It’s midday and I’m walking towards downtown Manzini, Swaziland. It’s so hot and dry that I feel like I’m inside an oven.
As I cross the street, a man dressed in a trench coat appears out of nowhere and starts walking beside me. I immediately shudder. It doesn’t take me long to remember that I’m living in a country where rape, HIV and AIDS are rampant. Everyday since I’ve been in this country I’ve heard stories about terrible things that have happened to people, particularly to females. My next thought is “how do I get rid of the stranger?” By “rid” I mean how do I make him go away without crossing him. I know full well that it´s not safe to walk alone after dark, but in the middle of the day? It definitely isn’t a good idea to pay attention to this man even in broad daylight, let alone try my humanitarian (the reason I was in Swaziland in the first place) skills on him because I’m by myself. My only chance of pulling myself out of this situation is to scope it out. Plus, he was wearing a trench coat at noon on one of the hottest days of the year.
The mysterious trench coat man doesn’t show signs of giving up on pursuing me. He’s mumbling, more to himself than to me. I make out some phrases, “I’ll stay with you for 2 years, at least…”. Has he mistaken me for someone he recognizes? He’s starting to make me nervous so I tell him that he needs to leave me alone. He refuses. The fact that he’s persistent is building me up with fury. “No” means “no”.
I decide to go into a shopping mall, confident that he will disappear, but this plan fails. So now I’m hoping that by entering the grocery store in the mall, the sight of people will scare him away. Doesn’t work either. Everyone is staring at us while this persistent stranger follows me all throughout the store, while I pick up items to buy, while I wait in line to pay, after I pay, and even after I leave the grocery store. I didn’t think the situation would go this far. “Why isn’t anyone doing anything to help me?” I think. I hope they don’t think I know this person.
I’m outside again, and I spot the building where I work, but I decide it wouldn’t be wise to enter there because it’s Saturday and no one is working. I turn to trench coat man and threaten to call the police. He doesn’t budge and replies “Go ahead, call the police”. What the…? Is he challenging me? His resistance to my very firm expressed wishes is making me angrier and angrier. How DARE he doesn’t give me my Canadian definition of “space” which I call my privacy (about metre radius of space around me)?
Instead of feeling powerless, I feel empowered to do something. Feeling smothered, angry and overwhelmed by his unwanted presence, I actually fear what I might do to this guy. The thought of physically harming this guy runs through my mind. Lucky for the guy, I don’t make a rash decision. I see my friends’ shop a few meters away and, I slightly speed up my walk over there. Trench coat guy asks me, nonplussed, why I’m walking so “briskly”, that I shouldn’t be afraid of him. Annoyed at his perplexed behaviour, I tell him that it’s HIM who should be afraid…of me.
My friends see me from indoors looking panic-stricken and bounce to their feet at once and I blurt out that this guy has been following me for a very long time. They don’t let me down and come to my rescue. The second my feet touch the floor of the shop, with the mysterious guy right behind me, I run all the way to the back of the store for refuge because I can’t take any of this anymore. I hear my friends running after trench coat man in the background. I never saw him again.
Fortunately (for him) I did not stumble upon trench coat man again during the rest of my stay in Southern Africa, which back was in 2007.
Featured image courtesy of Yousif Malibiran.
Signing off –
10 steps to make the process of obtaining a Spanish driver’s licence easier for foreigners
I moved to Spain a few years ago not quite knowing my long term plan, but I thought, “Hey, why not buy a car in the future?” However, I discovered that as a Canadian, I must, within six months of having obtained residency in Spain, get a Spanish driver’s licence. I couldn’t just use my Canadian license to drive. “Isn’t that just great?”, I thought. So, like any new driver, I had to comply with all the requirements for obtaining a Spanish driver’s licence which included passing both the written test and the driving test. This permits me to legally drive in this country (and in the EU). I got motivated, somehow (thank you Groupon), approached a driving school in my neighbourhood and signed myself up (Autoescuela Gala). Driving schools are abundant throughout the country. All I had to do was sign up, read the theory and take a few driving classes around the city. It all sounds easy, especially since I have a Canadian driver’s license, right? Wrong. So wrong. That’s why I’m going to help you lessen the stress in obtaining a Spanish driver’s license.
Step 1: Choose a driving school
Walk into some driving schools in your neighbourhood. Your decision on which driving school is best suited for you should be based on customer service, meaning, the employees should treat you well and be patient with answering all your questions. After all, you will be spending a good amount of time talking with them, making sure all your questions are answered and that you’re clear on the information. They will be the ones you will deal from the time you sign up until after you pass your practical driving exam (yes, there’s more after obtaining your license which I will disclose later on). In the end, all driving schools offer the same goal: to get your license, but decent customer service will make the process less of a headache, so if you get a good feeling from the secretary, then go for that school! If it weren’t for Groupon, I would have missed out on the great customer service from the secretary of the driving school, Gala.
Step 2: Inquire about study material language options
Before registering at the driving school, I inquired about whether or not it offered the material and exams in English. English is the safest option if your level of Spanish is next to zero. Note: Whatever language you decide on will be the one you will take your written test in. My particular school offers study materials in both Spanish and English (and if I’m not mistaken, Chinese and other languages). However, the driving school themselves told me that their English materials were not a good translation of the original Spanish ones, so I took the Spanish option, and because the level of my Spanish is adequate. The English option was more expensive anyway. If you’re competent in Spanish, it’s more useful to study and take the written test in Spanish because, after all, the signs on the roads are in Spanish (ok, except for the “stop” sign).
Step 3: Manual vs. automatic
Do you know how to drive a manual transmission? If not, ask the driving school if they have an automatic car available, because most schools are limited to manual cars only. My school had one automatic vehicle which was shared between its franchises in the entire city of Madrid. If you want, you can choose to take your classes with an automatic car provided your driving school is in possession of one. It’s more expensive, though. Whichever of the two you choose will be that same physical car on d-day (when you take the driving test). WARNING: If you decide on the automatic transmission, however, your Spanish license will limit you to drive automatic cars ONLY. If you decide on the manual transmission, then you will be allowed to drive both an automatic and a manual car.
Step 4: Inquire about a virtual driving simulator
More and more driving schools are beginning to have virtual driving simulator machines . This helped me tremendously because I never drove a manual transmission car so it soothed my nerves a bit because I knew that I wouldn’t kill anyone or actually crash into something real. Furthermore, taking classes on a simulator is cheaper than driving classes in an actual car on the street. My first 10 lessons were on a simulator. By the time I began classes in a real car, I knew how to handle the clutch and stick shift more or less. It can be tricky driving with a manual for the first time in Madrid due to the quantity of drivers and each one driving according to their own rules and regulations. The simulator is not meant to substitute real life driving. Use it only at the beginning.
Step 5: Fees, fees and more fees
We’re not made of money, but it appears that we are to driving schools. Let´s face it, they are money-making businesses. Make sure you know exactly how much the registration fee and exams cost. Driving schools will make you pay for the written and driving test in advance – at the time of paying the registration fee. If you do not pass a test, you will be required to pay part of or the full price again. You will also be required to obtain a medical and psycho-technical certificate which costs between 35-50 Euros. Usually driving schools include a few driving lessons in their package, and if they don’t, then call them out on it because with high fees like that, you deserve some free driving lessons. Be prepared to invest between 700-1200 Euros in obtaining your license from start to finish.
Step 6: Avoid delaying once you’ve started studying
The time it will take you to obtain the license purely depends on you and how much time you are willing to dedicate on studying for the tests. I got the license in a span of several months because during the summer there are less tests and the driving school and the place where tests are carried out shut down in August. It could get ugly if employees don’t get their beach time. Once you’ve started studying for the written test, take the exam as soon as you feel prepared, because you still have the driving test to pass. Plus, you’ll need to remember a few things from the driver’s handbook for the driving test.
Step 7: What you need to know about the written test on the day of your test
The written test is taken on a computer in a room filled with a couple hundred people. If you consider cheating, forget it, because the people beside you will have a different version of the test. The computers are touch screen, meaning, you use your fingers to maneuver through the questions. There are 30 questions and your time limit is 30 minutes, which, if you know your material well enough, should be more than enough time to complete the test. If you get stuck, try your luck and raise your hand and ask one of the invigilators walking around to clarify a question for you. They usually have no problem with this, and they almost feel sorry for you when they notice that you’re not Spanish (from your accent), so they may be nice enough to give away a hint, discreetly. If you fail the written test, once, twice or more, don’t worry, this happens to many people. Some questions are structured to trick you, and it could be challenging even if your mother tongue is Spanish.
Step 8: Congratulations! Now, practice driving.
After you pass the written test, the next step is to prepare for and pass the driving test. I recommend on taking some driving classes in the city of Alcorcon or Móstoles, since they are where the tests take place. They’re about 30 km from the city of Madrid. You can take public transportation to get to one of your driving school franchises there. You will never be examined in the city of Madrid. Not only will it be a tad easier to practice driving in those areas because they are much smaller than Madrid, but you will get to see the roads and experience driving in the areas where the actual tests take place. For instance, the test areas (Alcorcon and Móstoles) have lots of roundabouts (rotaries and traffic circles), whereas the city of Madrid has more stop signs and traffic lights. If you fail your driving test once or multiple times, keep trying. Each examiner is different and they are infamous for their arbitrary ways of grading you, plus, it depends on their mood. Driving tests is a business in itself, so it’s to their benefit that they fail students. What’s that you say? You know how to drive and you already have a driver’s license from another country? I’m sorry, but that doesn’t mean anything here. So buckle up, and put your pride aside.
Step 9: Getting to the driving examination location (DGT,
Centro de examenes de Móstoles) from the city of Madrid
Don’t forget to check that you’re wearing pants before yo leave your home. It could be quite embarrassing; at least it was for me (I’m kidding – that never happened to me). I did, however, lose a heel from my boot on the morning of my exam, but luckily I had an extra pair of shoes at work (I’m not kidding about this). It popped off while I was catching the subway.
The examination centre, otherwise known as DGT, is located in Móstoles. If you’re departing from Madrid, the easiest and most straightforward mode of public transportation is to catch an intercity bus, number 522, from a bus station called Principe Pio, and your stop is called “Pistas DGT”. If you’re looking for directions on how to get there by car, then what are you doing reading this post? It’s a 20 minute bus ride. You know you’re close when the bus goes through the famous roundabout called “Plaza de Toros”. Ring the bell as soon as the bus gets on the bridge and get off at the first stop after the bridge. You have to follow a path that looks like no-man’s land. 5 minutes later you’ll arrive to the DGT building. You’ll notice a lot of parking lots. If you get lost, ask anyone where “DGT Centro de examines” is.
Step 10: What to expect during the driving exam
You will be taking the test in the same car you will have been practicing in (hopefully not more than 2 months will have passed by since you started driving classes), except that on this it will be crammed with people: the driving examiner, your instructor, and another student or two. Yes, you will witness other students’ tests. Before the examiner asks you to pop the hood and challenges you on the mechanics of the vehicle, he may ask you and the other students your preference of order. If I were you I’d pipe up and volunteer yourself, so that you can go on your merry way and have your breakfast afterward. At least that was my examiner’s way of thinking. He complained to everyone in the car that he would like nothing more than to get the test over with so that he could have his breakfast. I shuddered to think what could happen to him if he missed one of his many, many coffee breaks that morning. Poor man. Anyway, once you finish your test, the examiner will tell your instructor if you passed or failed your test. I assume they don’t tell the students themselves because they want to live to see their next coffee break in case they “have” to fail you.
Congratulations in advance for passing! You will need this motivation because even with the help above, challenges will hit your from side to side. You will be that much less richer, but at least you will have overcome a hurdle and will be able to drive legally in Spain. It’ll be a great relief. It was for me!
As I alluded to earlier, once you have your Spanish license, there’s more to be done. Stay tuned for that next time!