Time to get behind the wheel

The National's learner driver grapples with nervous tension as he prepares to put theory into practice.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emitrates --- August 3, 2010 --- Kareem gets ready to drive.  ( Delores Johnson / The National )

ABU DHABI // The toughest part has been the wait. Just a month ago, I would have scoffed at giving up the luxury of being driven everywhere and blaming others for car accidents. Yet, here I am, on the cusp of getting behind the wheel for the first time. My practical training begins today. It's about time.

After breezing through my theory exam, I had to endure a two-week hiatus from drivers education. On the bright side, it offered a chance to reflect on what is facing me today. For instance, a minor episode that temporarily soured me to driving. On our way back from a football match, the front tyre of our car blew out, and the ordeal of changing it on the highway as cars passed us, rocking the car, reminded me why I had recoiled from the idea of driving in the first place.

But there were positive thoughts too. What would be the first thing I did when I got my licence? Stealing the keys to my brother's Ford was a foregone conclusion. Maybe I would drive alongside the Metro as it hurtled down Sheikh Zayed Road and tearily bid farewell to public transit. Or possibly I would undertake something grandiose, like driving to the northernmost tip of Fujairah. A friend made a much better suggestion - drive down to a corner shop, roll down the window and sound the horn, calling for a hot cup of chai karak or cardamom tea.

It's our version of driving along the beach with the roof down in Miami. I also wondered whether it was legal to place a hole next to the driver's seat where I could fit a shisha. No need to get ahead of myself. I needed to pass driving school first. So I surveyed a few friends and colleagues on what was lying in wait. One of them said his training was too standardised, that it felt as though he was being groomed to pass classes as opposed to actually learning how to drive. That way of driving is often forgotten afterwards because it is too stringent, and as drivers develop their own style on the road, he said.

So pretty much like high school then. He said that where he learned to drive, everyone was forced to learn how to drive a manual transmission, as it meant they could drive either manual or automatic once they got their licence. Although shifting gears has always seemed cumbersome to me (except when I was playing the Need for Speed video games, where all you had to do to shift gears while drag racing was, well, press Shift key) I wanted to learn manual because a gentleman who visited my university from the International Committee for the Red Cross said one of the conditions for accepting applicants was the ability to drive manual.

I assume automatic transmissions are limited in war-torn nations. My friend recalled when, after training and taking the test, the driving instructor would drop off those who failed on the side of the street, telling them to make their way back home rather than taking them back to the school. Driving is serious business. But what made my friend sad was seeing people, like taxi drivers, whose lifeline depended on them being behind the wheel, failing a driving test. Now sufficiently nervous about the upcoming classes, I was also now looking forward to getting it done. Today it begins. Finally. @Email:kshaheen@thenational.ae