Friday, April 29, 2011

Safety second or third, driving in La Paz, Mexico

     I admire people who drive with skill equal to Mad Max. Driving in La Paz is the best of Road Warrior on an average day. I thought Mexican bus drivers deserved special recognition for outrageous maneuvers in moving vehicles, until I rode with the Doctor. He owns hotel Yeneka, my favorite place to stay in La Paz. The first time was just a boring errand to pick up my bags from the boat. Rich wasn’t impressed with the hotel though, he said “Yeah, if you like staying in Sanford and Sons,” when I brought him by to see the place, but to each his own. Tripadvisor doesn’t have a box to check for artistic merit or outrageous characters when rating a hotel. If you prefer life outside the box; my score for Yeneka is a solid ten in both regards.
     On the way to pick up my bags we rode in a small car that I would never guess could accelerate beyond common sense in one short city block, the speed limit being; as fast as you can possibly go. The windshield was dusty, which helped cut the glare of the midday sun, which lit up cracks in the glass like dew on a spider web. The Doctor didn’t bother to shift gears until the racing engine backfired. I didn’t know it was possible to downshift while still accelerating, but he did it with such skill that the car slowed slightly for oncoming traffic at intersections without standing on end or turning the transmission into jewelry pieces. Another rule of the road is that the first car to cut another car off has the right of way. Aggression in high volume is required. The other car might have to slide into a controlled skid, but that’s what brakes are for. I can’t remember if the Doctor ever used his. I’m convinced you have to be born a Mexican male to know a compact car’s threshold for maximum compression, just short of blowing a head gasket. Machismo is the word for not giving a shit if you do punch a rod through the engine block. We picked up my stuff and were back at the hotel in less time that it would take to hail a cab.
     A few weeks later I moved off Si Bon, back to the hotel. Rich dropped me off in a rental car and stupidly I left my computer bag on the back seat. He called the hotel from the airport. Raul, the manager of the hotel who is known for getting things done, called the Doctor who was luckily not far away. He roared up to get me in a jacked Izuzu Trooper with mega off road tires. Painted on the side; “La Mula del Diablo”, (the devil’s mule) and a silhouette of a naked couples in wild embrace. I climbed in and he launched forward into traffic to get to the airport before Rich boarded his plane. I don’t know if there’s a word for standing on the gas and the brakes at the same time, but the effect of gunning the engine at a full stop turned the truck into a bucking bronco prodded by a blow torch. The cars in front of us instantly moved over when the traffic started up. Curbs are designed for low slung compact cars; driving over them felt like cracks in the pavement. I checked my watch, no worries. An airport sign blew by and then the road was suddenly choked with cars. We’d have to wait through a few lights, or so I thought. The truck veered into the dirt emergency lane without slowing down, passing between the lanes of idling cars inches from a hot dog vendor. He angled into the cross walk ahead of the other cars and hit the brakes, then grinned. “In Mexico, the biggest truck goes first,” he said, leaving a cloud of dust in the intersection. With no cars in front of us, acceleration didn’t end until the turn off for the airport materialized, which seemed like seconds. Rich was waiting with my computer and, duh, there was plenty of time to spare. The ride back was fairly low key, more like an average car race, rather than a race car driver with a mission.
       Today stepped things up a notch. I rode along to drop hotel guests off at remote beach over the top of a mountain. Up one side and straight down the other. If the roads in town are not well maintained, the dirt roads in the dessert redefine off road. It hasn’t rained in La Paz for over a year and a half, which makes dust the new fog. Drive slowly and the particle cloud generated by big ass tires catches up with you. Just to say, it never did since the truck didn’t exactly slow down, ever. The girl in the back started laughing when she found herself airborne, which was a good thing since the other option was abject terror. I wore my seatbelt, although it nearly decapitated me when we bounced through giant ruts. I tried to hold my camera up, but it bashed me in the head. Peals of laughter continued from the back seat as we topped the mountain and rocketed downhill toward the beach, hanging on to keep from bouncing out a window. I got out to take photos of the truck lunging down the road and only then did it seem utterly impossible that we’d made it that far. Inside the truck the overwrought suspension complained like a badly maintained carnival ride. Outside, rocks tortured under the tires sounded like madmen hurling beer bottles at glass doors. The gear shift cover was long gone, the road visible through the floor.
     We left the couple at the beach to be picked up later and I thought the ride was over. Not quite. We hadn’t actually gone down the steepest road to a rocky beach where the Doctor balanced the truck on three boulders. I didn’t bother wearing the seat belt after the first free fall downhill. It really felt safer to leave it off. The choice was neck burns for sure or slow, inevitable death if the truck plunged off the road and rolled fifty times into the canyon below. A quicker death seemed the better choice. Driving back into town was a weird re-entry. The usual traffic seemed downright tame. When we arrived at the hotel the mechanic who was standing by crawled under the truck with his tools. I assume that’s simply routine after a little drive in the country.                 

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