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>Rules of the Road & Bridge? What Bridge?

January 17, 2010

>There are two things I wish Mom had done. One is keep a journal, not just of our two-week trip that led us, ultimately, to Guadalajara, but of all her years in Mexico. It would be a wonderful family treasure and would answer so many questions I have. The other thing I wish she’d done is take pictures. I have very few pictures of our years in Mexico and they, too, would tell me much. But, there’s neither a journal nor photos so I make do with what I have. The only photo in this week’s post is of my sister, Valerie. It was taken about a year before we left, when she was five. 

This post is about Mom’s initial experience driving in Mexico. I’d love to hear from those of you who have also driven in Mexico and have you share your thoughts and experiences.


Rules of the Road (Mexican Style)

“How much longer?” whined Valerie from her front seat perch. I was glad she asked so I wouldn’t have to.

“Probably four or five hours,” was Mom’s impatient response. “And don’t keep asking.”

Valerie started to pout. “I only asked once!”

I figured we had around two-hundred twenty miles of desert driving ahead of us. I lost interest in the mile-after-mile sameness of the desert so I began paying more attention to the highway and the passing vehicles. It was a two-lane highway traveled principally by buses and trucks, with the occasional car.

“Why is the road so narrow, Mom?” And it was, much narrower than the highways we had driven from LA to Nogales.

“It’s not only narrow, it’s poorly marked and poorly maintained. Look. You can hardly see the lane stripes and I’m constantly watching out for potholes.” As if to stress her point, the car jounced over a particularly large one, startling Felice from her nap and returning the glare to her expression. We continued in silence for a while, Mom intently navigating the highway’s hazards.

SNAPSHOT: The highway stretches out before us as far as we can see. A few pudgy white clouds are sprinkled across the blue sky and the rest of the world is all sand and scrub brush. Mom looks puzzled as she points to a car approaching us.

We saw the oncoming car at the same time, both of us noticing that the driver was flashing his lights on and off, on and off.

“Look at that car, David. Why do you suppose it’s flashing its lights on and off? My lights aren’t on.”

“Yeah, I see it too, Mom. I don’t know.”

We continued watching as we approached a small bridge over a dry creek bed. I looked over Mom’s shoulder at the speedometer: Fifty-five. All of a sudden three things hit Mom at once: First, the guardrails on the bridge didn’t bend out and away from the highway or even parallel it, the way they were supposed to; they bent inward, reducing the already narrow lanes. Second, there was room for only one car at a time to cross the small bridge. And third, we were going to reach the bridge at the same moment as the car approaching us.

“Hold on, kids!” and we all pitched forward as Mom hit the brakes, hard. Felice flew off the camphor chest onto the floor in front of Valerie, who just barely managed to avoid joining her there. I was thrown forward into the back of the front seat, smashing my nose and immediately feeling blood. The other car sped over the bridge and past us, horn blaring, driver glaring. Shaken, Mom pulled over to the side of the road and stopped.

SNAPSHOT: We’re in the car, stopped on the side of the road. Mom, pale, stares straight ahead, gripping the wheel. The small beads of perspiration on her forehead are more from fear than from the heat.

We sat there in stunned silence for a full minute. “I think I know why he was flashing his lights.” Mom’s shaky voice underscored her belated understanding of the other driver’s flashing-light signal to cross the bridge first. And she was right. We encountered many more such bridges, often with approaching traffic. The oncoming vehicle would flash its lights, Mom would slow down and the other driver would cross. After a while, Mom tried flashing her lights first and, to her relief, the other car slowed down and we crossed. It was a hard way to learn a rule of the road.

In addition to deteriorating roads and dangerous bridges, we encountered other driving hazards. There was, for example, no reluctance on the part of Mexican drivers to passing on hills, around curves or even off the road on the right. Mom compensated for those death-wish drivers who came up behind us and passed recklessly by being alert and slowing down, but she was deathly afraid of what she might find coming our way in our lane while cresting a hill or rounding a curve. She’d move as far to the right as possible, always prepared to take emergency action.

There was one occasion when that was a problem for us, a near fatal problem. It happened just outside Monterrey a couple of years later on one of our regular trips back to the border. I was driving and as I came to the top of a long hill, a tractor-trailer in my lane was lumbering past a large group of cyclists who had taken over the trucker’s lane. I stomped on the accelerator and swerved wildly to the right, veering off the road. Mom’s scream didn’t drown out the trucker’s air horn as he just narrowly missed wiping us out. Why in hell he was honking at me I’ll never know, but honking, we learned, was a way of driving in Mexico, in spite of the signs posted everywhere that urged Use Frenos, No Claxon (Use your brakes, not your horn.)

Stoplights, too, in Mexico were different. There was no amber light to alert drivers to prepare to stop, only the red and green stop and go lights. To compensate for this, when a light changed from green to red, the light for cross traffic remained red for a few seconds longer before turning green. This was supposed to assure that the cross traffic remained stopped until the intersection cleared and it worked.
Traffic circles (called glorietas) were also a new driving experience. Few cities in the US had them at that time and most American drivers weren’t familiar with them. Smaller ones were no special problem. It was the large, multi-lane glorietas that were tricky. I’m sure every city that has them also has tales of the legendary motorist (always foreign, usually American) who gets trapped in the inside lane and goes round and round A) for hours, B) for days, C) until running out of gas, D) all of the above. We heard Guadalajara’s version of the tale as soon as Mom started making friends there.

In all the years Mom drove in Mexico, she never had an accident and she never got a ticket. She obviously learned the rules of the road well, the lessons coming as much from screeching brakes and near misses as from anyone telling her about them.

Bridge? What Bridge?

Our trip was not without additional delays and perils. We’d made it through three customs stops and searches, we’d dodged uncountable potholes and survived the near-miss at the bridge. But there was still one more incident as part of our introduction to Mexico that first day.

SNAPSHOT: Ours is one of a caravan of vehicles leaving the highway and snaking across the flat, hard-packed desert. Immediately ahead of us are a large intercity bus and two semis. Our destination is the railroad trestle in the distance.

Toward the end of the day we pulled up behind a line of vehicles leaving the highway where a sawhorse barred further progress. The line snaked through scrub brush to a railroad trestle a half mile distant.
“Now what?” An edge of anxiety to Mom’s voice.

As we approached the barrier we saw the hand-lettered sign: ¡Amonestacion! ¡Puente Destrozado! Mom pulled over and turned off the engine.

“David, get out the dictionary and see what that sign says.” Vehicles continued to turn off, none of them questioning, all of them seeming to know just what to do.

I looked up amonestacion: Warning.

I looked up puente: Bridge

I looked up destrozado, although I could already guess what it meant: Destroyed.

The highway bridge had collapsed or washed out and the distant railroad trestle was the only way forward. We watched as cars, trucks and buses bounced and jostled their way across, tires straddling the rails.

The Ford’s engine sprang to life again and Mom eased us into the exodus. “Jesus!” she groaned, “What do we do if a train comes? No one is directing traffic or even watching for trains!”

Good question. But even so I was more curious and excited than worried. What would it be like to take a car over a train trestle? How long would it take to traverse the one hundred yards of train track? How jarring would it be? Would the trestle sway? Shake? Collapse?

Mom followed the traffic across the hard-packed dirt. My attention was divided between watching the trestle traffic and how Mom was reacting.

“You’d think, David, that they’d all have sense enough to cross one at a time, not all bunched up the way they are.”

“Well, even so, Mom,” I pointed out, “all those cars and trucks and buses don’t weigh as much as a train would. “

Mom’s face brightened a little at this, then clouded again. “Maybe so but a train moves across smoothly, on the rails. It doesn’t go across jolting and bouncing the hell out of the trestle. And if the highway bridge was wiped out, how sturdy can this be, for Chrissake?”

We watched, moving steadily forward as the vehicles ahead of us drove across. One after the other the two trucks and then the bus just ahead of us moved out onto the trestle. Now it was our turn and Mom balked.

“I’m not getting out there until those trucks and that damn bus are off!” Cars behind started honking but Mom ignored them. “It‘s bad enough having to cross the trestle. I’m not about to cross it while it’s being shaken off its foundations!“

When the vehicles ahead of us cleared, Mom, sitting like she wasn’t willing to put her full weight down, slipped into first gear and slowly, slowly, inched out onto the wooden trestle, which all of a sudden was looking, sounding, and feeling very rickety, even to me. Tie-by-tie, jounce-by-jounce (and probably prayer-by-prayer) Mom gentled the car forward until we had crossed and we were back on land. She relaxed and let her full weight settle back into the seat. I thought it was all pretty cool. Valerie slept through the whole thing.

NEXT: Guaymas, Where Mom Is Embarrassed, Not Pregnant & We Almost Lose Felice

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2010 12:07 am

    >Great story – I am enjoying each installment!

  2. January 18, 2010 6:12 am

    >You've done a great job of story-telling on this segment, lively and interesting. Fun and suspenseful with a nice pacing.John Nickson

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