Friday, February 18, 2011

Driving while female

As I've indicated in earlier posts, driving in Guatemala (or being a passenger) is a high-risk undertaking. Bus drivers and passengers can be subject to extortions and killings. The highways are winding and steep, and a good stretch of the Panamericana is under repair, so there are construction delays, detours, and unpaved stretches. All of which can lead to accidents. I'm surprised I haven't seen more, but yesterday on my drive up from Antigua I came across a back-up somewhere north of Tecpan due to a bus that had ... well, I'm not sure what had happened to the bus, but the rear wheel and bumper on the driver's side seemed to be completely missing. There were a bunch of unhappy looking passengers on the side of the road being interviewed by police; another bus, presumably from the same company, had stopped and some of the packages were being accommodated on top. Sorry, no photos: it's dangerous and energy-draining enough to just drive those roads; figuring out how to stop so I can take a photograph without being killed would take more effort than I can spare.

However, pervasive machismo means that female drivers face additional risks -- male drivers who are so incensed by the presence of a woman behind the wheel that -- if one can possibly imagine this -- they drive even more recklessly than normal.  At least that's what it feels like from my perspective, as one of the very few female drivers on the Panamericana. I do not know what the statistics are nationally for drivers and driving, but I would say that a ratio of 80% male to 20% female is a very generous estimate of the percentage of female drivers. There are more women driving in places like Antigua, Panajachel, and Guatemala City -- but up here in the altiplano I'd say the ratio is 90/10 at best.  

I am not kidding about the additional risks. On Tuesday, as I was driving along, heading south on the Panamericana, minding my own business, another driver (male, of course) tried to take me out. Not with a gun, but with his vehicle.  We were on one of the rare stretches of the Panamericana that has two lanes in each direction, a little south of Tecpan. There is, at this point, no raised divider between northbound and southbound lanes (and a good thing, as you will soon learn).  So, there I was, enjoying the afternoon sun (it's been relatively cold and cloudy, so the sun on the highway was a treat). I was in the left lane as I had just passed a few slow moving vehicles and then came upon another truck in the right lane. I decided to pass him as well, although I wasn't going exceptionally fast (we were on a relatively level stretch of road). Apparently he didn't want a woman to pass him. That's the only explanation I can give for what he did. Instead of just staying in his lane and accelerating, preventing me from getting ahead of him, he abruptly swerved into my lane. The only option I had was to swerve to the left as well which put me into the passing lane on the northbound side -- that is, he forced me into the opposing traffic. 

Fortunately, there was no concrete divider: otherwise I would have ended up having to go over it (the dividers are about 5-6 inches high). Even more fortunately, there were no vehicles in the lane into which I was forced for another 1/2 mile or so (we were on a flat, straight stretch so I had pretty good visibility).  I was able to recover my equanimity, and then found a place where I could cross back over to my side of the highway. I did see that truck again, several kilometers down the road (as we came upon one of the many construction sites) and copied down the plate number ... but I didn't see any highway patrols until I was very near the turnoff for Antigua, and it was on the other side of the highway, which would have been difficult to reach, and I also thought, "Well, what are they going to do?" 

There's not a lot I can do to disguise my gender identity behind the wheel: binding my breasts would be too uncomfortable, time-consuming, and probably wouldn't work.  Maybe invest in a baseball cap or a straw "cowboy" style hat like a lot of people in the campo wear? It's hard to discern, from a distance, which truck or bus drivers are just ordinary garden-variety homicidal maniacs, and which ones really have it out for women. 

1 comment:

  1. I'd definitely go the hat route -- the bigger and more concealing, the better. No need for binding, just wear a big shirt (the more campesino the better) over whatever you've got on.