Why I love microcars

Three years ago, I had no idea what I microcar was. I remember seeing them – most vividly on the streets of Italy when my family went there when I was 10. We traveled around Italy, Greece, and the then-Yugoslavia with another family with kids the same age as my brother and me. Our method of transportation was a large orange panel van affectionately named Le Grand Orange. While the van was a great way to transport eight people, it was not ideal for going up and down narrow cobblestone European streets. One prime example of this was when we tried to turn down an alley to get to a hotel, only to be thwarted by a Fiat parked too close to the corner so that we couldn’t make the turn, our mammoth vehicle not meant for centuries-old passageways. The solution was for the two dads to pick up the car and hoist it up on the curb.

Microcars have engines under 700 cc engines (as documented by Wikipedia) – though the shows I have been to allow engines up to 1000 cc. I can’t believe I know enough to write a sentence about engine size, though I admit I still don’t completely know what it means. I also can’t believe I have now gone to multiple car shows and am sad that this season is over. Still, it’s hard not to become fascinated by fully-functioning and useful automobiles that look like this:

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A spiffy Subaru 360 (nope, not a Volkswagen) I have had the pleasure of riding around in a couple of times. On Vashon Island.

Or vans and pickup trucks like this:

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Subaru van and pickup trucks. My friend Rex helps you grasp their size.

In a time when so many things are getting bigger and bigger, I find smaller cars so appealing. They challenge America’s general mentality that things need to be so huge – SUVs, McMansions, Super Size meals of epic proportions. Yes, here in Portland Smart cars are quite popular, and both the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500 have been relaunched into the American market. But have you seen the size difference between those cars now and as they were in the 1960s? Today’s tiny cars aren’t so tiny after all.

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A new Fiat 500 parked next to an older model.

 

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The Fiat next to a Subaru pickup.

But real microcars fit nicely into my desire to simplify my life; their size challenge the assumption that more is better. However, I know that owning a microcar is not so simple; they are old cars and therefore not necessarily reliable. And when they break down, parts aren’t necessarily easy to come by, or aren’t available in the most obvious places. Dave and I once drove one of his NSU’s about 400 miles to transport it from its former owner to its new home in his parents’ yard, alongside others of its kind. As we reached the CA border, something went awry with the clutch and we had to pull over to figure out what was wrong. Not used to cars breaking down on road trips, I was concerned (OK, panicky), but Dave did his best to ignore me as he guided the failing car into a Home Depot parking lot, passing an auto supply store en route. Of course I was confused and annoyed as he assessed the damage in the middle of a sunbaked parking lot, no shade to be had. He peered into the workings of the car (a completely foreign arrangement of metal in my eyes), poked around, and emerged holding a split piece of ring-shaped rubber – only the split was the problem.

“Do you know where to find one of these?”

I did! In the plumbing department! Years of home reno brought intensive practice at finding weird objects in all corners of hardware box stores. Dave waited outside while I ran into Home Depot and got what we needed. It cost a buck twenty-nine, plus tax. He fixed the damn car with a part from a hardware store that cost no more than what you can find in an ashtray. I was amazed with, pissed off at, and in love with microcars all at the same time.

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Dave and the dang NSU. Yes, we stayed at a Tiki Motel. Why not?

We almost completed the journey without incident. The car broke down again less than a mile from his sister’s house. We pushed it the rest of the way in the Sacramento summer heat, reaching our destination tired, sweaty, and pissed. At least I was pissed; little seems to bother Dave. That’s because he’s been a proponent of microcars and other old vehicles forever and is used to them breaking down. I’m learning to be patient.

A Hillman Husky (photo credit for below) might be a great starter car for me – or maybe a Morris Minor.

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Dream car #1 — a Hillman Husky

 

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Dream car #2 — a Morris Minor I saw at the MPH Microcar show in Forest Grove, OR last month.

Hopefully, I will get one in time to bring to a show next summer. And if it breaks down along the way, I know where the nearest Home Depot is.

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Takin’ that ride to nowhere

We didn’t get official leave, but we went anyway. There is nothing to do at the school – grades are in, students are gone, and our next semester schedule was yet to be determined, so we couldn’t prepare for spring. Instead, we played hooky from work and made the 11 hour drive (700 mile/1126 km) to Salalah on the southern coast of Oman – off to see the Arabian Sea. A local magazine refers to Highway 31, the main road taken, as the Highway to Hell due to all the accidents that happen along the vast stretches of emptiness.

Here are some random thoughts and experiences from this epic road trip. They accurately reflect my scattered mind that accompanied me.

As soon as we left Nizwa (248 km into the journey), we were far away from everything. Saw two Bedouin women in a pickup truck (male driver); they were wearing their traditional face coverings that remind me of Catwoman. One went into the local “food stuff” store. I wanted to take a picture so badly, but knew it wasn’t right. This pair, seen early in the journey, are two of four women I see before we reach Salalah. There are no women in these towns. They may be in their cars, but they don’t get out.

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Not my photo, but an example of the attire on the women I saw.

 

A long drive of nothing. Not that long ago, this was done on camel. I can’t find any information about this road and when it was built, but the earliest this could have been built was in the mid 1970s. This is the land of tribes and family. There is nothing else but desert. On the ten hour drive, I constantly wonder what it would be like to travel by camel, seeing literally nothing for days. Trusting that one morning you will wake up, and that will be the day your journey ends. Delivering goods, picking up supplies, and making the long trek back to your home.

The nothing of the drive goes from stones and sparse plants to sand.

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Phase 1 of nothingscape

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Phase 2 of nothingscape

 

The Empty Quarter lives up to its name. The people in the few towns that span this stretch are mostly expats: poor and working hard jobs – truckers, construction workers (buildings and roads), and those in the oil fields. The food for the most part is pretty damn good, served in simple restaurants. Bread served along with meat/vegetables in a spicy sauce; lots of ginger. I have no idea what kind of cuisine I am eating – Yemeni? Pakistani? Nepalese? Bangladeshi? It’s not Indian; that’s all I know. Or Omani – too flavorful. I realize that my knowledge of food is pretty small, despite my extensive travelling and exposure to so many cultures here. Those who work come from elsewhere and bring their cuisine with them, and send the money they make back home to their families.

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Where we ate. A break from nowhere and nothing.

 

The frankincense trees – what made this country before oil, its sap worth more than gold at one point – are no longer harvested by Omanis or even Dharforis. Laborers from across the seas now hold this historical knowledge and continue to tap the trees for its sap, far less valuable now, but still the legacy of this area. The “forest” we visit has no informational signs; all we know we have read about in travel books, written by Westerners. An Omani sits in his car along with a friend — I think he was hired to work there, to serve as a guide. He shouts from the open window to say hello and see if we have any questions.

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Frankincense “forest”

 

I try to wrap my head around the idea that spelling doesn’t matter in this country – I’ve seen this in my students, and I see it on this journey. Here are examples of the spelling of the town we spent the night in:

  • Quit Bit
  • Qit Bit
  • Qat Bit
  • Qat Beet
  • QitBit
  • QitBat
  • Qatbit

How the hell are you supposed to figure out where you are? I guess in many ways it doesn’t matter if you are an outsider. You just pass through.

 

One Week

One week in Oman. We have survived two flight delays, a rerouting that resulted in a 34 hour travel experience on very little sleep, lost and found luggage (Mine was only missing 24 hours; Dave managed for four days without his clothes), and the first four days at the school. This latter experience really wasn’t a matter of survival, though; classes don’t start for another two weeks on top of this first week of inaction. Omani business is guided by “bakra,” which technically means “tomorrow” but really means “later” when it comes to things happening. The other phrase that I hear amongst the constant Arabic dialogue is “In šāʾ Allāh” (Inshallah) – “what Allah will bring” or “as Allah wills.” In other words, if it’s meant to be, it will happen.

My expat officemate says to be happy if you get one thing accomplished every day. More than that is a bonus. My Omani officemate, who utters Inshallah frequently, says that nothing will happen if you don’t ask for it and set expectations. Not quite as Allah wills, but perhaps more effective. Perhaps. For now, I try not to worry about it and each day I learn to slow down that much more. I can’t imagine this pace will continue into my teaching days, but you never know. Inshallah.

Home life isn’t much different. With the sun beating down on us at well over 100 degrees there isn’t much to do when you live on the outskirts of a small town whose only claims to fame are the fact that it was the capital city back in the 1600s and there’s a restored fort to prove it. We rented a car on day four in order to provide some entertainment and the necessary trips to the Hypermarkets (think Walmart). Without a car, our only access to food would be a run-down convenience store with shriveled vegetables, questionable refrigeration, but plenty of potato chips.

But thankfully, we do have a car and so we drive. We have already taken the Toyota Yaris rental out on a winding dirt road near our house which provided us a mini exploration complete with goats, beautiful mountain scenery, and lots of desert. It was too hot outside to stop to take pictures, even though the views were worthy of several. Dirt roads are quite common here and I read that in 1970 – two years after I was born – this country only had 5km of paved roads. There are plenty of paved roads and even a small highway system now, but it’s baffling to think about how recent all the development here is.

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The view outside our window. At least you can see the mountains I’m talking about if you look closely.

Another short work day took us to the ocean – no beach yet, but it was nice to look out onto the Gulf of Oman while our AC hummed along to a radio station we found which is partial to Omani bagpipe (habban) music. It’s a great listen.

Thanks to the car we have also eaten. Though my cooking skills are still minimal, and it’s really too hot to use the stove, the rice cooker, as it was in Korea, continues to serve us well. Basmati rice is the norm here and today we paired it with steamed okra (done in the cooker), turn chicken (they’re small here, but just over one Rial, so under 3 bucks), and jarred spices. I chose Omani Marsala while Dave went with a more traditional Indian kind. In our fridge we have pears from Jordan, tiny bananas from southern Oman, a Thai mango, and a Ugandan avocado. The carrots are from China. A lot of produce here also comes from Iran – Oman seems to have made few, if any, political enemies, so food comes from as many places as do the people. I’m sure I’ll write more about the population and people later, but the country has just over 4 million residents: just under 2 million are expats (only 5% of whom are Westerners, primarily from England).

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Our kitchen. We have a gas stove!

But essentially, there isn’t much going on here. School only takes a few hours of our time, and most of that is waiting around for things. The nights are filled with reading and playing games downloaded onto my iPad. Since the internet is pretty expensive here, surfing is kept to a minimum and watching videos is out. I did find a couple of English-speaking television stations with tolerable programming every once in a while. Today is Friday, the holy day, so nothing was open. We stayed home and lazed about, the prayer calls signaling the slow passage of time. It’s a strange feeling to not have that much to do.

It’s only been a week and so far I’ve accomplished so much yet so little.