Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Driving in Mexico – Part One

David has consulted some of the websites I mentioned in the last article, and he's enjoying reading The People's Guide to Mexico every evening, so most of his concerns about our month's vacation in Ajijic have been put to rest. But one aspect of living in Mexico still has him worried. Driving. Despite my reassurances, he is still a bit nervous about getting behind the wheel.

And, of course, his apprehension is understandable. Driving in Mexico is not for the faint of heart. Because most Mexicans are fatalists and believe that what will be will be, they drive with gusto and little thought for the future. Most drivers see stop signs as mere suggestions and passing on blind curves as an opportunity to prove their machismo. But, as long as we don’t adopt these attitudes and we try to drive defensively, any trip we take should be a pleasant one. There are just a few points we'll need to bear in mind.

As much as possible, we will want to take the cuotas (sometimes misspelled as quota or something else approximating cuota) or autopistas (a synonym for cuotas) if we decide to drive to San Miguel de Allende. These controlled access, four-lane roads save endless time and aggravation. This is one area where we will not try to economize by taking the two-lane “free” (marked libre) roads. Since most Mexicans cannot afford the cuota tolls, we'll only see another car every couple miles or so. There are usually refreshment stands, or restaurants, and bathrooms at the toll stations which make the driving even more pleasant. And, if we have any sort of car trouble, the government maintained “Green Angel” truck will come to help us. These Florence Nightingales of the roads will dispense gas and water, change tires, make minor engine repairs, and just generally do whatever is needed to get us back on the road again. And the best part of this service is that it’s free!

We won't rely too much on road signage. The Mexican government seems to think road signs are a waste of money, so they are few and far between. The ones we will see can be a bit disconcerting because the town we're looking for will most likely not be listed as one of the destinations. Instead, a city a thousand miles away may be printed on the sign. For example, when I lived in Ajijic six years ago and wanted to access the Guadalajara bypass in a westerly direction, I followed the road signs for Nogales (some three days’ drive away). A good analogy in the United States would be driving from New York to Philadelphia by following the signs for Miami. So, we'll try to be aware of the major city nearest our destination, even if it’s hundreds of miles away.

Another point we'll want to keep in mind is that most Mexicans have at least a couple uses for the left turn signal. It may mean that the driver wants us to pass him, and he’s telling us the road ahead is clear. Or it could be that the driver is actually going to turn left. Or perhaps he’s just waving to a friend and wants to flash his car lights, too. If we get behind a particularly slow-moving truck and he signals a left, we'll pull out cautiously, beep our horn, and quickly pass. When we make our own left turns, we'll use our signal and also stick out an arm so the person behind us will have no doubt about our intentions.

We also won't bother to ask people for directions. While anyone in Mexico would be happy to help us because they don't want to hurt our feelings—or perhaps it's because they don't want to appear stupid—most people have no knowledge of road names or numbers. Most Mexicans don’t drive. They walk or ride the bus to get from place to place, so they truly have no knowledge about routes. Also, a vast number of Mexicans have never been outside their native towns, so asking them how to reach a city a hundred miles away would be an impossible task. If we do need to ask for directions, we will do so at a gas station, a hotel, or some other major building. There we will probably find drivers who are accustomed to the roads. And just in case our helper doesn't speak English, we'll carry a pad of paper and a pen so he can draw a map. We don't know much Spanish, but David is a pro at map-reading!.

I mentioned earlier that the Mexican government tries to save money by being conservative with road signs, and I think they take the same frugal approach when it comes to moderating traffic speed. Rather than install expensive stoplights, they have discovered some very inexpensive solutions to control traffic. In almost every town in Mexico, we will encounter topes (toe’- pays) or speed bumps. Some of these are mild-mannered gentle bumps in the road that do no more than warn politely that we’re approaching a town, but others are mountains that bounce the car high into the air and scream SLOW DOWN. If you ever hit a tope at 40 mph, you will never again approach an urban setting (and bear in mind that an “urban setting” may be a few houses and a couple stores on both sides of a patch of road) without looking for the ubiquitous topes. The Mexicans call topes sleeping policemen, and I can certainly understand why!

1 comment:

  1. I would be most uneasy about driving in Mexico. You have given good tips. Thanks, Dru

    Mary Beth