I drove to the Oaxaca airport yesterday morning to pick up a friend, making my way along a little-used back road that is now clogged with traffic because the main boulevard has been blockaded by anti-government protesters. Free speech in Mexico includes the right to hijack city buses, torch them, and leave their burnt-out carcasses as barricades across public highways.
So, the city adapts. People shrug their shoulders — what can you do? — and life goes on. My friend needed to pick up a camera at the Centro de Abastos, the huge city market where you can buy anything and everything, if you only know where to look. Being the accommodating sort, I said, “Sure, no problem!”
Abastos on a Saturday is like your local mall on the day after Thanksgiving if they gave away free Christmas shopping sprees to the first 10,000 customers. Pandemonium. Gridlock. No parking anywhere; traffic moving at a snail’s pace when it moves at all. A single policewoman valiantly blew her whistle every couple of minutes to give the appearance of order in the midst of chaos.
“No problem,” says my friend. “I’ll jump out here, get what I need, and be back in a few minutes. You drive down, make a U-turn, and meet me at this spot.”
Before the insanity of his plan had dawned on me, he had bolted out the door and disappeared into the throng. I didn’t even see which way he’d gone. But hey, no problem! He’ll only be a few minutes.
I made my way down the long avenue to a cut in the median and prepared to make my U-turn. Three jammed lanes of stopped traffic faced me.
No problem! Mexican drivers are unfailingly polite. I simply extended my hand out the window and signaled traffic to stop and make room for me. In Manhattan, they’d laugh at such naïveté. But here, the traffic parted like I was Moses standing before the Red Sea. I slipped into the slow-moving stream and headed back where I’d come from. It’s all about knowing the rules. The hand is mightier than the horn.
U-turn number two was trickier, since it was at a traffic light at a major intersection where drivers were not paying much attention to the red and green signals. I found my chance as a bus passed, inching my nose in front of a sleek, black sedan that didn’t dare challenge my beat up old Nissan. I made it back to the spot where my friend had abandoned ship and — shock and awe — he was nowhere to be seen!
Well, it had only been ten minutes. So I began the process again.
A half dozen circuits later, I pulled to the side and parked in a bus lane, figuring I could hide out for awhile behind the smoke-belching behemoths picking up shoppers weighed down with bags of vegetables and fruit. Unfortunately, it wasn’t two minutes later that the determined young policewoman spotted me and gave me a stern whistle and a wave of her hand. I put the car in gear and moved back into traffic.
By the ninth lap, I began to consider ditching my friend and letting him catch a public bus home
On my tenth lap, I spotted a low place in the concrete median where I could pull the car onto the sidewalk, out of the traffic and out of sight of the earnest policewoman. Ten minutes later, my friend found me and congratulated me on my excellent parking spot. Being the unfailingly polite person that he is, he apologized for taking so long. “No problem!” I replied.
For my efforts, he treated me to lunch at McDonald’s where I had an excellent Big Mac, fries and a Coke. I noticed the menu included hot apple “pay,” which in Spanish is pronounced like our “pie” and avoids an unappetizing association with the Spanish word “pie,” which would suggest deep-fried feet.
It was a good day to enjoy the company of a friend, to hone my Mexican driving skills, and to be part of the life of a great city in its determination to return to a life of normalcy while the political Kabuki theater plays itself out before an increasingly disinterested populace.
Photo credit: Benjamin Dowson, Flickr