Thursday, January 12, 2012

Killer buses, or life at an angle

So, there I was in a ditch, looking at the world all atilt. That is the angle to which the title refers: it was about a 60 degree angle -- the angle of the chassis of my car, which had been pushed into a steep concrete drainage ditch at about KM 90, near Tecpán, Guatemala.  To cut to the chase, I was not hurt, and my car was not seriously damaged. Still, it was not fun getting run off the road by a bus driver and his assistant (the assistant seemed to be positively gleeful as the bus sped by, after having succeeded in forcing me off the road and into the drainage ditch).

It wasn't the best day I've had.

It started with the woman who owns the guesthouse where I have been staying throwing me out. My sin: yesterday I had washed out some clothes since I had not planned to stay in Antigua for 3 nights and did not have clean clothes. I had hung the garments on plastic hangers, and in transferring the garments into my room to hang up and dry, I inadvertently left one garment out in the common area. At 7:00 this morning, as I was making my breakfast, she angrily told me "I don't want you leaving your clothes all over the place. I think you'd better go today. So please give the key right now and pay me." She had been a bit testy as I had originally said I was staying one night (Sunday), and handed back her key on Monday morning when I left. However, later on Monday, when it turned out the offices of the Superintendencia de Telecomunicaciones were closed, I called her  to ask if I could stay again and we worked out a time for me to arrive (I did call her when my car broke down on the highway to make sure I could still arrive at her home). Tuesday morning when I left, I handed back the key. I thought that the repair wouldn't take that long. The repair didn't take that long; but the parts had to be ordered in Guatemala City. So when I got to the garage, and found out that the parts couldn't be procured before the afternoon, I realized that I would have to stay another night. I called her immediately; she seemed put out because she had changed the sheets already and had done so the day before. I apologized for inconveniencing her, and raced back to get the key as she was leaving the house soon.

So, I don't say that I was totally blameless, but I do think that kicking me out at 7 a.m. because I had one item of clothing on a hanger in a common area (I think I left it on the doorknob of my room, actually) is a bit extreme -- and I had also sent some friends to stay at this guesthouse.

This put a wrinkle in my plans -- I had thought that I could walk to the garage much more easily if I were not carrying all of my stuff, and then I would drive back with the car to get everything. I had gone shopping for presents on Tuesday night, and I had also purchased food since I didn't want to eat at a restaurant again on Tuesday.

But I sucked it up, packed everything and walked out the door, making sure I cleaned everything I had touched in the kitchen; for a spiteful moment I thought about leaving a few dirty dishes -- after all, how much more pissed off could she get? -- but couldn't bring myself to do that. On the more benevolent side I considered leaving some food that I probably won't eat for other visitors in the house, but then decided I would give it to friends here in Chinique -- my friends here are much more in need of extra food than foreigners who can afford 85Q a night at a guest house.

I got the phone number of the garage from my friend Marcos, the person who had referred me to the garage (he owns a shuttle service and while I have rarely needed to use his services as I have my own car -- that is, when it is running -- I often refer to him for car-related matters; he has been a life saver on more than one occasion) and called so I didn't schlep all the way across town for nothing. The car was ready so I found a tuk-tuk and got to the garage, only to find that they hadn't calculated the bill yet. I decided I was going to treat myself to a yoga class (I paid for a series of classes but haven't been in Antigua much so it wasn't literally a treat in terms of an additional expense, but in terms of using my time), so I fretted and then paid and then raced (as best one can on Antigua's very bumpy cobblestones) to the upscale hotel where the yogis give classes.  I thought I especially needed the good karma after all the unpleasantness.

Then to Guatemala City where I had to get more money from the Embassy as the car repair had used up nearly all my cash (the hydraulic pump had to be replaced) and my ATM card had been compromised a few weeks ago (someone rigged at ATM in Santa Cruz del Quiché, apparently, and transferred my number to an ATM in Bogotá, Colombia, where several hundred dollars was withdrawn), and had to be canceled, so I have no other way of getting money (the Embassy cashes checks for Fulbrights and even though my Fulbright is technically over, they are still very accommodating for me, and they have agreed to continue providing me this service as a Fulbright alumna when I come back later this year).

Then off on my original mission: trying to get information about radio frequencies from the Superintendencia de Telecomunicaciones. The woman at the reception was very pleasant, but it turns out that one has to put the request in writing and deliver it in person. I had made plans to have lunch with a colleague, and I wanted to get back to Chinique because January 11 was the selection of the "reina indígena", and thus an important research opportunity, and I couldn't find a computer place nearby, so I wasn't able to do it on the spot. Everything in Guatemala City involves calculating how to get from one place to another, and if one has a car, then one has to factor in finding parking. You either walk a lot, or take buses which are unsafe, or taxis which are expensive and also potentially unsafe, or drive your own car which means finding parking.

A lovely lunch with a wonderful colleague, at Sophos, the bookstore/café (terrific sandwiches, with really good whole-grain bread as an option, accompanied with a nice little salad), and then I was off on the road again.

Things were going pretty smoothly (the engine is still racing a bit in neutral, but otherwise handled fine) until I came around Tecpán, and found myself being menaced by the driver (and his assistant, who was hanging out of the door) of a Marquensita bus. I had passed him on an uphill stretch, and then the road briefly narrowed down to one lane, and then widened out again to 2 lanes. I was in the right hand lane and he was in the left hand lane and there was a pretty long stretch ahead of us where there are two lanes in each direction. So, if he wanted to pull ahead of me, he could easily have done so. However, he decided that he wanted to run me off the road apparently, and pulled very close to my car. I gestured to the assistant, trying to convey, "What's up?" But before I had a chance to slow down (I didn't want to go into a skid, so I just let up on the gas a little), the driver swerved very deliberately into my lane, smashing into the side of my car and knocking me into a fairly deep section of the concrete-lined drainage ditch that runs along much of the highway. The assistant, still hanging out the door, waved his arms gleefully, expressing his satisfaction with my predicament, and they sped off down the road, leaving me sideways in my car.

Miraculously I was not hurt at all, the car was not seriously damaged. At first I couldn't lift the driver's side door, and thought it was damaged but it was just the weight -- the car was nearly on its side. I crawled out and assessed the situation. A man on a bicycle, on his way home from work, stopped, and then another man walked over, while a few women just watched (I have yet to have a woman help me out on the road). The two of them tried pushing -- I climbed back into, started the engine, and put the car into reverse. The ditch was much shallower behind me and if we got it back far enough I could get back on the road.  Two men were not enough, but a third materialized (people are always materializing in the most unexpected places here) on the other side of the road, with his wife on the back of a motorcycle. He left her and the cycle and came across to help, and between them, they pushed the car and guided me since it was hard to figure out how to steer it in a sideways position in a ditch. The other challenge was the traffic: cars and trucks and buses whiz along the Panamerican highway at breakneck speeds and I was at a slight curve in the road. One of the men, the first one who stopped, produced a bright orange vest from his backpack (apparently he works on one of the many road crews out along the road) and used it to signal cars to go into the left hand lane. So, I cautiously edged my way backwards and into a more vertical position and then was finally able to push it into first gear and move forward. I pulled over and checked the damage: scratches and dents and a scrape on driver's side, but nothing worse that I could see. Opened the hood: nothing visibly wrong there. I only had a few small bills with me which I gave to the first man who had stopped.

However, my pleasure at having my car up (literally) and running was short-lived. Apparently the crash into the ditch had damaged my front passenger's side tire (which received the brunt of the impact) and about 10 km down the road, I felt that awful wobble which means a flat. I didn't see a pinchazo nearby but pulled into the nearest place I could find, a little roadside store. A man who was driving an Isuzu jeep had also pulled in. I called out to see if anyone had a jack (yes, I know, I should have bought one long ago, but I would still need someone else to help me jack up the pick up). He rummaged around and found one, and we both had four-handled lug wrenches (here called "una cruz" - a cross), so between us, we got the car jacked up and loosened the lug nuts and put on my spare. There were several men sitting drinking soft drinks at the store, and they all watched in amusement (not very expressive, but they were definitely watching and talking about us) as I maneuvered the lug wrench and stepped on it, using my body weight to loosen the lug nuts. Very few women drive here, and I would bet dollars to donuts that even fewer get their hands dirty helping change a tire.  The man stripped off his shirt (he was neatly dressed, and obviously a professional of some sort; he was heading to Chichicastenango, I found out, as we talked a little bit while working on the car). I asked him what he would like to drink and purchased a soda for him. I wasn't sure whether it would be correct or offensive to give him a little money (he owns a nice car and was well-dressed, but he did go well out of his way to help me out). Getting a flat fixed at a shop costs about 15Q (that includes jacking the car, removing the tire, patching and reinstalling) so I gave him 5Q (in addition to purchasing the soft drink).  He told me there was a pinchazo a few kilometers ahead,  so I stopped and had the man there tighten the lug nuts some more and check the air on the tire...

So I finally made it home, just in time to see the coronation of the reina indígena... but that's a story for another blog.


  1. Word. That bus driver is a criminal! If it were for him, you could be lying dead in some ditch. There seems a lot of spite in that action of running you into a ditch. Scary.

  2. I did actually report the incident to the next PNC I saw -- someone who pulled me over to check my license and registration. I was too busy being practical, trying to figure out how to get out of the ditch, to actually be scared... to be perfectly honest. Annoyance was the prevalent emotion, not fear.