Archive for the ‘Cars’ Category

Who Gets the Front?

May 27, 2010

“I get the front!”

“No, I do.”

“It’s my turn.”

“You had it last time.”

It’s one of the classic conversations of sibling rivalry, one that anyone who did not grow up a single child had many times. It’s a debate that older brothers usually win, not with any logic or eloquence, of course, but with size, pettiness, selfishness, and shameless pig-headedness. Younger sisters sit in the back, deprived of the instant gratification that every child seeks but with their longterm dignity still intact.

Some parents, sick of the bickering, enforce a system of taking turns. It’s a backwards lesson in a country where might almost always makes right. Kids grow up thinking the world is fair and wondering why the Democrats and Republicans don’t just take turns sitting in the Oval Office.

But why do children want to sit in the front? These days, with hyperparanoid parents and countless nitpicky child protection laws, it is simply because the front seat is forbidden to them until they are big enough to ride the biggest roller coaster at the amusement park. Back when I was growing up, it was because the front seat felt like the throne where a little boy is crowned a young man. Sitting in the front seat was a validation, proof that the adult driver found your company entertaining enough to keep you within earshot and trusted that you would refrain from changing all of the public radio presets to classic rock.

It is more interesting to wonder why adults, or at least certain populations of adults, fight for the front seat. The cars of the United Nations – white Toyota Landcruisers with blue logos – are crisscrossing the globe every day, full of the very people who might be expected to care little about status symbols, people who might be excited to bounce and shake uncomfortably through Asia’s deserts, Africa’s plains, and America’s jungles. Many are, but only if they get the front seat.

The seating arrangement in a United Nations vehicle is a clear indication of rank, much like how the starters on the basketball team sit near center court while the little used subs sit so far down the bench they are nearer paying spectators than they are their own coach. Almost invariably, the highest ranking passenger takes the front seat and the staff with the lowest grade gets stuck in the middle back seat. While the two back window seats might be inherently equal, the time of day and the position of the sun determine which is more desirable. Age, gender, and experience hardly matter; there is little instinct for either chivalry or respect for the elderly when a silverback gorilla claims its territory. Occasionally, a visibly painful infirmity elicits enough sympathy to shake up the established order. I know of one occasion when a clerk was given the front seat just because her father had died.

Sometimes, when the equatorial sun is ahead and to the left of the car, the seat behind the driver is the coolest and most comfortable. But ego rarely loses to logic, and no superior would choose to forego privileged isolation to join the huddled masses in the back. It can be gratifying to watch them sweat and burn.

Once you have experienced the empowerment of a front seat position, it feels tangibly like a professional and personal demotion to sit, once more, in the back. Like a counsellor who has lost the king’s favour, you have to wonder if your career – your life! – is being sabotaged. What will people think? It feels, in many ways, like a return to childhood. Everyone knows the kid sitting in the back really wanted to be in the front.

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My New Pet Peeve

February 19, 2010

I was once told by a gas station attendant in Kenya that, “You know Kenyans, if something is free they want as much as they can get.” He was explaining why, in his opinion, so many Kenyan drivers put too much air in their tires.

Though petrol is hardly free, a similar impulse seems to overcome the attendant if you ask for your tank to be filled. He – often she, but for the sake of simple syntax in a neutered language, I’ll stick with the masculine – pumps until the tank reaches a level that even the most ardent pessimist would consider entirely full; then he bounces up and down on your fender, presumably thinking the liquid just needs a little help settling; then he rocks the car side to side, to flatten the last of the miraculous antigravity mounds of petrol still blocking the intake; then he fires single shots, teaspoon by teaspoon and penny by penny, until the pinkish liquid is lapping at the threads of the screwtop. A small volume of it squirts out the side when it is displaced by the cap being fitted back into place.

Ostensibly this all done to ensure that the final price is a round figure, making it easier to make change. But invariably I find a cascade of petrol dripping down the side of my car and a rippling puddle lapping at my back tire. And I cringe, knowing I just spent an extra dollar on runoff to get an even five back.

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My First Car

June 28, 2007

I have never felt so imperialistic as I did the first time I went to the Kenya Revenue Authority, the governmental body charged with managing the many tentacles of tax collection. It was there, in Times Tower, one of the more impressive skyscrapers in the Nairobi central business district, that I actually paid someone to stand in line for me, for hours, while I sipped coffee at a nearby café.

The previous afternoon, on the advice of a friend, I had gone to a particular streetcorner not too far from my home to look for a man who, I was told, could help me navigate the bureaucracy of papers and persons that it would take to register my new car. I didn’t know the man’s name or profession or telephone number. I knew only that he “hangs out” on the corner of Mpaka Road and Westlands Road.

It is a busy, urban corner. Small shops line both sides of both roads: an optician, a book store, a greengrocer, a laundrymat, several restaurants. Dozens of taxis are typically parked on the side of the road, their drivers sitting or standing nearby waiting for a phone call from one of their regular clients looking for a ride. There are always a few people selling magazines and newspapers, a few others selling snacks and candies, and at least one or two others selling whatever it is they happen to have to sell: an extension cord in one hand and a puppy in the other, perhaps. Rich and poor pedestrians hustle in all directions, earning and consuming, in their various degrees, in the busy wild west capitalism of Nairobi.

There must have been hundreds of people in the area that could be called the corner of Mpaka and Westlands – I had no idea which one of these many faces was the one I wanted to find.

For no particular reason, I picked a taxi driver and introduced myself. I was embarrassed to be asking a question that felt like a fool’s errand.

“Hi. I’m looking for a man who can help me file some paperwork at Times Tower. My friend told me I can find him here. Sorry, but I don’t even know his name.”

“Are you a friend of David? I think you’re looking for Geoffrey.”

I had been told already that the actual owner of the car is not required to appear in person at Times Tower. I could have sent Geoffrey to do everything for me, which apparently is what a lot of people do who have enough money to place a greater value on their time. Personally, I wanted to see and learn for myself how the system works in Kenya, so instead of sending Geoffrey to do my work for me I decided to pay him, 500 shillings, to escort me through the process. We agreed to meet early the following morning at his streetcorner office.


The lobby of Times Tower is, essentially, the customer service branch of the Kenya Revenue Authority. It is a huge open atrium floorplan where all of Nairobi comes to conduct its financial business with the government. There are two escalators in the center of the room, only one of which, the up one, actually works. In the space between them, a waterfall descends from the second story mezzanine. Fake potted greenery hangs from the interior perimeter of each of the four open interior hallways. Four stories above, the glass atrium ceiling admits enough light to make the space feel bright, open, and airy. A semicircular bank of numbered windows arches its way across the back end of the giant ground floor hall. Foolishly, the circle faces inward so every line from every window converges, at about the base of the waterfall, into a knotted mess of confused and impatient people.

One line, the one to get a tax identification number, is considerably longer than all of the others combined. It snakes its way through the lobby like the line for the most popular roller coaster at an amusement park. There were already hundreds of people in the queue. It was to the end of this line that Geoffrey led me.

At this point my mind had the following shameful sequence of thoughts: 1) Most of Geoffrey’s clients don’t come with him; 2) If they don’t come with him, they can’t wait in line with him; 3) I’m paying just as much as they do; 4) I don’t need to wait in line with Geoffrey.

With the heavy heart of a guilty imperialist, I told Geoffrey to call me when “we” were fifteen minutes from the front of the line. I left the chaos of Times Tower and the Kenya Revenue Authority. I walked to the nearest café I could find, stopping along the way to buy a copy of the daily newspaper. I had a leisurely breakfast, coffee and a chocolate croissant. I worked the soduku and the crossword puzzle. I read the personal advertisements, which, in Nairobi, all seem to be placed by godfearing HIV negative people seeking other godfearing HIV negative people – the only variable stipulation is tribe. After three hours, when I was just about to exhaust all the entertainment the newspaper had to offer, Geoffrey phoned to say “we” were nearing the front of the queue.

Millie, the clerk, was wonderful. She laughed as she told me it would be no problem that I did not have my passport with me, “as long as you take me back to America with you.”

From Millie, Geoffrey led me to a much shorter line, the one where, with my new tax number, I would file the paperwork to have my car registered in my name. The clerk at window number fifteen was the quintessential picture of government bureaucracy. He was old, grumpy, obese, and balding. He did not bother to look at me as I passed my papers to him through the windows. He never bothered to speak to me until he said, still without looking at me, “You need to have your vehicle inspected. Come back when you have the inspection papers.”

At this point he looked up just long enough to say “Next.” He literally shooed me away.

As I left, with my head hung low and dejected, I heard a very enthusiastic voice calling my name. It was Millie, from behind her window: “Martin, you’re not coming to say goodbye to me? Here is my phone number. Call me.”


Early the next morning, Geoffrey and I met again at the corner of Mpaka Road and Westlands Road. Before departing for my vehicle inspection, I asked him to give me a quick assessment of my car.

“The left headlight is cracked, the paint is chipped on the hood, there is a tear in the backseat upholstery, and you do not have a first aid kit. They will say your car is not safe to drive.”

After sensing my confusion and dejection, he continued, “It is ok. Even new cars they say are not safe. We must pay them.”

Bureaucratic bribery is not the problem in Kenya that it is in some other countries in Africa. To be sure, the government conducts its business slowly and inefficiently, but most of it at least is done legally.

Traffic authorities are the one exception. At the roadside police stops which are common throughout the country, vehicles are quickly but thoroughly inspected for any violations of the very idiosyncratic national traffic laws. The officers know what to look for: rust, dents, chipped paint, a cracked taillight. All of these cosmetic details are, technically, traffic violations. Legally, the officer is supposed to issue a ticket which requires the driver to appear in court the very next day, a seemingly lightning fast judicial turnover. In court, however, the accused is simply scheduled for a later trial date, at which time most people plead guilty to the offense. The verdict is typically a painless fine of 3,000 shillings. Still, the alternative to court proceedings is to pay the officer at the roadblock about 1,000 shillings, which is all he, or, surprisingly often, she, wanted anyway. Of course, no receipt is given for such an exchange so there is no guarantee you, the driver, will not be stopped again at every subsequent roadblock for the exact same petty cosmetic defect to some inconsequential part of your vehicle.

The price of a bribe is always greater for a white foreigner than for a black Kenyan, so when we arrived at the vehicle inspection site I let Geoffrey drive inside without me. Once again I waited at a café where, once again, I read the paper and sipped coffee.

Three hours later, Geoffrey emerged. He looked stressed but victorious. He handed me my vehicle inspection report, signed and sealed by the Government of Kenya. In a column labeled “Remarks,” the inspector had written in blue: “Wiper washer fluid unroadworthy.” After Geoffrey then gave him a generous bribe of 2,000 schillings, a new note was added, in red, next to the first: “Fixed.”

I leaned across Geoffrey and flipped the switch for the windshield wiper fluid. A clean and steady stream shot from the hood to the windshield. The wipers pivoted from side to side.

“I know,” Geoffrey said. “They just make noise so you pay them.”

The final question on the Vehicle Inspection Form required the inspector to tick one of three boxes. Either the vehicle “(a) complies with the provisions of the Traffic Act…; (b) does not comply with the provisions of the Traffic Act…because of the following remediable defects;” or “(c) does not comply with the provisions of the Traffic Act…because of the following defects which in my opinion render the vehicle unsafe to use on the road.”

On my report, the second option was ticked and the following “remediable defect” was noted: “Fitted with seat belts.”

There were other oddities as well. The total “passenger carrying capacity” of my vehicle is, apparently, 260. Most problematically, my car’s engine number was listed incorrectly throughout the report. I pointed this out to Geoffrey, who said, “Yes, this is a problem.”

“What do we do now?” I sighed in frustration.

“Do you have a blue pen?” With that, my blue pen, Geoffrey quickly corrected the problem.

At my urging, we raced back to Times Tower to finalize the purchase of my new car before the close of business that afternoon. The same gruff bureaucrat was working window fifteen. Without looking up, he told me that yet another paper, “your memorandum,” was missing from my application.

“I was here yesterday at which time you told me only that I needed to get a vehicle inspection. I have brought that inspection today. According to your own personal instructions, my application is now complete.”

“Next,” was all he said.

Again I walked away from window fifteen with my head hanging low and dejected, and again a sweet and enthusiastic voice called to me. I explained to Millie my frustration with the man in window fifteen.

“But Martin, he is not the man you need. You need window nine. You’re in the wrong queue.” With a coy smile, she added, “Now you really must take me to America.”

At window nine there was no queue. I walked straight to the counter where I passed my papers to an attentive man behind the glass screen.

“You’re in the wrong line…” – my heart sank – “…no, here, I see what you need.”

He stamped approved across several of the sheets in my application package, signed his name in red, and sent me to the cashier.

“Pay the cashier at window ten, eleven, or twelve. Then,” finally, I thought, “you’re done.”


Four days later, I was testdriving the offroad capabilities of my car with a couple of friends in Nairobi National Park. We were parked on the side of the road admiring a family of giraffes no more than fifty feet away when my phone rang loudly, obnoxiously, and incongruously.

“Martin, this is Millie. Remember me?”

I had not given Millie my phone number.