x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

How renting a Yaris made driving off into the sunset fun again

At the rental agency, I surveyed the Yaris. It seemed to stare back at me, as if already knowing the harm I had inflicted on my previous vehicle.

The first thing my family members asked me when I told them I was moving to Abu Dhabi was not "when?" or "why?" but rather, "You won't have to drive, will you?" You see, I am renowned for my ability to kill a carburetor, scratch paintwork and generally triple-task my way into accidents. Their worry was justified. Driving and I have a history, a rocky history. I grew up in the US state of Missouri - in a city that's arguably the flattest of the flatlands - and driving was a necessity. There was no public transport; it was driving or walking, end of story. I hadn't been behind the wheel of a car on a regular basis since I was a senior in high school, when I badly scarred my grandmother's handed-down 1989 Acura Legend saloon at the Dairy Queen drive-through.

Shortly after I got my licence at age 16, the Legend and I accidentally drove into oncoming traffic (thankfully unharmed) while I was frantically waving at my track-captain boyfriend who was running on the other side of the road. I hit parked cars. I mowed down post boxes. I kept discarded sweetie wrappers and smelly old shoes in the Acura. The car was a legend, but not in the heroic sense. When I moved to New York City for university and sold the Legend, it had been abused to the point of slapstick comedy. I was hand- signalling because the left indicator had been bashed in and I was using my full beams at night because the headlights had died. There were wires hanging out from underneath the front grille and the glove compartment was permanently stuck in the open position. I was lucky to get US$1,000 (Dh3,670) for what was once a luxury car. Once in New York, I tried to leave behind all thoughts of tyres, windscreen wiper fluid and oil changes.

My car experiences since the early 1990s consisted of shouting at taxi drivers in New York City, about how they were "doing it wrong", which I've been told is my catchphrase. I frequently found myself debating with the driver about his ill-advised decision to take the Midtown Tunnel to the airport or turning into swarms of pedestrian traffic in Times Square. Even in Sana'a, Yemen, where I lived for most of 2008, I left the driving to competent taxi and motorcycle drivers. There are car rental shops in Sana'a, but it would have been frightening to park in the tight lanes of the old city and swinging through them on the back of a motorcycle taxi - wearing an abaya and headscarf - was more fun anyway.

When I arrived in Abu Dhabi, I quickly girded myself against any re-emergence of my reckless ways and sought out some wheels. I was an adult now and surely that must mean something, right? I vowed to prove my family wrong with my careful and mature road manners as well as my eco-friendly car choice. I rented a silver Toyota Yaris. It's name, a friend joked, was Swahili for "tiny car". At the rental agency, I surveyed the Yaris. It seemed to stare back at me, as if already knowing the harm I had inflicted on my previous vehicle.

The Yaris and I formed a partnership not unlike mismatched police partners in a buddy flick. My Yaris was small and fuel-efficient, apparently playing the part of the good cop. I was the renegade driver who used rogue methods to get what I wanted. I think you can guess which officer I was playing in this scenario. Our first outing was shaky. Literally, shaky. As I drove from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, the wind seemed to be blowing the car from side to side whenever a lorry passed. Needless to say, I was wild of eye and clenched of jaw by the time I arrived back home. I vowed never to drive the Yaris further than a mile from then on, though it was an idle threat since I have to drive to Dubai for some story or other at least once a week.

Then something clicked, and like any good buddy movie, my Yaris and I slowly learnt to trust each other. I relaxed a little and started to remember all the good things about driving I had filed under "never again" in my head. I recalled how much I used to love driving the Legend around, blasting Melissa Etheridge's Come to My Window (Stop laughing, it was a good song ?) with the windows rolled down. While sunlight streamed into the Legend's beige interior, I would dream about how I would drive to another state, or to the other side of the country, even. The Legend and I were like the metal-and-flesh version of Thelma & Louise. Driving, cornily enough, felt like freedom.

Though nowadays my windows are firmly sealed shut when I drive on E11, I still get that rush from driving, the one that makes you think anything is possible. It's the same feeling I had in the Legend, may she rest in peace. Now, please pardon me - I have a date with my Yaris to drive off into the sunset. swolff@thenational.ae