In March 2003 My wife and I went to live on a small island in the Indian Ocean. We stayed there for a year of tropical delights and frustrations. As a break from fiction – and to help maintain my sanity in the midst of a strange culture – I wrote a series of emails to folks at home…
—– Original Message —–
To: Undisclosed Recipients
Sent: Friday, May 23, 2003 2:20 PM
Subject: Breakdown and recovery
If you want to make the most of Mahe, you need a car. Taxis charge
extortionate prices and buses work to a mysterious and indecipherable
timetable. Walking is wonderful but you need plenty of time to reach your
destination over the steep hills.
Fortunately, when the practice owner’s family and the many people on the
board of directors aren’t borrowing it, we have use of a car – It’s a Nissan
No prizes for guessing that we’ve had a few problems with it.
It was her lunch break the first time my wife drove it home from the practice;
It stalled in the middle of the street in the midday sun and refused to
start again. The other drivers all blared their horns in encouragement while
a traffic jam backed up in both directions along the main road into
She tried to call me for assistance using her mobile but, as often happens,
I’d forgotten to plug the land line back in after using the internet. When
she finally arrived home after half an hour (The journey usually takes
ninety seconds), I’d left the key in the locked front door and she couldn’t
get in. I didn’t hear her knocking until it became quite severe, because I
was in the shower and the builders on the construction site next door had
the compressor going. When I eventually did open the door, I wondered why
she was looking so red faced. All her excitement at being able to surprise
me with our very own mode of transport had evaporated in the tropical heat.
The first few trips out saw the car stalling at every inopportune moment –
in the ‘city’ centre, on uphill stretches of the mountainside with several
cars behind us, at junctions when a nippy start was essential.
Those of you that know me well, will also know how little mechanical
knowledge I have. However, no one else was going to do it, so I looked under
the bonnet. All I discovered was that the water reservoir supplying the
radiator was almost dry. I filled it up and the car stopped stalling. No,
I’m not sure I see the connection either. We fill it regularly now, as it
often runs dry.
All seemed well for a few days.
Our good friend, Professor Inglis, who spent so much time showing us
around the island before he returned to England, warned us about the car’s
behaviour on downhill stretches of the mountain roads. He explained that it
was wise to use the gears to slow the car down, as applying the brakes often
created a strong burning smell. He also mentioned that there wasn’t much
tread on the tyres and that, if it had been raining and the local buses had
been throwing oil, the tight corners could be ‘a bit slippy’.
I can assure you that all of his advice was grounded firmly in fact, as we
have since discovered. Nevertheless, we had the car and we were getting around.
Getting the car fixed is a delicate matter. Ideally, you need an employee, a
person on the board of directors or a member of the practice owner’s family
to drive it (without them taking it home or you won’t see it for weeks).
They have to experience the danger for themselves.
We’d been having some problems with the brakes. No one listened.
Then one day, Kenny (the lab technician) went to fill up all the condom
machines on the island – just one of the many jobs he does for the company.
When he came back, he said to my wife,
“Doctor, the car is not safe.”
“I know, Kenny.”
“It does not stop.”
“I know, Kenny.”
“The brakes are not working, I think.”
So the car went to the garage to be fixed and we all breathed a sigh of
relief. On its return, we were told that the brake pads had worn away some
time previously and metal was grinding against metal. This came as no
surprise. Still, it was all sorted so, come the weekend we took a trip to
the other side of the island to try a different beach.
On the downhill side of the mountain, a knocking sound began near the left
front tyre. For a while we ignored it; the car was ‘safe’, it was ‘fixed’.
We drove on. When we reached our destination, up one of the most remote
roads on the island which leads to a restricted zone, the noise became too
much. We stopped and I got out to look.
I discovered that the mechanic had only put three of the four nuts back on
the left front wheel. One of those three nuts turned freely under my
fingers. We tightened them all up as best we could and limped home.
The following day, we sent the car back to the garage. When it came back, it
still had only three nuts on the wheel. Apparently, the mechanic had
replaced the drum but there were still no brake pads. Holding the wheel in
place did not seem to be a priority. We sent the car back again. This time
it came back with all nuts present and correct.
Then, a day or so before it was too late, we were informed by Kenny that the MOT
was due and if the car did not pass it would be illegal. I thought that was
a bit rich but I managed to suppress what would have been insane laughter.
Of course, we knew that the car could never pass an MOT in a hundred years.
Although the tyres are bald, they’ve let us off because there are no
replacements on the island at this time. In fact the wheels currently on the
car are also too small for the model but they were the best anyone could
find last time they were replaced. God knows when that was.
Our car is now officially roadworthy. Pray for us.
Keep on trucking,