The second in a three-part series. For part one, click here.
The son-of-a-bitching car has no gas pedal.
I point this out to Rasta, to which he enthusiastically replies "Oh." I don't bother to ask whether or not he noticed the pedal was missing when he delivered the car to us not three minutes ago (the metal rod that the pedal attaches to is in place, so the car is marginally functional). When I ask what he's going to do about it he responds "I don't know. You should call David". So I call David, who asks to speak to Rasta, who then informs me that he is going to get the car fixed at a nearby garage and call me when it's ready. I go into the fast food restaurant to lunch on a milk shake and french fries, vegetarian options being limited. Sarah and I write postcards while awaiting his call, and I am still supposed to be at work.
Ninety minutes later we pick the car up from Rasta and are on our way. It turns out to be a smooth-riding vehicle, and we are so relieved to have a nicely running car that we overlook the fact that it lacks a rear-view mirror and its registration sticker is not only expired but clearly transplanted from a different vehicle. Also there is a hole where the stereo once was, patched up with a piece of cardboard that has been colored black with a marker. Like the two other cars we have been given, the fuel gauge is resting on the red when we take possession. We decide to drive it at least for the weekend, after which we will decided whether to keep it for the duration of the month, or sever our ties with CA Car Rental and ask for a refund of the balance of our rental, due to the shoddy nature of what they have been giving us.
We are still in possession of more vehicle than our rental fee + deposit is worth, so I feel confident that I will come out ahead in the not-entirely-implausible event that CA Car Hire turns out to be a fly-by-night operation and closes up shop while I have a car of theirs. And we do have all of the freedom we were hoping a car would bring us, while paying far less than we would with any other nearby operation.
We spend the weekend exploring beaches, surf towns, and roads precariously etched into mountainsides that drop sharply into the waters of False Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The car treats us well and I move up from novice to intermediate when it comes to driving a standard. After a few days we both feel that it is safe to exhale.
Then Wednesday comes, and a tire blows.
It would seem that the cue-ball shiny go kart tires on the Golf don't hold up so well when nudged against a curb during a parallel park. After some deliberation we decide to take care of it ourselves and avoid testing CA Car Rental's "24 hour roadside assistance guarantee" or giving them a reason to hang on to any deposit money. A further complication arises when we discover that the spare in the trunk does not fit on the car. While it proves to be an afternoon's headache, the tire is eventually fixed at a garage for R25 (about three bucks and change, Canadian). But not, I should add, before it becomes a certified gong show involving a group of homeless men, a Baptist pastor, a bag of groceries and some stolen tools.
A couple days later we head into our third weekend of CA Car Hire patronage, feeling exasperated but grateful for a car nonetheless and making the most of it. Saturday afternoon sees us at a nearby nature reserve, hiking to some hidden mountain waterfalls and watching for leopards and honey badgers (none to be found). Coming back from the hike we opt for a pizza from our favourite take-out joint, nestled in the corner of a strip mall at a busy intersection which is on our way home. Sarah is driving, and as she turns left into the parking lot, the car exudes a grinding sound so loud that I can only assume that somewhere along the way we have run over a bag of Ski Doo parts and are now dragging it behind us.
"Harty, what was that?"
"Ummm...I don't know. Pull into the parking lot anyway, it was probably just a one-off thing." I am pretty sure it wasn't.
We pull slowly into the lot, and as we make a left turn into a parking space in an empty row, the grinding comes back. It is clearly coming from somewhere around the wheel well on the front driver's side, so I get out to take a look.
The bumper has been a little bit loose since we picked the car up (with no rear-view mirror and an expired registration that belongs to a different vehicle, complaining about a loose bumper seems like splitting hairs) so I start to tinker with it in an act of maintenance that is the vehicular equivalent of jiggling the handle. A bystander jogs over after watching and hearing us turn in.
"It's not your bumper, mate."
"No, it's the wheel. It's loose. Looks like your ball joint is shot. Watch." And with that he reaches through the open driver's side window, grabs the steering wheel and gives it three quick shakes back and forth. As he does this, the front driver's side wheel wobbles like Boris Yeltsin at closing time, so I can see why it would be grinding against the bumper. This could be a problem.
We head inside and enjoy our pizza. As we emerge I make the potentially dangerous decision that we will drive the car home, slowly. It's only about ten minutes away, and I'd rather have the car at home and deal with things there than have to worry about finding somewhere secure to leave the car and getting home after dark on a Saturday (no real public transit, remember). We cruise home with the hazard lights on and the car half on the shoulder. Sarah is at the wheel while I take on the duty of shrugging apologetically to everyone who has to pass us.
More texts and phone calls back and forth with David. I imagine he is as sick of me as I am of him at this point. He arranges to have a mechanic meet us at the gas station off the highway in Jamestown - the neighbourhood where we live - first thing on Monday morning. I am aware that he and I have different ideas of what "first thing" means, so I let work know that I'll be late.
Monday morning we get the call that the mechanic is at the gas station. We hop in the car, limp down the road, pull in to the parking lot and I spot my new buddy Rasta - everyone's favourite pint-sized, mumbling, dreadlocked mechanic - inside. He is buying two bags of potato chips, apparently having somehow worked up a hunger at this early hour. I explain to him the problem: wheel grinding against the bumper when turning and, in a new development, a sharp pulling to the left. He takes the car for a spin around the parking lot, which corroborates my story. He gets out and looks underneath the car, and is rather surprised to see a front control arm which is snapped like a twig, its now-two pieces pointing limply at the ground in 45 degree angles. I don't know much about cars, but what I know about the English language tells me that a "front control arm" is probably something that you want in one piece.
Rasta shows annoyance at the fact that someone has clearly welded the arm back together, rather than replacing it when it broke previously. We offer to give him a ride to a garage, to which he resolutely replies "No. I need to stay here and work out a plan."
Might I suggest finding a new employer?
We trade cars with him and pull away in yet another VW Golf. This one is bright white, with a rear-view mirror, working radio and legit registration. I feel like a show off. This is car number four in a little over two weeks, and I am starting to think that the CA Car Rental people are just really patient scammers who keep out-of-towners in marginally functional cars as a way of pacifying them before stealing their deposits. I can't come up with any other rational explanation for how these people operate. I silently resolve to not hand back the keys to them until I have my deposit back in full, despite the fact that the contract gives the company seven days to refund the deposit after a car is returned. I am forced to reconcile my inclination to count down the remaining days I have to deal with this company on the one hand, with my desire to not wish away my time in South Africa on the other. I continue to focus on the positives at this point, as we once again have a car that will get us from point A to point B (for now, anyway). We have also realized that the occasional weekend rental from an upstanding agency will certainly suffice in the future, as we aren't using the car much during the week.
We periodically cruise around in the white Golf over the next few days. Thursday night we decide to make an after-dark run to the grocery store in Jamestown to grab a couple of things for the weekend. Sarah drives, and I open the gate at the top of our steep driveway, waiting for her to pull out so that I can close it behind us. I do a quick walk around the car before jumping in, making idle chit chat as we pull away.
"Sarah, are the headlights on?"
"Don't tell me there are no tail lights."
"Nope, no tail lights."
This is the last straw. I have been patient bordering on pushover with these guys, but there is now no question that I need to get my money back in my hands and end this thing ASAP. I plan to get in touch with David on Friday morning to arrange an exchange: I'll give him back the car, he'll give me back my full deposit plus a refund for the final week's rental (which I am bailing on), in cash, on the spot. I do not anticipate that he will take kindly to this proposition, but I know that I won't accept anything else.
To say that he does not take kindly is an understatement. I could not have anticipated just how contentious things were about to become, nor could I have foreseen the unlikely hero who would emerge to save the day.
Will Lassie save Timmy from the evil car renters? Click here to find out in our thrilling conclusion.