Sunday, July 19, 2009

Backlog: Faith, population control, and shortcut (Oaxaca)

They say that atheist soldiers in the trenches of war get religion. I say you need only travel a Mexican road to find faith.

Taking a cab from the Mexico City airport to your hotel is an exercise in faith, courage, and bravado. Your driver is a matador, the other vehicles, the players in a tragedy with an ending already proscribed. Someone must be maimed or killed.
The cab is small and the bus converging from the left comes at you at the speed of a cheetah in pursuit of prey. The driver of the SUV to your right appears obsessed with becoming one with your lap. One of the godzillions of crosses on the side of the road already bears your name. You start to believe in miracles each time you arrive, awash in perspiration but alive(!), at your destination.
I haven't met a single person in this country -- native or foreigner -- who doesn't have tales to tell of people dying in car accidents. Every family has lost at least one member in a crash. The country's population would surely be quadruple what it is, if every day thousands of people didn't meet a gruesome and fiery vehicular finale.

Being a pedestrian is not much easier than being a driver, however. The other day I waited 20 minutes to run like hell across a thoroughfare in Cuernavaca. The traffic never let up, much less stopped. There are probably thousands of people, who are believed to have been kidnapped because they never returned home from the grocery store, when in reality, they were unable to reach the other side of the road. Legions have no doubt died waiting for their chance to realize their dream of a pedestrian right of way. I have never heard a "Why did the chicken cross the road?" joke here, because no chicken has ever done so.

It's hard enough to walk, but I can't imagine ever getting behind a steering wheel in this country. You've gotta be extremely aggressive, suicidal, homicidal, or just plain crazy (or any combination thereof) to feel comfortable driving here.

My friend T. doesn't appear to be any of the above, and yet he pilots his motorcycle and truck with confidence. Normally relaxed and mild mannered, he explains: "Stop signs are street ornaments. Turn signals are car ornaments. Stop lights are suggestions. Flash your left signal to indicate that someone can pass. Or to indicate a left turn. Let the other driver beware and be a good guesser. Drive fast but arrive late. Rules are flexible. He who gets wherever first, without dying, wins."

So, after a day of sightseeing (a humongous old tree, a deserted convent), T. tells us that he's taking us to say goodbye to Reina, the mother of one of my former students and the owner of a street eatery. He knows a shortcut.

We are somewhere among the unmarked streets of Oaxaca, careening downhill in a small white truck. There is an obvious roadblock: a series of rocks and boulders stretching from one side of the street to the other. Even with my eyes tightly closed, I can see the message:"DO NOT ENTER!!!!"

We enter.

A. and I are shrieking hysterically. T. is smiling like a madman. An anarchist, he is in his element: there are no rules.

Quick right turn, fast left. The road in front of us disappears abruptly. A cliff. A. and I are trembling, grabbing each other, howling with laughter and with fear. We know we are going to die.

Not yet. I believe.

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