10 July 2010

Driving in San Miguel

I am going to tell you about driving a vehicle in San Miguel de Allende, a subject that may interest some and others not at all. The experience has a distinctive flavor about it. The reason for this, quite simply, is that this is a colonial city, large sections of which were laid out centuries before the advent of the automobile.

The streets are narrow, sometimes incredibly so. I have driven on streets where one has to pull in the exterior mirrors on vehicles of the size of my mid-sized truck in order to avoid scraping them on the high stone walls on either side. Those streets are truly claustrophobic. The narrow streets are denominated as one-way, and there are of course streets so narrow that they will not accommodate vehicles at all.

Parking is usually allowed on one side of the remaining two-way streets, which in effect often reduces the drivable width so as to prevent oncoming vehicles from getting by you easily. The simple maneuver of turning a corner is more often than not an adventure. That goes particularly for the many corners that are totally blind.

Generally, the very best way to travel around the city is on foot or in a bus. There is just no question about that. There are occasions when the idea of driving a vehicle around town is insanity. When there is a fiesta or some other special event in the main square up town, one has to be nuts to attempt to drive a vehicle through there or anywhere near there. Still, there are folks who are so attached to their vehicles or for whom the idea of walking any distance is so abhorrent that they do it anyway. These are usually outsiders, the many Mexican tourists from Mexico City or you-know-who. It is actually somewhat gratifying to walk by them as they sit in the street in their idling vehicles up there amid a myriad other stationary, idling vehicles.

Still, on routine occasions one is inclined to drive once in a while, such as when you need to haul something like a large batch of groceries or when you need to go across town and do not have time to complete that round-trip trek on foot. And it may be a day when you are just not up to multiple bus changes.

As a general statement, it is fair to say that Mexican drivers are more aggressive than drivers in the United States, although all of us know that there is a great variability in aggressive driving in the United States from place to place. Furthermore, our perception of aggressiveness on the part of Mexican drivers in Mexico is enhanced by little things. For one example, Mexican drivers never use their turn signals here to signal a change of lanes. For another, the idea that when two vehicles approach an intersection simultaneously, the vehicle on the right has the right-of-way would mystify Mexican drivers. Moreover, stop signs are only advisory in practice, signifying de facto, “maybe it would be a good idea if you stopped at this intersection.” Practically speaking, stop signs are a waste of money and as a result are rare, particularly so in towns.

Mexico City with its large thoroughfares and big speedways encourages this aggressiveness and is a suicidal place to drive. I will never, ever attempt it. Furthermore, if you attempt to drive and sight-see at the same time anywhere in Mexico, you are in for grave trouble, my friend. If you are lucky, you will only hit somebody's goat, which can still be quite a complicated proposition. You might then ask why those aggressive Mexican drivers do not hit goats. My answer is that I have not the faintest idea. It must have something to do with a Latin magic that we do not possess. But back to the subject at hand. . .

The drivers who routinely drive in San Miguel de Allende are not aggressive at all, however. Here is my own theory as to why this is so. It is not because people are nicer or more considerate here than elsewhere. That is clearly not the case. Rather, it is because every driver here is in the very same boat. Every local driver needs the cooperation of every other driver here in order simply to maneuver his own vehicle through the streets of this town. Every local driver appreciates the fact that if all the drivers were suddenly to become aggressive, this entire city would become gridlocked and no vehicle could move at all.

The upshot of that is that driving in San Miguel is very much a communal activity rather than a solitary one. That is the essential distinguishing feature of this driving experience.

I often get into situations in the truck when I ask myself, “How the hell am I going to pull this off? I don't see any way out.” Yet so far, I have always pulled it off. I have always pulled it off because the other driver or drivers involved always, always cooperated in the effort. Pedestrians get in on the act. It is not uncommon for a pedestrian to step up when you are in a tight spot to keep an eye on the distance between the opposite side of your vehicle and some obstacle and let you know whether you are going to make it or not.

Many times one will meet an oncoming vehicle when there is not enough room to get by each other without some intricate maneuver by both drivers. Both drivers might have to turn a little to the right and then a little to left simultaneously while they both keep moving slowly and pass within inches of each other in order to negotiate the passage. As you pass, you are literally nose to nose with the other driver. A vehicular pas de deux. And you know something? I am confident that both drivers then drive on with the thought, “we did that quite well.” That is always how I feel about it anyway.

Then there is the situation where you wish to drive up a street when another car is coming down the street and there is no maneuvering room available anywhere in that block to allow you to get by each other. Obviously, you wait. And cars pile up behind you. And they wait, too, but they are accustomed to that situation. They wait patiently. There is remarkably little honking in this town. This is often a helluva noisy place, but it is never because of car horns. Inevitably, other cars fall in behind that car coming down the street, and now you are waiting for a line of cars to clear the street instead of just one. Sooner rather than later, however, a driver up there who also wants to come down the street will stop and wait at the intersection. Then your own little line of cars can go up the street.

I know that I have expended more words than might seem necessary, but as perhaps you can see, the experience of driving in this town is not a simple thing to describe. The first few times are frightening, I can assure you. I have only scratched the surface. Suffice it to say that over time the experience of driving in San Miguel remains a nearly intolerable ordeal while also becoming strangely satisfying. It is satisfying because it is an exercise in teamwork, and all the local drivers are on the same team. Perhaps just as important, nobody--nobody local anyway--cares in the least about when they are going to get to wherever they are going. . .with the exception of those kamikaze pizza delivery guys on the motorcycles.

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