One afternoon, when I was living in Hangzhou, I almost got hit by a big motorized scooter- not a fully grown motorcycle, but close. Trisha and I were at some back alley street food bazaar, and I don’t remember what I was eating- probably a scallion pancake- but my mouth was full of it. Trisha said something funny (she’s a very funny person), and because I couldn’t laugh with my mouth, I laughed with my body and took a step back, and a zooming blur of yellow popped my personal bubble and almost killed me. Well, killed or maimed. Ca-razy rush of adrenaline and fear and then more adrenaline.
It was a close one.
I had been super relaxed, eatin’ my pancake, hangin’ with my girl T$- and forgetting that alleyways were sometimes pedestrian friendly and sometimes not. Yellow Bike of Death was a good reminder to stay vigilant as I moved around China.
No such reminders needed in Paraguay! Even though Matt warned me that driving in Asunción was nuts, I figured it’d be on par with other crazy driving situations I’d experienced.
Matt did his best to prepare me because he knows well my propensity for motion sickness and because I’d experience the ways of the road right away: I landed in Asunción last Sunday morning, found my cariño at the airport, showered at the hotel, and then jumped in his car to drive five hours to Ciudad del Este. My purse was fully stocked with Dramamine and these strong ginger candies I get at the Asian grocery store near my work- and still, I was unprepared.
Let me go back to the “his car” part of that last paragraph; for this latest trip to South America, Matt decided he’d get his International Driver’s License and rent a car to drive from the hotel to the plant and back (and of course, to Iguazú). His wheels:
Are you ready for the best car name ever? It’s called a Spacefox. Such a smart car! There’s a storage drawer underneath the driver’s seat. I want one in my real life.
Having a car allows Matt a little more independence in terms of his work hours, and it also allowed us to check out some farther-away places in and out of the city without calling taxis (although they are pretty cheap and easy to use). So during my time in Paraguay, I experienced quite a lot of city driving and country driving. They are both terrifying. Let’s start with city driving.
First of all, many of the stoplights don’t work. I’m not sure if it’s a power issue or a bulb issue, but it definitely is An Issue. All drivers just assume that if the lights were working, they’d have the green. So be careful at intersections. Second, it’s not uncommon for cars to have working headlights, but it also doesn’t seem to be required. As you can imagine, night-driving is its own brand of scary. More on that in a little bit.
Most of the main roads have four lanes, split down the middle by narrow boulevards. Buses dominate the right lane, so most of the traffic drifts over into the left. Unfortunately, there are very few left turn lanes. This results in the creation of that elusive Third Lane which exists somewhere in the middle, and most drivers feel free to swivel themselves in and out of all three lanes, sometimes within the length of a city block.
The other problem with this left turn thing is that the person turning will often position his car perpendicular to traffic, jutting into both directions’ left lanes, to wait for an opportunity to dart out and finish the turn. This leads to many a slammed-on brake and an insane amount of near-misses. This happened to us, actually, on the way back from Ciudad del Este. We squealed the hell out of old Spacefox’s tires and came literally within a few inches of t-boning this guy’s little Corolla. Good thing Matt has nerves of steel and reflexes to match- and of course, that we were driving a Spacefox.
Pedestrians have very little chance of crossing with clear traffic in both directions, so this is another thing to look out for: mad dashes into scads of oncoming cars because somehow people think they can frogger their way across all four lanes without getting smushed. As a driver, these people drive me nuts. As a pedestrian, I feel nothing but solidarity, sister.
What happens if you hit another car? No idea. It seems like many people don’t bother with license plates.
So I guess you’re on your own. The whole city driving experience felt a lot like grown-up bumper cars. But it was nothing compared to the sheer terror of country driving.
Let me share with you the first story I heard about country driving here, experienced by Matt’s coworker at the plant, David.
David has lived here for a couple of years, and because he lives in the city but works at the plant, he’s got a pretty solid hour-ish commute. So he drives a lot. Two weeks ago, as he was driving himself and three others back into the city at night, he was temporarily blinded by an oncoming car. Unfortunate, because this left him unable to see the giant cow and her baby calf standing in his lane. Yep. To quote Matt, who quoted David, “The cow exploded.”
I know!!! And the only reasons David and his three passengers didn’t explode are that 1) they merely clipped the cow instead of hitting it head-on and 2) all four were anomalously wearing seatbelts. But just think about how terrifying that is: you sideswipe a cow and because you’re going 60mph, you blow it up. The power in that kind of accidental collision is scary. So this is what was on my mind as we drove to Ciudad del Este.
Tried as I might, I couldn’t forget it. I mean, how did those cows get into the road in the first place? Oh, that’s right. They’re tied up on the shoulders of the two-lane, undivided highways that criss-cross the Paraguayan countryside. And you know, sometimes those ropes come loose.
Come on! That one is practically in my lap.
So I was pretty sure we were going to die via cow explosion. And if not that, then we were certainly going to die in the passing lane.
It’s customary, I’ve learned, to ignore the perforated and solid lines of the road that tell you when it’s safe to pass and when you should absolutely not pass. Those distinctions are up to you, my prescient friend! Surely you know what’s coming around that corner you can’t see beyond. So go ahead. Speed up and wiggle past whoever is in front of you, because there’s a solid 10% chance they’ll glance over their shoulder before trying to pass whoever is in front of them. Let me just say that Matt is an excellent driver, but no amount of defensive driving can prepare you to see a truck barreling towards you in your lane as you reach the top of a hill. (That was also a close one.)
There were other sorts of random perils on the country roads as well. Tons of riders with their helmets hanging from their arms piled onto little motos, patternlessly crossing from the shoulder to the road and back again. Lots of people hanging off of or on top of various vehicles. Even though the roads were well-paved, you just never know when a driver is going to swerve to avoid a chicken or a goat or a cow and send their seatbeltless passengers flying. A common sight:
Yes, that is a deck chair.
The other thing that really made me nervous while driving in the country was the insane amount of roadside memorials. I tried to get some good pictures, but the few I got are blurry and not of the most elaborate set-ups. I’m talking four-foot high houses with electricity and statues.
These were easily as common as the so-close-I-can-reach-out-and-pet-you cows, and just as unnerving. I did a little internet research and learned that these memorials usually have cement bases and remain on the property even after the original owners have moved away, so what we were seeing was an accumulation of who-knows-how-many years of deaths by car accident, but still! Like I needed the reminder.
But let me end this on a positive note, because what I discovered- and this is really the take-home message of this particular post- is that nothing cures wild motion sickness like Unadulterated Fear. I took not one tablet of Dramamine, and my stash of ginger candy remains untouched.
As I sit here at the airport, I can only hope that my pilot is a maniac.