Sunday, January 14, 2007

Motorbike Madness

This has been a pretty full but wonderful week – has it only been a week? A week since when? Well, it’s Sunday evening, whatever that means, and since the last Sunday evening, I have participated in senior management meetings, interviewed 6 potential candidates for staff positions, dealt with requests from project funders/donors, held strategic planning meetings, changed the arrangement of my office (like one whole room that I am completely in charge of and don’t share with ANYBODY), approved the purchase of a digital camera for one of our projects, and discussed steps necessary for major structural changes to be made to the building – all of these firsts in my life.

However, as much as these were landmark events for my professional life, I think you will agree that the most impressive milestone came on Saturday – my very first motorcycle driving lesson.

Since I have been here I’ve gotten more than comfortable – almost downright lackadaisical – about zooming through the feral jungle streets of Hanoi. I have survived while huddling from freezing winds over 120 km of bumpy, winding mountain roads traveling to remote districts. I have even purchased my own helmet (okay, so it’s pea-soup green, not my choice in color, but it’s the only one they had available at the time). So I was ready.

Saturday afternoon one of my dear staff members brought her husband – our unofficial motorbike driving coach – and our translator to the office. We took two motorbikes (including the one that seems to have been labeled “the boss’s” bike) and headed off out of town to a rural schoolyard that apparently has been designated the “driving range.” It’s where all the first-timers get to take their first automotive or cyclic steps – not anything particularly beautiful, but adequate. As we approached, Anh suddenly stopped the motorcycle while her husband zoomed on ahead to scope the scene. Apparently they didn’t want too much company or attention during my induction. But the coast was clear (for the moment) and well pulled in.

It was a rather amusing session with everything being said twice – first by the teacher who gave all the instructions complete with hand motions and appropriate indications. Then the second round – the translation which was done with the finest of efforts, but lacking a lot in technical vocabulary (i.e., gears, choke, accelerator, brake). But the essentials were clear (and I was wearing a helmet), so I was feeling pretty confident as I climbed on to the propped up bike and started to learn how to shift through gears. As soon as I learned how to shift without threatening unexpected acceleration and how to remember where my brake was (right foot! right foot!) AND to look straight ahead while doing all these things, they set me back down on the ground and my instructor climbed on behind me (sans helmet, perhaps not his best choice) and drove me around the track in a way quite reminiscent of my first snowmobile ride in my father’s lap.

Then, finally, it was on my own. Unfortunately at this point another set of onlookers has arrived with a driving student who took over the other side of the track. So I was left with a circle half the size of the original which required quite a chunk of bumpy track on the cross-cut too. Plus about 5 new pairs of male eyes to observe this foreigner’s first wobbles across the grass.

But oddly enough, they didn’t get nearly the spectacle they were ready for. In fact, as much to my surprise as theirs, I caught on. Like Harry Potter taking his first-ever broomstick ride, I more or less seemed to be made to drive a motorbike. It came more or less naturally. There were still a lot of reflexes to work on (right foot! right foot!), but they quickly became more natural. It was fun!!

That was a confidence booster – and it pleased my driving coaches so much that they graduated me directly to the next training ground – the testing field.

To get a motorbike driving license here, you have to pass a driving test. It’s not a road test like for driving an automobile in the States. They assume if you can pass a written test on road signs, then you will be road worthy (probably not the greatest assumption – another reason I prefer to wear a helmet). It’s a control test, and it’s not going to be easy. The test track is a outline figure eight, then a tight turn to a straight away, a second turn onto a series of small bumps and a final turn to the obstacles that you have to swerve around. The end part is fine – as long as you haven’t completely lost your nerve, if you can survive the figure eight and the turn into the rest of the course, you’ll make it to the end. But the figure eight is a killer. It’s curves are really tight and really leaves no room for error. Your acceleration and braking has to be exact the entire time. At no point can your wheels leave the white lines (who else recalls that old car commercial: stay between the lines…stay between the lines), and you can’t put your feet on the ground. You have to complete one full figure 8, then repeat about a quarter of it before heading into the turn onto the straight away. The turn is placed at such an angle that you’re heading sharply to the left but then have to pull a hard right in a very small angle to make the turn. Even my instructor struggled with that part.

I must have done that course in full 20 times and the figure eight somewhere close to 70. It was not easy. Exhausting actually. But by the end I was at least able to do it 1 out of 3 tries.

By the end of the day my instructor graduated me one last time – she made me drive on the open road. First choice was a quiet dirt path, but very bumpy. Next was a well-paved country path that was a lot of fun, and so much more relaxing after endless repeated figure 8s. Then, as we turned to go home, she insisted that I drive all the way back to the office. So there you go – intersections, other drivers, pedestrians, bikes, cars and trucks. Turns and traffic lights, the whole bit. Fortunately Cao Bang roads are so wide and traffic on weekends is far less than on weekdays (which still is nothing to speak of) that it wasn’t anything to be frightened of. And nothing at all after doing endless figure eights.

But while on the course, Anh pointed to a poster announcing the next testing session – suddenly I have about 2 weeks (or two more weekends) to prepare myself to do a figure 8 under a lot of pressure. Anh promises she’ll take me to practice, but as sore as my butt is already and as sore as I think my arms are going to me, I don’t know how much practicing my body is going to tolerate and still be able to function for day-to-day tasks. But it’s so much fun that I doubt I will be able to say no.

Look out world – I’m getting myself a motorcycle license!!

Here's the old Russian Minsk motorcycle - NOT the bike I will be driving for the test...or for a while considering we're selling them...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh no...our daughter is turning into a "hog mama!" Are you coming home for the Sturgis Rally this year? We'll tell Joe to put a lock on his Harley!