“Is there a problem with your car?” the increasingly annoyed hotel owner said to me in English. He and I both knew that the problem had nothing to do with my automobile.
To be fair, it wasn’t my fault that he had to wait so long for me to park. I’m not the one who decided to prohibit guests from operating the garage door. I don’t know who came up with the brilliant idea to require a front desk person to walk outside and physically open the gate every time you wanted to enter or exit the car park, but it wasn’t me.
Nor was it my fault that parking spaces were so tight that, once in a spot, we couldn’t open the passenger side door at all and, even then, there was so little room on the other side that I only managed to squeeze out of the car after emptying my pockets. Seriously, I nearly destroyed my phone trying to force my way out the driver’s side door.
I’m completely blameless in all of that. But deciding to drive a manual transmission car for the first time through the ancient hill-top towns that dot Andalusia, Spain? Yup, that one is on me.
And I didn’t really appreciate the multifaceted nature of the clutch until I stalled the car in 1st gear while trying to coast down the 20% grade ramp leading into our hotel’s garage. Yeah, that same damn garage.
One thing I did learn is that Spaniards are not New Yorkers. For all my fits and starts along the way, I don’t think I heard a single horn honked in my direction. Even the poor guy I stranded in a traffic circle waited patiently and apparently unperturbed as I restarted my engine and then promptly stalled it again. Three separate times.
Did I mention that it was a long day?
And that was before the real fun began.
From researching our day’s itinerary I knew enough not to try to drive into the twisted streets of Arcos de la Frontera. It’s not a place for even competent drivers to venture. Some of the canyon-like roads are so narrow that driving through risks scraping your mirrors on both sides.
And of course along those roads are pedestrians, bicyclists, and hair pin turns to contend with too. All of which conspired to place themselves just inches away from whichever bumper happened to face downhill at that particular moment. I know this because despite my best efforts and plans to the contrary, I ended up driving through those old city streets.
Before setting out for Arcos I had scouted out a parking area just outside of town where we’d deposit the car and then venture forth on foot. We were making our way to that spot when a road closure forced us to take an alternate route; one that lead us directly through the area we were hoping to avoid.
I didn’t get many photos from that day because I was a bit occupied during the drive and a little shaky afterwards. But Google Street View gives a flavor for what it’s like to drive there. The funny thing is that even Google knew better than to take their camera-car into these streets. You can see the shadow of Google’s tripod in some of their shots.
Something else I learned that day is that driving a standard transmission car takes far more skill than driving a 35-foot motor home. To successfully drive an RV all you really have to do is give yourself plenty of room on all sides. If you keep a good distance from the car in front of you, make wide turns, and leave yourself plenty of space along your sides, you’ve done about 90% of everything needed to drive a large vehicle.
Mastering a manual transmission, meanwhile, requires more than just an understanding of which gear is required for the given situation. It requires a certain amount of finesse as well. Just the right amount of gas and the right amount of clutch. Get the balance wrong and you either stall or lurch forward in an uncontrolled spasm.
That much I figured out after just a few hours with the car. Somehow, though, it’s a concept that seemingly escaped our hotel owner, who presumably had a lifetime of experience with these kinds of vehicles. Maybe he just had more faith in my abilities to control the car than either of us had any right to. Why else would he place himself between my front end and a concrete wall as he tried to guide me into that wretched parking space? Needless to say his presence didn’t exactly make things easier or less stressful.
On a positive note, I’m happy to report that he survived the encounter and, against all odds, emerged unharmed.
After three days learning to drive a stick in one of the most unforgiving environments imaginable, I admit to feeling a wave of relief after handing the rental company back their keys. But it felt even better to hear the attendant utter two simple words in the most matter of fact tone, as if what she were describing was anything short of a small miracle.