Monday, October 24, 2011

CA Car Rental, Part One: Waiting on a Rasta

It is early on a Friday afternoon, and I am sitting on a curb in a parking lot. Behind me, a constant stream of locals flows in and out of a fast food restaurant and convenience store. In front of me, a chaotic ballet of cars jockey for position among the gas pumps and parking spots, while attendants in matching hats and jackets scurry in all directions. The sun is unimpeded by clouds, and even though the calendar says that it's still spring, I haven't felt a summer day this hot in a long time. If this weather was a person, it would be Shania Twain: hot for a Canadian. I am supposed to be at work, rather than sitting in this parking lot, waiting for a delivery.

Heat radiates upwards from the asphalt and I start to sweat in the afternoon sun.

I don't know the name of the guy I am meeting, and the transaction has been set up by a third party whose business card curiously omits his last name. "He knows who he's looking for," my contact person assures me beforehand. When I call him back after his guy is late, he responds with "I'll call him and check, but he knows to look for you. If you need to spot him, he's sort of a Rasta man." And so I sit in the parking lot awaiting the delivery guy who I realize I had previously met during a meeting a few days ago, when he was introduced to me in all his dreadlocked glory as "Rasta". Clever.

This all feels dangerously under the radar, but when you rent a car from an undercutting operation in South Africa, I suppose that sketchy deals in parking lots are the cost of doing business. Indeed, Rasta is not bringing me something weighed by the gram and sold in plastic bags. Rather, he is delivering me a car. My third car in a week from the questionable operation known as CA Car Rental.

Let's back it up.

For a combination of financial and environmental concerns (it is really easy to be a self-righteous environmentalist when you are on a modest budget) I had not planned on using a car while living in Stellenbosch, save for occasional weekend rentals. It soon became apparent, however, that this is a spread out community sorely lacking in reasonable options for public transportation, and conventional taxis as I know them are non-existent. There are "mini-bus taxis," which I take to and from work, but they can be tantamount to seventeen-person death cans with flashy paint jobs, and cannot be relied on for consistency in scheduling, nor do they venture to many of the places I have been hoping to explore.

We need a car.

With buying price-prohibitive, we discover a few options for long-term rentals, some of which are budget outfits catering directly to students and international workers. Based on price, availability and online reviews, we narrow it down to CA Car Rental, based out of Cape Town but willing to deliver to Stellenbosch, about an hour down the road. The company has a generic website and a somewhat disconcerting lack of an online presence in the digital age (though it is my sincere hope to help them build their online brand identity with this post). Still, after some deliberation and discussion with their employee "David" (name that was given to me but may not be real), we arrange to have a car delivered to us one Friday afternoon for a one month rental.

On Thursday afternoon David calls me and asks if we could move things to Saturday, as the car he had promised me would not be available until then. No can do, I tell him. We need the car in order to move out of our hostel and into our new home, which is a few clicks outside of town. Fine, he says, and offers to bring me a temporary car smaller than the one I had reserved, which we can use for 24 hours and then trade on Saturday for my proper car. I say that is fine, but inform him that I will be withholding half of the rental fee until I am driving the proper car. I am already getting the sense that I have to be extra vigilant when dealing with this outfit.

The company prefers to deal in electronic funds transfers, but those requires a South African bank account, which I do not have. I check with David to make sure that we can deal in cash up front, and he readily accepts. I have to make two ATM trips to get the combined rental feel and deposit, which total somewhere around $900, Canadian, or R6,200.

On Friday afternoon David arrives at the hostel and we retreat to the picnic table in front of the sliding glass door in the kitchen to conduct business. Jeans and a slightly torn Springboks rugby jersey are his unconventional uniform, although with the price I'm paying I don't exactly expect an elderly man with a British accent in a proper chauffeur's get up. David is tall and stocky yet boyish in appearance, and certainly personable. He has with him with a bearded, dreadlocked and almost silent sidekick that he introduces as his mechanic, Rasta, the man who I will meet in the parking lot a week later. I resist the urge to ask Rasta where he got his name from, and he mumbles obediently when spoken to as he does some final tinkering with our short-term rental. The car is a bright green VW Golf sitting on rims with its windows tinted and a muffler that seems to do more amplifying than muffling. It looks and sounds like the third place finisher on Pimp My Ride: South African Redneck edition.

After signing a contract and getting David's business card (no last name) I watch him count the money I hand to him, aligning and stacking the hundred rand notes in separate piles. This is the only attention to any detail he exhibits. The business being done, we head on our way, excited to be leaving the hostel behind for a more permanent abode. The car is a stick shift, and given that my manual transmission skills are lacking, Sarah takes the wheel. I am promptly informed in no uncertain terms that what the car has in style, it sorely lacks in functionality. We look forward to making the switch for our proper car on Saturday afternoon.

David and I text back and forth on Saturday and I abide a few excuses as to why he is running late. He eventually tells me he is in town and asks where I can meet him. I remind him that I have suggested multiple times that we meet at the Shell station near my house, but he insists that he is unable to find it and inquires as to why I can't just meet him at the bar where he is waiting for me. Fine.

I should mention at this juncture that I was not raised in a barn, and have engaged in enough questionable behaviour of my own to develop a few street smarts over the years. I knew from the get go that I was dealing with somewhat less than a straightforward operation. Having said that, as long as they provided me with a car which I could sell for more than the deposit they had taken from me, I knew I was in OK shape and could come out ahead in a worst-case scenario. That said, selling a stolen car was a situation which I was certainly hoping to avoid.

We arrive at the empty upstairs bar and find David and his "driver," Jeff (must have been Rasta's day off) each on their second beer, smoke rising from the ash trays in front of them. We head outside to exchange cars: the VW Golf gets traded for a Daewoo Cielo, a Camry-sized four-door sedan from South Korea. My historical relations with Koreans have been generally enjoyable, so I superimpose some residual positivity onto the car. After some initial problems getting the driver's seat adjusted I hand David the balance I had withheld pending delivery of this car. "Oh shit, I forgot all about that. I guess that's what two beers will do to you." I feel it is less likely that I am being scammed given that the other side forgot to ask for my money. I also regret offering it to him.

We shake hands and go our separate ways, again with Sarah driving. We pull out of the parking lot and start to cruise the streets of Stellenbosch, which are muted and sleepy on a gray weekend afternoon. We aren't long out of the parking lot before the car starts lurching like a carnival ride in a death rattle. You would think the thing had squares for wheels, the way it is jumping and pausing. Shifting into second seems to alleviate the problem, but first gear remains a challenge that, when compounded with some questionable structural issues, make for a car that is, well, not of the ilk we had been hoping for, and not really drivable. I immediately call David, but his phone has been turned off, and there are no other phone numbers to be found for the company.

The next day I am able to rouse him, and have barely finished telling him what a joke this vehicle is when he offers to swap it out for me. This bout of top-notch customer service perplexes me, and I wonder if their motto should be "CA Car Rental: Our cars are crap but we sure are polite!" After more back-and-forths over the next couple of days, during which time Sarah and I are able to use the car but not necessarily enjoy it, David and I agree to exchange cars on Friday afternoon in the gas station parking lot in downtown Stellenbosch, where I sit on the asphalt in the hot sun, waiting for Rasta when I should be at work. He is late because he went to the wrong gas station.

He eventually shows and presents us with a teal VW Golf (no, not the first one we had) that he has just picked up from a previous renter. I thank him and take the keys and we go our separate ways. I am forced to run back to the Daewoo and jump in front of it as he pulls away, however, after sliding into the driver's seat of our replacement car and casually noticing that one crucial piece of equipment is missing.

But what piece was missing? Will Rasta get all MacGyver on the car and save the day? Click here for part 2 featuring the answers to these and other burning questions.


db 2.0 said...

I'll guess passenger seat or seat-belt

Stephanie said...

Haha--I'm DYING for part 2!!! Awesome blog. I especially like "If this weather was a person, it would be Shania Twain: hot for a Canadian." Boom.

Hart Shouldice said...

Good guesses Davey Boy. Stay tuned. (I should say that splitting this up was not a cheap way of trying to boost hits, but was done because the full story would be pretty long for one post).

Steph, I'm glad you were entertained. Maybe share it with Mabel as a bedtime story?

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, guys. I appreciate it.

Your mother said...

Oh, Hart. We have an extra car here. Come pick it up. Today. Please. (Best post ever, but Heavenly Days Maude!)

Hart Shouldice said...

Yeah, Mom, we also left a decent running car behind in Yellowknife. So close, yet so far. Thanks for the offer.

Julie said...

What a peculiar story. Who would have thought that everything was going to start waiting in a parking lot for a delivery. Sometims the most incredible stories start in a random place. That happened to me when I was on my vacations in Argentina last year. I had rented this apartment in buenos aires that was really cool and I was taking a nap. After that trip, my life changed in a good way... I´ll keep the suspense by saying: to be continued...

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