To rent or not to rent?
At a major car rental company’s branch in Dublin Airport, Zeza and I wait for the keys to our 2 door, manual transmission and petrol fueled VW Up. While the attendant finishes the process, bringing us closer to the moment we begin our driving left hand adventure, I’m having second thoughts. What if I don’t get the hang of it? What if I mess up and we end up crashing and getting into trouble with the rental company? Or worse, with our maker?
When we decided we’d be coming here, we had completely ruled out renting a car. But, as I believe happens to everyone who plans a trip to Ireland, even if the planning stage is as far as they’ve gone, we realized this isn’t a place where you just hop between bus stops or train stations. A big part of the trip, if not an essential one, happens in between. In aimlessly driving around, in stopping here and there, in detouring to a different place. How else could we admire the remote peaks of Connemara? Explore the inlets and bays of Kerry’s scarred coastline? Or ditch our schedule for a pint at a roadside pub in the middle of nowhere?
I pitched to Zeza my plan of getting our own wheels, undeterred by all the arguments that driving left hand proposed against it, backed by our virginity in car rental. Yielding to pre-trip over-excitement, as I always do, my sound judgement and rationality trampled by the perspective of foreign adventure. My balanced, down-to-earth girlfriend despaired, trying her hardest to keep me grounded before I get any more ludicrous thoughts. What’s next, a Leprechaun safari?
I couldn’t find any companies providing Leprechaun safaris. And I searched as far as Google’s eighth page. But I did manage to convince her that renting a car in Ireland was a good idea. An exceptional achievement when you consider that, clearly, I haven’t managed to convince myself of it.
Not that it matters now, anyway, they’ve already swiped my card. This showdown is about to happen, so we might as well get prepared. Let’s go through the terms and conditions one more time. We really ought to wrap our heads around this Collision Damage Waiver thing, it really seems like something we should be informed about.
Diesel, petrol or puke?
“Here ya go, all set! Luck of the Irish for ya!” the attendant says, Irishly, while handing us the keys to a Toyota Yaris. A black tag with the word DIESEL hangs from the key chain. Maybe they didn’t notice our reservation, maybe they’re out of petrol cars. Or maybe this was exactly what he meant when he blessed us with his National Good Fortune.
We find our Yaris on the parking lot, and it’s a bit worn out. As proper car renting rookies, we take pictures of every scratch and dent, even of a few ones we were quite positive but not sure were dirt stains, and show them to the attendant. He signs the dent blueprint we filled out, and says we’re good to go, so off we went, happy we got a Diesel car instead of a petrol one. We get in, buckle up, and before starting the engine I take a deep breath, and… smell… something strange… is it… puke?
A puddle of poorly wiped vomit covers most of the backseat. Days old, probably, given the stench. How it got past the post-delivery inspection, I don’t know, and neither does the attendant. “Are you sure it’s vomit?” It’s vomit mate, trust us. He hands us over another Yaris keys, with a green, disappointing PETROL tag. “Hum… would you not happen to have anything else on Diesel available?”
He scrolls through the keys rack extensively, and finally gives us the keys to a Nissan Note. The magical word hanging from the key chain. Only 3000km old, barely any marks for us to record. We get in, buckle up, and before starting the engine I take a deep breath, and… no weird smells. Thus far, everything went better than expected. Hopefully, this driving left hand experience will too.
The first ten minutes driving left hand
Engine running as I prepare to audit the controls, felling like an astronaut before take off. Pedals aren’t a problem, same configuration as in right hand driving. Gearbox as well, but this means that first gear is to the northwest, reverse to the southeast. Got it. Mirrors OK, seat OK, what about the switches? These must be the turning signals, no, these are the wipers, great, this means the headlights are here. OK, I think we’re all set. Co-pilot, are we all set? Take off to Galway permitted?
Yes, take off permitted. This is when anxiety turns into nervousness. Left hand on the gearbox, right hand on the wheel. No one coming from either side. First gear in, clutch pedal up, gas pedal down. Eyes all over the place as I drive through the rental’s car park, realizing how much of an automated chain of movements driving is, now that I need to think about every task before I perform it. But I’m not terrible at driving left hand. Well, alone in a car park at the stunning speed of 20km/h, you might say this is novice level.
But beyond the park’s gate, the difficulty is instantly set to expert. Into the ongoing, reversed traffic, the mirrored tasks become even more of a challenge. First, it’s the misses on the gear shifts. Then, my brain glitches as the mirrors are not where they’re supposed to be, or as I get confused about which side to look to at crossings. I’m going slow, blocking traffic, and I get the first few honks. This is when nervousness becomes tension. For Zeza as well, even if she keeps telling me to calm down and breathe.
However, it’s not that easy. Tense, overwhelmed and trying my best not to be featured on every Dublin radio station’s traffic report, I’m losing focus. I keep struggling to place the car correctly within the lane markings. After another crossing, I merge into the right lane, naively wondering why is that car in front going the wrong way, until Zeza brings me back to my senses with a “GET TO THE @&$%#§€ LEFT LANE, MORON, ARE YOU @&$%#§€ TRYING TO KILL US?” This is when tension turns into full on panic.
And it gets worse when we reach a roundabout. My entrance was worthy of an Evel Knievel stunt: life-threatening, but brief. When we realized in how much danger we were, we had already passed it.
Fortunately, this was the roundabout at the entrance of the M50 highway. I stick to the left lane at a slow but steady 70 km/h, hoping these couple of hours on a highway will help me consolidate my driving left hand skills. We survived the harder part, the first ten minutes. I suppose there were still a few drops of the luck of the Irish in the tank, though I’m sure we’re all out of it by now.
And sure enough, 20 minutes later I’m confident enough to overtake. We find an Irish speaking radio station passing traditional music, and we blast it out on max volume. This is when panic turns to amusement. We’re ready to face the inverted Irish roads. As long as there aren’t anymore roundabouts.
Restart/update, and the suicidal crow
Rain begins to fall as we get nearer to Athlone. We decide to make a detour to Clonmacnoise Monastery, even though the hour’s getting tight. Exiting the highway, we drive through the narrow country roads, between the greenest fields dotted with white sheep and brown cows, with an occasional village bringing some reds and yellows against the grey skies.
We missed the Monastery for 10 minutes. There’s no one in sight. The rain is dwindling, so we get our rain ponchoes and walk around, watching the Shannon turning behind Clonmacnoise castle ruins, joined by an avian quire and a few seagull-sized ravens.
Back on the car, I seem to have forgotten everything I’ve learnt. My brain reverted to the embedded right hand driving scheme. I don’t know where the mirrors are. I punch the door trying to shift with my right hand, I can’t place the car correctly within the lane markings. But this time it takes me only five minutes to get the hang back. The system needed an update, and it would require it every time I restarted it.
45 minutes left to Galway as we get back on the M6 highway at Ballinasloe. After the panic in Dublin and the small mishaps in Clonmacnoise, I’m pretty confident about my driving left hand abilities. We’re alone on a wide highway in Ireland, beautiful landscapes everywhere, rainbows, Irish traditional music. I’m relaxed, enjoying myself, but I haven’t eaten for hours. “Why don’t you get the guide and try to find somewhere to dine tonight?”, I say to Zeza.
She gets the guide and flips through the pages. “Where is the Galway chapter? I can’t find it…” “It’s at the final pages, look…” I glance at the book for two seconds. Two seconds. Enough to miss whatever it was that we hit.
It wasn’t a hard hit, it was just as if we clashed side view mirrors. Startled and confused, we can’t find the reason for it. We’re alone in the road, no cars coming through, both side mirrors are in their place. And you know, Ireland is a mystical place and all… could we have hit a leprechaun? Through the rearview mirror, I see a pitch black figure struggling in mid-air to get back in flight.
“A raven?!? Did a mother@&$%#§€ raven just tried to kill us?” We’re already in enough trouble as it is, driving left hand, we don’t need birds kamikazing at us. I can’t wrap my head around what happened. But I’m guessing he miscalculated his take off from the roadside hedge, and ended up hitting our car. Quite hardly, surely it must have left a dent somewhere. And scratches, ravens have long claws. What did that Collision Damage Waiver thing said about ravens?
As soon as we park in Galway, we examine the car front thoroughly. No scratches, no dents, no feathers. Hopefully the raven survived.
Through the remote peaks of Connemara, the inlets and bays of Kerry’s scarred coastline, the roadside pubs in the middle of nowhere, we developed a beautiful friendship with our rental Diesel Nissan Note. Yes, we had a rough start adapting to driving left hand, but we have come to grow fond of each other. And thanks to it, we got to experience Ireland in a way we could never experience through public transport.
And after 5 days without any further driving incident, we’re back in Dublin to drop the car off before spending a couple of days in the city. We enter the rental’s car park, and immediately an attendant comes over. He checks the fuel gauge and the mileage through the window. “Would you say you’ve covered about 1500km?”, he asks. “Uhm, I guess… if that’s what the meter says…” He nods, points something down in his notebook and directs us to a parking spot. “OK, everything’s all right. Take this inspection sheet to the counter and deliver the keys, and you’re good to go”.
Now I understand how a puddle of vomit got past the post-delivery inspection.