Friday, August 21, 2009

One step closer

20 years ago, I was a young kid who had just grown old enough to obtain a driver's licence. After many hours of fear-filled training with a German lady driver-instructor in a Volkswagen Beetle, I had to face frowning unfriendly cops who made me fear my own shadow.

It was a long walk to freedom, and after a severe struggle I finally owned a green piece of cardboard that authorised me to drive a vehicle in South Africa, and in what was then called South West Africa.

Many years later, this was transformed into a little plastic credit card that had an expiry date, and had to be renewed every 5 years.

And then I arrived in Australia, and heard that I had to convert my licence into a WA licence. For people from first-world countries, this means writing a quick learners exam, and then converting your licence after a lot of money has changed hands.

Namibia is, surprisingly, not considered a first world country and a Namibian licence can only be converted by passing a practical drivers assessment. In other words: go through the whole Nazi-cop thing again.

Strangely enough, people from the United States - where they don't even drive on the same side of the road, and where they use imperial measurements like miles per hour - can easily convert their licences. But an African idiot who drove on the left hand side of the road, has English as a national language, and has grown up using the decimal system, has to pass a practical assessment.

However - I have to admit that I have seen the driving habits in Southern Africa, and if anyone Down Under has seen video footage of taxis in South Africa, it will make them want to force all South Africans to pass a practical assessment. But still, why can't the imperialists also be forced to do it? I've seen many American movies that make me wonder how anyone can be allowed to drive in that country.

A few months ago I went to West Perth to write the learners exam. There's a little machine where you push a button for the type of service you're looking for, and the machine throws out a piece of paper with a number on it. This number eventually appears on a big digital display in red letters, and tells you which counter you can go to.

In the meanwhile you can sit on nice soft chairs and watch a little TV while you're waiting. This is way different from what I was used to in Namibia. In Windhoek, you walked into the room, and then tried to decide which long line you would stand in, only to find out two hours later that you were in the wrong line. Normally there is one chair for the whole line, and the guy who finally makes it to the front position, can wait in the chair until it's his turn.

I needed to have my foreign licence, my passport, and some other forms of identification. For some reason, they want you to have a bank statement with your name and address on it. After paying for the test, I was sent to a little room filled with computer screens. The computer asked me questions, and I answered them. I had no idea what the blood alcohol level was for learner drivers, and what speed they should drive on the freeway. Why would I know this? I didn't study for this test, and as I was not really a "learner driver", I didn't see the relevance of all this.

But I did manage to pass this test, and was told to go to another counter to pay more money.

I received a receipt with a licence number on it, displaying that "This is not a learner's permit". The lady told me I just had to call a number and make a reservation to do the practical assessment.

So, after a few months of deliberate procrastination, this is where I finally ended up on Thursday morning. West Perth licensing centre, at 7h55 in the morning.

I already had mental images of Nazi cops with tazers who were going to "taze" me behind the ear if I forgot to check my blind spot. They tell you to arrive in a vehicle that has a central handbrake - the only logical reason for this being that they would be tazing you, and then they grab onto the hand brake when you pass out.

The waiting began. This is all part of the mental war.

Wait until they call your name. The weather was terrible, and here we were standing outside, shivering and waiting for our names to be called. Like lambs to slaughter.

My name was finally called, and one of the friendliest cops I've ever seen greeted me. He explained that he would be assessing me, and so on and so on. We got into the car after he checked my indicators and brake lights, and he started explaining what was going to happen.

"No worries, mate this is only a conversion. I know you can drive, so forget all the parking and all that. We'll just take a drive around and I'll tell you exactly what to do."

This bloke was no traffic-nazi. He was really nice, and clearly explained what he was going to look for. He never tried to trick me or made me feel like a dumb teenage driver. I've heard some really scary stories of people who were assessed at the Joondalup Licensing Centre, but none of this was true for this guy. He only assessed whether I followed WA road rules, and whether I could actually drive.

He asked me about South Africa, and why so many skilled people are leaving, and we spoke about all sorts of things.

I passed my test, and then it was time for some more money to exchange hands. Before my Southern African friends think "the obvious" - Money was exchanged, but not with the assessor, (as probably would be the case in Namibia), but at another counter where I had two options:

Pay $36.60 for a one-year licence, or $116.00 for a 5 year licence. I did the quick maths - without calculating interest on money over 5 years in my bank account - and decided on the more expensive option, purely because I do not want to renew this thing every year.

They took a mug-shot of me, which will probably turn out to be one of those typical heinous ID photos, and promised that they'll send me the licence in the mail within a week. (Another thing that wouldn't happen in Namibia, as Bongani the postman would surely steal all envelopes from the Traffic Department and remove drivers licences so that they can be sold to taxi drivers.)

And that was it. I am now one step closer to being a real sandgroper. This little document is used as proof of ID in almost all scenarios, and is therefore quite important to have. Not to mention the fact that if you get caught driving without it, the vehicle is impounded for 28 days - even if it's not your own vehicle.

Some day, far away in the distant future, I will officially become an Australian. Something I'll be proud to be, even if they can't beat the Springboks.

No comments: