Monday, August 27, 2012

Cars and buses (part 1)

Sometimes it seems like I have come back to Guatemala in order to take care of my car. It was having problems before I left in January (with the radiator) and then again in March when I was here for two weeks I spent more time than I would have liked taking care of it. It has been a benefit when it is working; although I spend more money than I would spend if I traveled solely by bus, I can leave and arrive when I want. For example, I am in Chichicastenango now, where Radio Ixmukané has relocated, and since my car is in the shop, I have to be very aware of when the last bus leaves, since there is not bus service late in the evening. That means I can't stay at the radio station in the evening unless I have a car (or unless I want to spend the night in Chichi, which means paying for a hotel), and now that the radio is broadcasting until 9 p.m., it would be interesting to listen to the evening programming sometimes. There are journeys that just are not easily made via public transportation -- for example, to get from Chinique to Momostenango, where I was invited for a workshop in Saturday, would probably involve three or four different buses and might take a very long time. Some journeys, however, are much faster via bus, since the drivers go at a breakneck pace.  So it usually takes me close to 4 hours to get from Santa Cruz del Quiché to Guatemala City, but the buses do it in 3 hours or less.  

However, the downside of having a car, and this is not just for me but for most of the car owners whom I know, is that one spends a lot of time and a lot of money repairing it. The roads are bad, most of us drive cars that are pretty old (mine is 13 years old), and thus there is a lot of wear and tear on vehicles, especially in the rainy season, which is about half of the year. It's not so much the rain itself, but the damage it does to the roads. Dirt roads turn into muddy swamps. Highways turn into endless series of potholes connected by crumbling strips of pavement. On most of the secondary highways and rural roads, there are frequent speed bumps, so one is both constantly downshifting and upshifting, but occasionally not seeing the speed bump in time and thus hitting it at a faster speed than recommendable for the continued health of one's chassis, shocks, and so forth.  Rural roads are usually a combination of dirt, gravel, and stone -- again, a lot of bump, bump, bump on the car, and a lot of strain on the transmission, battery, and engine to make it up the steep and winding roads on uneven surfaces. 

So, on Sunday, I set out to visit the mother of a friend in who lives in the states, up in the hills above the town. My car didn't seem to want to make the journey; something didn't feel right. It's a very steep road, lots of hairpin turns and dips, and is mostly dirt, gravel and rock. Under the best of circumstances it is a bit of a hairy drive; when my brother and daughter were here last summer, my brother was visibly uncomfortable when I drove them up the road to visit some friends to whom I felt obliged to present my family. There have been some improvements, a few parts have been smoothed out and partially paved, but the angles of the inclines and the curves haven't changed. Because of the rain there were parts that were kind of muddy and it was hard to make it up some of the slopes. At a certain point, not far from my destination, there is a very acute curve on a steep incline and the road, although paved at that point, is sharply banked and I always have to prepare to be able to make that turn.  I couldn't make it, and the car stalled on the curve. I knew that I wouldn't be able to make it without a little bit of momentum so I backed up as well as I could (going downhill in reverse on steep curving roads is perhaps my least favorite kind of driving). Still couldn't get any power going around the curve. I tried a few times, including with the help of my friend Armando, who lives in the house right at the curve (his parents weren't there, but neither of them drives so they wouldn't have been more help). Armando basically helped by guiding me, as it was hard to maneuver backwards down a slope. This is one of the few times when I actually want someone guiding me, as oppose to the sometimes unwanted intrusions from male bystanders who think they need to teach me  how to parallel park.

So, finally I gave up and then parked the truck as safely as I could and proceeded on foot, then after my visit returned and with Armando's help (again, gladly received) turned my car around 180 degrees so I could drive back down the mountain and take the car into a shop and see what was going on.  Doing a 3-point or K turn was part of my driver's test back in 1973, and I have executed many since then, but it is completely different on a relatively flat and paved surface than on a steep and narrow mountain road where sometimes pine trees are all that stands between you and the nearest ravine.  Did someone say guard rails? huh? what are those? 

The car was not happy, and stalled out several times. Too bad I am not conducting research on auto repair shops or transportation because it has seemed during this trip that I have spent more time purchasing parts, talking with mechanics, and in general dealing with my car, and then having to figure out how to get around without it.

Finally I came to halt after the Bridge de Xola (the first one on the way down, the second on the way up). I called my friend C. because I thought (correctly, as it turns out) I was going to need his help. It has occurred to me that life in Guatemala -- not just mine, but everyone's -- really depends upon family and friends. Everyday life activities take a lot of effort and it is nearly inconceivable to think of how one single person could manage, especially when it comes to taking care of something more extraordinary like a repair on one's home, faulty electrical wiring in one's office, or getting one's car repaired.

I was able to get the car started, but it stalled again; again I got it started, but it never quite made it to town. C arrived on his motorcycle; it seemed one of the spark plugs was gone, and so we tried to do an "artisanal" repair with with electrical tape and using our keys to enlarge the opening where it has to be "plugged". No good. Someone passed by and tried to help. Still nothing happening. C called a mechanic named Santos. He came out with some tools, but after a total of about 2-1/2 hours messing around the diagnosis was that the car had to go into the shop and we needed to get new spark plugs. Santos got someone to come and tow the car and I meanwhile headed to Santa Cruz where I was expected for lunch with my friends Jeanet and Nazario and their two daughters, Mati and Josselyn. 

Thus began my saga of riding on buses -- the converted school-buses, some of which still bear the trademarks of the American manufacturers, called camionetas, and the mini-vans (called here micro-buses). In writing about this, and possibly complaining a bit, I don't want to claim any special privilege. Here it's quite normal to get up at 3, take a bus at 4 for a meeting at 8 in another department, stay until 3 in the afternoon and then take another 4-hour bus ride to get back home to one's house. When friends at home shake their heads in amazement at my weekly commute, in my own car, of 4 hours to Massachusetts and, a few days later, 4 hours back to New York, I think of the people in Guatemala who often make a 6-8 hour roundtrip journey in a single day, and sometimes more than once in a week -- if they are people who live in the provinces, but are active in political activities and have to come to Guaetmala to lobby Congress or have meetings with people, or attending training sessions, then they do this uncomplainingly.

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