Posts Tagged ‘always look both ways’

Sometimes you have to leave the U.S. to really appreciate all the little things that protect you and make life easier. Everyone in America was raised to “always look both ways before crossing the street.” I remember as a kid thinking “gah, why do we have to stop EVERYTIME only to gape in both directions, obviously there are no cars. This is dumb.” What I didn’t realize at the time was how this repetitive classical conditioning creates the association of approaching a street with checking for traffic before crossing. Even just reading that sentence, it seems so axiomatic that it’s almost not even worth saying. Of course you look both ways, it’s a freakin’ street. Combine this with constant parental insistence on not playing in the street, never chasing your ball into the road, and never getting into cars with strangers, and you have a very comprehensive set of habits and associations that keep you safe as a child and an adult.

 

How many Nicaraguans does it take to break back into your own truck?

 

Down here they have none of that. People get hit by cars all the time. It’s crazy. I’ve seen mothers carrying their baby cross a busy highway without looking even once. I’ve been in the car LITERALLY hundreds of times where we had to swerve or slam on the brake to avoid someone absent-mindedly crossing the road. It happens 2-3 times a week minimum, even in the areas where we are always driving. Combine this with the general absence of traffic laws and you get a place with a lot of automobile accidents and fatalities.

 

There are all kinds of different highway street performers….most of them are fire jugglers or clowns….

 

In the 19 months I have been here I have seen 2 police cars outside of Managua, the capital city. Traffic is basically self-regulated everywhere outside of there. For the most part, surprisingly, it works. People pass each other like they have a huge bet in Vegas on a fiery car crash, but I think the overall crappyness of all of the cars actually works to keep speeds very low. The speed limits are around 65 kph (~40mph) and a lot of cars barely can even hit the speed limit because they are so busted down (or are carrying an absurd amount of weight.) Also, cars are insanely expensive relative to not only the median Nicaraguan wage, but to U.S. cars. We bought some used trucks for $18,000 each, and that was after some successful haggling. Basically anywhere south of the border has cheap everything, but expensive cars and electronics, so most people here have neither cars nor a lot of electronics. These factors definitely combine to make the actual road fatality numbers a lot lower than you would expect.

 

One of my guys has this for his driver’s license picture. Yes this is a valid driver’s license. Yes that is a picture of him as a baby.

 

All this aside, the actual inspiration for this rule came from an epiphany I had whilst we almost hit some lady with our car. But first I will back up.

From my office/house to one of the drill sites it is about 33 minutes in a truck, the road is not very good so we can’t go very fast, maybe 25 mph tops on some of the smoother areas. The last 4 months I have had to make this trip almost every day, and so I found ways to occupy the time. Whether it be buying Harry Potter on tape in German and using that 33 minutes (66 round trip) to try to expand my language skills, sleeping, or by getting to know the locals. One of the locals who I pass everyday is this blind man named Pichardo. Surprisingly enough, he is one of the people who is never in the path of the truck when we are driving to site. It is a gravel road so the truck makes a lot of noise, and he hears it distinctly from about 100m away. He will turn and whistle at us right when we are passing him. This hearing dominant perspective of the world is pretty common with blind people everywhere.

An interesting thing occurs when we have two trucks going to the field. Because it is such a low traffic road (~5 cars a day including us) it’s generally safe to assume that there is only one car. So when we are driving with two he will often get out of the way upon hearing the first car and start walking back to the middle of the road in the path of the second car before it has to honk and alert him of its presence. The overwhelming sound of the first car washes out the sound of the second one.

 

Nicaraguans, known for their savvy use of space, never waste the roof of a bus

After seeing him walk back into the road after a first car I was keen to see if normally sighted locals do it too. Interestingly enough, over the course of the last several months I noticed that almost everyone locates cars this way, blind or not. Nearly every time we have two cars it occurs where they will hear it coming, get out of the way and without even looking back, walk right back into the middle of the road. The only times they will turn their head and use their eyes is when they need a ride, as we are the only ones who ever gives anyone a ride.

After noticing this I started seeing it everywhere. On the highway, people use the sound of approaching cars to move away but rarely turn back and look. This might be one of the main reasons they tend not to look for cars when crossing the road as they normally check by listening. Of course in comparison, this is a far more dangerous way to conduct oneself around roadways. From noise pollution drowning out the sound of other cars to the simple difference in the velocity of the waves (the speed of light is 873,000 times faster), obviously looking for cars is superior to listening to them.

Really the bottom line is that you can’t blame anyone for this. Most of the people here didn’t grow up around cars like Americans. Cars in America are so ubiquitous it is unbelievable. It is almost perfectly opposite in impoverished countries. In the U.S. it is odd if you don’t have access to a car and even weirder if you don’t have your driver’s license. But down here it’s perfectly understandable why no one talks about street safety or car safety. Even the animals don’t yield the road to cars. You have to drive around all the street dogs otherwise you will actually run them right over, no matter how slow you are going.
This all brings me back to the rule. The few people that do drive, drive like maniacs. No stop signs. No passing safety. No seat belts. So if you do go to Central America or Nicaragua specifically, keep your head sharp near roads and definitely always look both ways.

 

Oh and always say Guat Zap to the locals.