Martin Howard legacy

Driving Miss Flores

A PhD is a funny thing. In my case, I puttered around for about two years, then wrote like mad for six months and passed the licenciate degree (the half-way mark in Sweden). Then another two years of puttering around in the US, working on lots of different projects which, for various reasons outside my control, never materialized. Finally, back in Sweden, nine months of absolutely manic work interjected by weekends in Stockholm (simply to get away from it all) and then you find yourself in the strange position that six weeks before your defense, you basically have nothing to do. In Sweden, dissertations have to be approved for printing prior to the defense, so for the three weeks that my 200 page ramblings about the design of computer systems was being produced in 300 bound copies, I decided the best thing to do was to flee the country.

On one of my trips to Stockholm I'd met Miri who was visiting her sister from Mexico. It took about five minutes to realize that this gorgeous, smart, and sassy Mexican beauty was someone I'd happily travel half-way across the world to meet again so during the time the printers were trying to coax their presses into accepting my manuscript, I boarded a KLM flight for Amsterdam and then Mexico City. I really wish they could invent Star Trek style teleportation: sitting in the back of a 747-400 for ten hours, even in an aisle seat, just isn't my idea of fun.

After a delightfully uneventful flight and customs proceedure, Miri met me at the airport. From the start, the city reminded me a lot of the less wealthy parts of London, oddly enough. The same kind of coal-based polution, the same overcrowded traffic, small cars, noisy driving. Lots of little houses all jumbled around, tiny businesses run out of someone's back yard. Strapped into the passenger seat, Miri navigated the absolute mess that constitutes M.C. traffic (or, actually, D.F. for distrito federal) while I did my best to not let my fear and panic show too clearly. Having just spent ten hours as an involuntary contortionist, punishing my body by trying to sleep in the 25cm wide economy class seat while suffering through Bruce Willis acting performance in "Bandits" — an experience which was made all the more painful by the fact that the audio quality in the complementary earphones was about as good as that which you'd expect from tin foil streched over a used soupcan — it took all the energy I could muster just to stop my eyelids from sagging.

Miri, a woman accustomed to being treated like a lady, is much happier being chauffeured than driving. Which can only mean one thing. After three days, she simply handed me the keys with a wry smile and made herself comfortable in the passenger seat. Protests were useless. Displays of fear and terror were out of the question. Being accustomed to cars the size of Eric the Red and languid Mid-Western traffic, the little Dodge Neon parked on the street seemed to offer far too little metal between me and the other cars travelling at the break-neck speeds I'd observed during the few moments over those three days when I'd dared open my eyes.

Traffic in Mexico City is quite an experience. Every single traffic law is advisory. The fact that anything works at all is down to two simple rules: (1) Whomever has the greatest kinetic energy goes first. (2) Even turn taking.

When I say that every traffic law is advisory, I really mean it. Parking zones? Advisory. Speed limits? Advisory. Red lights? Advisory. One-way lanes? Advisory.

Take speed limits, for example. There are a couple of roads that run the circumference of Mexico City. The inner one is Circuito Interior while the outer one is Periferico. Between 9am and 7pm, Periferico is the worlds longest circular parking lot, so the concept of a speed limit is entirely lost on anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves stuck there. But, like a lot of the long, wide streets running through Mexico City, Circuito Interior is at least three lanes wide. Posted speed limits are 40km/h, 60km/h, and 80km/h for the three lanes, from outer to inner. But this means nothing. Chances are, if you're ever doing less than 40km/h above the posted speed limit, you'll either be hit from behind, or arrested for obstructing traffic. Or both. At nights, this is increased. Police seem to favour driving slowly in the outermost lane with their lights on, but this does not stop people blasting past them at 120km/h in a 60-zone.

Red lights are also advisory. Not only does Mexico City have "turn-on-red", but also "go-straight-on-red" and my personal favorite "turn-left-infront-of-six-lanes-of-traffic-on-red". Standard operating procedure appears to be to slow down marginally for a red light, a preparatory move of your foot from the accelerator to the brake, and look determined. Indeed, in the evenings, stop at a red light and wait for it to turn green and the chances are that cars behind you will start blasting their horns.

The worst offenders, however, are taxis. In M.C., almost all taxis are VW Beetles (the old ones) painted green with white roofs. They are a veritable infestation. Being Beetles, they have, of course, no acceleration, no brakes, and barely any steering. Becoming a taxi-driver seems to require only that you buy a VW Beetle, paint it green and white, and stick a lighted sign on the roof stating "Taxi". Almost all the cars are falling apart, only about half of them have functioning brake lights (which makes sitting behind one an interesting experience in adrenalin-induced emergency braking), and none of the drivers have any regard for trivial issues such as personal safety, or the lives of anyone else who happens to occupy the space which they've set thier minds on driving through.

An example: quite a number of the street in downtown M.C. are four to six lane wide, one-way streets. Except for one lane, which is a bus lane going in the opposite direction. Taxis will happily blast past all other traffic by simply driving the wrong way down the bus lane. Presumably in the hope that there is not a bus coming in the opposite direction. When this does happen, they happily switch lanes at full blast (obviously without using their indicators or checking for traffic — who has time for that?) to get out of the bus lane and it's more or less up to you to either add another dent to the body of your car (most cars' bodywork bear an uncanny resemblance to the surface of golfballs), or quickly get the hell out of their way.

If this wasn't enough, just to keep you on your toes, lanes are advisory too. No one seems interested of staying in lane, especially when going around corners. There are white lane markers in the tarmac, but these are, of course, advisory. Everyone cuts corners, regardless of whether the inner lane is occupied or not. Staying in your lane on a straight stretch of road for more than ten seconds is considered poor form and simply not done. Indicators are decoration and their use is uncool. Six lane wide roads will happily turn into five and then four lane wide roads without any advance warning. Brake lights are uncool too. Together, this all means that you're shaking with adrenalin when you step out of the car at the end of your journey. Even if you've just driven two blocks.

When M.C. traffic does work in an orderly fashion is in traffic jams at intersections. There is a strict code of conduct which states that a fair equal distribution of access from the various streets feeding into an intersection or merger is adhered to. One car from the left. One car from the right. Ignore this at your own peril.

I was allowed to start out on a Sunday, when traffic was light. Having survived this, Miri considered me fit for Monday mid-day driving, while she dialled in 98.5 FM and curled up in the passenger seat. Of course, having absolutely no clue where I was, I quickly adopted a Zen-attitude of just going with the flow. You can't try to remain in control in this mess, you just simply have to trust higher forces, decouple linguistic reasoning and let the primitive (but oh-so-much-quicker) parts of the brain take over as you opportunistically surf momentarily vacant spots of tarmac. All this while obeying Miri's instructions: "OK, you're going to turn to your left at the next lights", "Take your middle lane, it's faster", "Flash your lights as you go through this intersection to let them know that you're not going to stop for cross-traffic".

Mexicans handle this with aplomb. During my trip, I had been invited to a wedding where Miri was one of the bridesmaids. Lydia, a friend of Miri's, arrived to guide us through the traffic, but we were runnig a touch late. When we eventually bundled ourselves into the car, I got handed the keys and the delightful task of trying to keep up with what was now a quite irritated Mexican woman in a small, fast Japanese car weaving through fast-moving, post-rush hour traffic along roads filled with potholes, while Miri sat in the passenger seat curling her eyelashes with the back of a teaspoon. The road surface left plenty to be desired and I was terrified that I'd arrive to find Miri holding a stray eyeball, so at irregular intervals I'd shout "POTHOLE!" or "RAILWAY TRACKS!". Miri, of course, handled all this with complete composure and impeccable poise. To her, it was just another Friday in Mexico City.

Towards the end of my stay, I managed to get my hands on the Mexico City equivalent of an "A-Z": a map of all the streets in the city. I'd become sufficiently used to the craziness going on outside our car that it was easier to know what could be ignored and what needed attention and I managed to figure out coming back from late-night movies which turn-offs were ours and where to go without Miri having to provide instructions at every single turn.

Hmm... I wonder sometimes if she wasn't just grooming me for future visits...