Student driver says goodbye to first gear

My decision to drive a manual car astounded most people when I told them. Undeterred, I took my foot off the clutch and lurched on.

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ABU DHABI // I was finally behind the wheel. I thought of pretty much everything but driving on the way to class. Being naturally talkative helped deflect attention from the nervousness that was creeping in as I approached my first attempt to control a gigantic hunk of metal. It didn't help that everyone who found out I was learning how to drive a manual transmission expressed shock. In addition to being more complex, a manual would involve more lessons. Thirty-four in total, divided into two 30-minute lessons per day.

The complex behind the Emirates Driving Company in Musaffah was huge. Cars were spread throughout and a looming "control tower" stood in the distance where, after about four days of training, your instructor was supposed to sit, leaving you alone in the car like a kid going off to college. Except, in this case, you have instructions beamed down at you from above. "Do not fear the car" seemed to be the unifying theme throughout training. But first I had to learn how to move it. Excited, I jumped into the front seat and put on the seat belt. But I was doing it wrong. Take off the seat belt, the instructor said, and adjust the car seat.

Then put the belt on. Turn on the engine. Press the clutch. Go into first gear. Release the handbrake. Slowly take your foot off the clutch and feel the car's vibrations, almost as though it were coming to life. Naturally, I stalled, taking my foot off the clutch too quickly. That is OK, the instructor said. Try again. Rinse, repeat. Eventually, the car lurched forward. Panicking, I kept hitting the brakes. Reversing was just as confusing, and it didn't help matters that I had to keep steadying the steering wheel because my hands slowly slipped from the "two and 10" position.

So many things to keep track of, I thought, frustrated. What nagged at me, though, was how intuition seemed to play a major role. I wasn't 100 per cent sure when I was supposed to press the clutch when braking, and when I panicked it seemed to move faster, almost in defiance. It was as if the car were a living being. It helped to imagine the car as one of the Ikran mounted birds in the movie Avatar.

But I slowly got the hang of it. I was driving forward and back, doing everything in order. It wasn't quite second nature - yet - but I was getting used to it. I shuddered at the thought of getting out of the protective bubble of the narrow parking lot I was hanging out in. After almost an hour of unimaginative, but useful, practice, my legs were sore. It was slightly more intense physical exercise than my usual daily regimen of clicking mouse buttons and touch typing.

The next day, I walked in ready for more. Taking the bus through the searing heat to the last lesson of Area One, I was told to get ready for the more "cinematic" training, which turned out to be doing wide figures of eight around a car park. I was surprised at how quickly I picked it up. The instructor said as much, but I thought he was just being nice. At the end of a circuit, he suddenly told me to drive out of the car park onto a rectangular course.

After driving around a couple of times, I had to steer the car so one set of wheels were aligned with a metal bar on the road. I missed a few times, but when it lined up perfectly, it felt like finishing a crossword puzzle. Yes, that's my victory simile. Next up was Area Two. More rectangle circuits. Didn't I just do that? Actually, no, this time I had to switch gears. I felt a little bit of loyalty towards gear one. It was safe, you know? I fumbled the first few times. You can't lack confidence, said the instructor. But that state of gear and clutch zen was not always forthcoming. It kicked in during the next exercise, which involved navigating a series of poles meant to simulate a parking space. That was probably the most crucial thing to learn to negotiate Abu Dhabi's side streets. I was grateful. I stalled once. And I hit no poles.

My training was kicking into high gear.