Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Traffic

Believe it or not, it’s harder to write when I have too much material than when I don’t have enough. I’m having trouble settling my brain on only one subject. I’m writing a report to the cluster and it's six pages long so far. So I will write about just one aspect of our trip. Stayed tuned for a report next week on water treatment. Today will be traffic.

Traffic in Guatemala is interesting. They have that same habit you see in many Latin countries where three lanes of cars share a two-lane stretch of road. There’s a lot of honking that’s more honest-to-God communication rather than angry outburst you get in places like New York City. It tells the other drivers where you are and that it’s either (1) OK for them to come ahead or (2) you are going and they should stay back. The art comes in understanding which meaning to apply to any given situation. And it doesn’t matter whether you are in the middle of the city or on a cliff-hugging mountain road there’s lots of “conversation by honking.”

On this trip, the city traffic provided little drama and there were only a few cliff-hugging moments on the mountain roads. It was the stops, the times the road shut down completely,that ruled our lives.

It started on the third day. We had been to church and worshipped God together; we had studied and analyzed the bible and our lives at a workshop. We’d even visited a couple of water treatment projects. And then we finally got around to doing what I really wanted to do on the trip: just sitting around and visiting. We had lunch at Carlos and Dora’s house on Monday, which was really our third day into the trip. Dora put on a big spread of grilled beef, rice, corn and other vegetables and fruit with about three choices for dessert. Most of the men and kids had filtered out to other parts of the house for other amusements. But the women hung around the table for the best part of any meal—the coffee and conversation. We finally talked Dora into sitting down with us. We were settling down and figuring out a way to get rid of our male translator who couldn’t have enjoyed our conversation and convincing him that Phyllis could interpret for us. I had just asked Dora how she and Sonia had met. I knew that they had known each other a long time and I was interested to know how their friendship compared to some that I enjoy.

We were entering the estrogen zone and about to happily frolic about with tales of children and church when word came around that there had been an accident on the highway and we’d better head home if we wanted to get there before dark. PRESGOV has a rule that we can’t drive after dark. And we knew Central American Highway Nine would be full of trucks bumper to bumper going back and forth to Puerto Barrios, the main shipping port in Guatemala. So we packed up immediately and left.

Sure enough, toward the middle of the drive back to the hotel, traffic stopped.

And as soon as we settled into the wait I saw two things I’ve never seen in a traffic jam in my life. Men in black carrying automatic rifles appeared out of nowhere. There had been a couple of ambulances whizzing past us but I didn’t remember police, especially enough police cars to discharge this many men. And what were they there for? Did crowds get unruly in traffic jams? Before I could ask around I spotted the other amazing thing: children and women walking from car to car offering snacks for sale. Corn roasted in the husk, roasted cashews (that Linda immediately warned against eating on pain of some sort of digestive death), sweet treats and bottled water. It gave a carnival atmosphere to everything. People were starting to get out of the cars and walking around. It was getting hot on the bus so walking around outside seemed fun. A group of our younger members heard that the accident was only 100 meters ahead and they decided to walk to see what was going on. By this time we had heard the wreck was caused when a truck lost control on a curve and lost its load with the load staying behind, turned over, and the cab skidding ahead by itself.

The entire Speck family (Grandmother Phyllis, one daughter, one daughter-in-law and four grandkids in their late teens or early twenties) hiked up to the wreck...

After about thirty minutes I decided to go join them and headed out. Then I noticed Rumaldo Lopez running up to catch up with me. I realized he didn’t want me to be alone and came to accompany me. Rumaldo is a nice guy on any day but this day his kindness was really comforting even though I didn’t feel in any kind of danger. We passed the cab of the truck lying on its side in a crumpled heap. Then another 100 feet ahead of that was the load of the truck. It appeared to be mostly cardboard boxes, which the neighborhood families had descended upon and were carrying off to their homes. When we met up with the Specks they had stopped a few yards short of the trailer blocking the road. There was a wrecker trying to maneuver it off the road. The only problem was there wasn’t any place to move it to. On one side of the road the mountainside dropped off to a sudden death for anyone who chanced it. On the other side of the road was the mountain. And the mountain wasn’t going anywhere. The only chance of moving the trailer was to inch it back and forth into someone’s front yard. Let me tell you, it takes a while to “inch” a 53-foot trailer. There were probably 656 inches to move.

Meanwhile, the Specks were taking the opportunity to do a little Michael Jackson memorial break dancing there on the highway pavement and shooting videos of it all. The performance they enjoyed the most was Guillermo’s, our favorite accordion playing preacher. Then Phyllis, who is approaching her eighties, decided to try it. Once their performances had been recorded they spent the time watching it and laughing. I'm sorry to say I didn't capture any of this on video for you.

I was watching the “police” watch us. Then someone told me these weren’t police but security guards who had been riding in the many trucks now in line like beached whales. It’s not unusual for a company to have a security guard ride with the cargo. That’s why I never saw them drive up in police cars—they had been sitting in the cabs of the trucks the whole time.

So, now we had this carnival on the road of uniformed guys with guns, break dancing grandmas, snack vendors and bumper to bumper stalled traffic. I was almost disappointed when they got the trailer off the road and everybody ran hell-bent-for-leather back to their cars. But I knew I was going to need a bathroom pretty soon and didn’t want to have to go in somebody’s bushes behind their house—especially with the mountain drop-off and everything. We had been stopped for over two hours.

The next day it happened again. This time the truck was still in one piece but there weren’t any snack vendors. We tried a little more break-dancing but our hearts weren’t in it this time. The bathroom possibilities were better since the houses were a bit nicer and there was even a church service right off the road. We were stopped over four hours this time and it got dark so we all piled back on the bus until the road cleared.

Then the day after that we passed a truck that lay on its side against the mountain, a brand new wreck that hadn't stopped traffic yet. Everyone yelled in unison, “Keep going!” As we passed, Carlos explained to us that this driver was very skilled.

Huh? Our third accident in three days and Carlos was telling us how skilled the driver had been? Here’s his explanation: These wrecks aren't necessarily due to bad drivers. The trucks aren’t maintained properly and many times the brakes go out. When this happens the driver has about three options: going off the mountain, hitting another car in the oncoming lane or running against the mountain to slow the truck down. Then, if you’re really skilled, you can just lay the truck on its side as close to the mountain as you can get so other cars can go around you. And that’s what this truck had done. Carlos was very proud of him.

And this driver hadn’t delayed our ride back to the hotel so he got high marks from this set of gringos.

That’s more than you ever wanted to know about Guatemalan traffic. Maybe next week one particular idea will surface and I’ll be more interesting. There's lots to tell.

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