't know how it feels to loiter on an empty street corner waiting for a blind date to show up, I think that's how I felt. Eventually, it arrived: a 1990-something Mitsubishi Lancer, dusty red, with a grey interior. The salesman showed me where the fire extinguisher was stowed, and I was off.

I've never been the type to enthuse about cars, but my first drive was something special. Airport Road was relatively empty, and the weather was oddly un-hot. I turned on the radio, rolled down my window and found myself revelling in a surprisingly acute sense of accomplishment and power. I could afford a car, and that car could spirit me from place to place at my command! As I accelerated over the Maqta bridge, humming along to some Egyptian pop classic, the city stretched in front of me as pure potential, a concrete pile of places I could now fully explore as I saw fit.

That night I stayed at work late, catching up on work and e-mail. I was tired, but it felt good to know I could take off straightaway whenever I wanted. I didn't leave until midnight, and when I got home - home then being the Ramee Gardens Hotel Apartments - I realised that I had to find a parking spot. For half an hour, I circled the block, looking for some overlooked corner or cranny where I could wedge my new prize. A half-dozen other night owls were similarly occupied, and I was still smitten enough with driving to find our repetitive circuit of unspoken competition more bemusing than tiring.

The car's romance was strong; my decision to renew the rental after a month came easily. After all, I thought to myself, the car makes wonderful things possible: visits to friends across town at any hour, cruises through the desert "just to think", trips to Popeyes in the middle of the night for onion rings. Never mind that I rarely did such things. I did once go to Popeyes around 1am. When I came back, I spent 45 minutes parking and ended up a 15-minute walk from home. Trudging home, grease and salt tap-dancing on the walls of my stomach, I cursed myself for not having simply gone to bed. But it didn't occur to me to give up the car. The car was a fact.

At some point - I don't remember exactly when - I stopped honeymooning and admitted to myself that driving in Abu Dhabi is distinctly unpleasant, mostly because its large street grid and Byzantine signal system are so unforgiving. To forget or fail to be in the correct lane is to be punished. A single wrong turn can send you on a 10-minute recovery circuit; in a few areas, you can end up a mile or more out of your way. Thus the notion of "basically" knowing how to drive somewhere usually makes no sense. If you want to get somewhere, you had better know The Way To Get There; this typically means being shown, or looking up, The Way on a map - and hoping the map knows about the construction detour on Salam Street.

All this makes driving seem less a medium of potential and more a realm of obligation and inevitability. You must: know The Way, allow time for gridlock, move to the correct lane, make the correct turn, start looking for a chance to edge into the correct lane, refill the petrol tank, wipe the sand from your windscreen, move to the correct lane, make the correct turn, scrum for a parking spot. And when you have to turn left, resign yourself: some spaceship-looking vehicle will inevitably zoom up two feet behind you, flashing its headlights in a sort of manic morse code of inconsideration. "I must move this fast or faster!" it will flash, its driver hidden from shame behind fully tinted windows. "I must not slow down!" This becomes depressing.

Of course, maybe all driving, or perhaps all city driving, boils down to this sort of aggravation. And I know that living sans car in Abu Dhabi is not without its hassles and obligations. But I cannot now recall them being particularly dispiriting. In fact, I mostly remember good things: walking part or all of the way home on cool evenings; improvising new pathways through the blocks between work and home; getting a feel for different neighbourhoods and sub-neighbourhoods; spotting and trying new bakeries and restaurants; watching - and, once or twice, joining - games of street cricket and football; nodding hello to the same people sitting on the same stoops at the same time every day. Solvitur ambulando, medieval monks were fond of intoning: It is solved by walking.

I have since moved out of the Ramee to a villa in a less crowded part of town with more plentiful parking. One day, while using Google Maps to show someone the way to my house, I realised I knew almost nothing about my neighbourhood. I had never walked through it. For 10 minutes, I scrolled back and forth between my office and my house, zooming in as far as I could, wondering what sights and pleasures those streets held.

Around the same time, the new city bus program started, and I started reminiscing about all the time I've spent on buses and subways in other cities. I remembered how wonderful it is to simply be moved, to read a magazine while being moved, to stare at my shoes while being moved in a big, essentially crash-proof box. The 54 bus goes down Muroor Road, just a short walk from my house. With the weather cooling down, giving up my car for some combination of walking, busing and taxis seems more feasible and attractive every day.

My rental expires in just under three weeks, and I've recently started saying aloud that I plan to give up my car, or at least effect a trial separation. Several people have been oddly outraged. "That's ridiculous!" they squall. "You can't do that!" At first, this only strengthened my conviction: the urge to do what people say you cannot is a strong one. Plus, I have become hypochondriacally convinced that driving is straining my heart; driving home, I feel the poor muscle shrivelling under pressure. Passing the teal 54 bus, I steal an envious glance at its passive passengers, lost in thought.

But in the last few days I've been wondering: am I really ready to be without? At the end of the work day, when I'm dreaming of the amazing sandwich I'm going to make when I get home, do I want to worry about catching a crowded, lumbering bus? Is the car a fact? Will I, when the morning arrives, really drive all the way to the airport, hand over my key and walk back out into the heat to catch a taxi back into town? I think I might. But I can also see myself turning off the alarm and going back to sleep, murmuring something about how I really want to drive to the beach tomorrow, and it's still sort of hot out and, hey, I can still go for walks even if I have a car - and just one more month, OK?
pbaker@thenational.ae