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How Driving in Mexico City Changes You

~ Conversation snippet from inside our car, Tuesday night, 6:30PM ~

What are we going to do with this?

Scene: John & Julie are driving from Polanco to a friend’s house in Condesa for dinner. They are sitting in traffic on Thiers, a street that often requires 2 minutes to drive down, but tonight is requiring about 25 minutes. Traffic is so thick that they both momentarily lose all judgment and purchase a bright blue mini-keg water bottle from one of the dozen street vendors winding their way through traffic.

They are sitting in the far right lane of about 5 lanes, and they see a brown car emerge from a garage & prepare to enter the standstill traffic, roughly one car ahead of them.

Julie: [in a joking tone since this question is totally unrealistic] “Are you going to do your good deed for the day and let that guy in your lane?”

Amazingly, as if God wished to spare John & Julie the moral dilemma, the red car ahead of them lets the brown car into the lane. This is RARE in Mexico City.

Julie: “Wow. That was unexpected.”

They creep ahead another 40 feet, approaching an intersection where numerous cars are in line, waiting forlornly for the gap in traffic that will never come. The red car ahead of them YET AGAIN lets a car enter his lane. This is virtually UNPRECEDENTED in Mexico City.

John: [in a loud, indignant tone] “Who is this ahead of us, The Good Samaritan?!!? What the f is going on here?!!??!”

Julie considers chiding him for his outburst, but realizes she was also wondering “Where is this red car from anyway? Mayberry??”. They chuckle briefly in a moment of self-reflection at what impatient meanies they have become while driving in DF. [Sidenote: lest you think poorly of us, this approach is *required* to survive here. Just trust me.]

Then they move to a middle lane to minimize further confrontations, and distract themselves taking photos out John’s window of a prominent hood ornament.


In summary, I think both of us are going to be banned from driving in the Midwest ever again after our 2.25 years here. Do any training/re-acclimation sessions exist for topics like:

  • Re-adapting to Pedestrians: Our Friends, Not Our Targets
  • How to Gauge Whether Your Fellow Citizens Deserve to Merge in Front of You
  • Car Accidents: Just Because No One’s Bleeding Doesn’t Mean You Didn’t Have One
  • Turn Signals and their Place in Society
  • Red Lights: They Still Serve a Purpose Before 7AM and after 10PM

Please advise if you know anyone who can help us re-integrate into US-style driving. I think we’re going to need it, or DC’s Beltway’s drivers are never going to know what hit ’em. :)

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  1. Lesley says:

    I mean this in total seriousness: you’re the kind of DF driver I aspire to be. Watching you weave through traffic and blatantly ignore the stripes on the lanes (like everyone else is doing) is pretty awe-inspiring.

    I’ve never purchased water from the traffic vendors, but I did once buy a pen from a dude in a bar. Just a few days before I had crowed to Crayton, “Who buys PENS at bars?” And then, a few days later, I realized I needed one and boom the guy was there. It’s nice to know you’ll never lack for pens, Kleenex or water once you leave the house.

  2. Monjuni says:

    Inner-city driving aside, what used to blow our minds upon returning state-side, was encountering a nasty collision or wreck on what are comparitively pristine, ample, well-designed and maintained highways.
    These are much less common, but one can be incredulous that they happen at all.
    ?Como es posible? ?Porque?

  3. Monjuni says:

    The Concorde crash in Paris was blamed on Continental, it’s said a bolt fell off their 747 onto the runway at CDG!

    Think about this while looking out onto the runway upon departure from a US port and compare that to all the crap, aka: basura, on the tarmacs at MeX—

    Thunnrbird MBA: Valuable
    2 years on the ground in la gran capital: Priceless!

  4. Joy says:

    “Re-adapting to Pedestrians: Our Friends, Not Our Targets”

    I’ve had to re-adapt to being a safe pedestrian. Several times a week I find myself waiting to cross the street, thinking I’m still in Mexico, and I’ll get killed if I try to cross the street in any way. Stopped drivers actually WAVE AT ME to coax me off the sidewalk and across the street. It is a wondrous, amazing thing to be treated with such dignity.

  5. sw says:

    I’ve been living/driving in Latin America for 11 years. My friends beg me never to return to the U.S. In fact, when I am there, I nearly fall asleep sharing those wide open highways with a handful of safe drivers. I’ve gotten used to the fight-or-flight terror of driving here!

    You’ll also have to get used to not using your horn when you go back. The last time I was in Ohio, I waited patiently for a good 15 seconds for someone to start moving after the light turned green. I finally gave a little toot. My mother huffed, “We don’t DO that here!”

  6. mjesf says:

    As someone who lives where speed limits on freeways are construed as suggestions (SF Bay Area and California in general) and who learned to drive where you need nerves of steel to do so (Houston, TX) I hear you!

  7. Gilly Bates says:

    I have an 84 year old mother-in-law who would be perfect to provide you with a re-indoctrination of driving NOB. Her anticipation is so perfect she even knows to stop at each intersection before the light has turned red! Every stop sign is a 4 way stop… The speed limit may not have been lowered to 20mph on this road yet – but it will be someday and she’s not going to be fooled by the fact that they haven’t yet put up the sign. And we always have to watch out for pedestrians – even though they haven’t even hinted at crossing the road in front of us, they’re surely thinking about it (while sitting at home watching TV)!

  8. Julie says:

    Lesley– you are too kind. :) I know, I will miss the “we sell all things in all places” approach here

    Monjuni– you are absolutely right, it is a mystery to me why it seems like there aren’t that many *really bad* wrecks here like you see in the US.

    Joy– yes, they are über-strict on pedestrian-friendly laws back in Arlington, I sense tickets in our future…

    SW– I know your pain on the horn honking; my parents have been non-plussed by my new tactics back in Nebraska.

    mjesf– I think 3 summer internships in Houston may have helped trained me to get where I am today 😉 (driving-wise, that is)

    GB– for sure, the “preparing to stop because you sense a light may turn red” is my favorite observed behavior in Nebraska. The secret 20mph limits exist there as well…. Perhaps your suegra lives in my hometown?? 😉

  9. Zannie says:

    Interesting. I have never driven in Mexico but from my experiences there as a pedestrian, drivers seem to be *more* polite there than they are here (here being California). Drivers there will stop and wave me across the street when I stand there forlornly looking for a break in traffic. Not always, of course, but much more commonly than I’ve seen here.

    I haven’t spent much time in the DF though, just a few hours on a layover. Most of my time in Mexico has been in small towns to medium sized cities.

  10. Leslie says:

    Just today my mom asked if i was going to drive in mx city once we move there. I said I had to if i wanted to go anywhere with our baby. As you know car seats are unheard of there. We were there in july with our 3 month old (mtg grandparents) and was pleasantly surprised at how many people actually stopped to let me cross the street. I know it was bc I was our baby and we were in Polanco. I wouldnt expect that down in the zócalo. Anyway, your blog is hilarious! We are planning to move to df in about 5 mths from Houston. You may be a great resource, if you don’t mind.
    I sent you an email, I hope you can will respond.
    You are living in a great nieghborhood!

  11. Chris says:

    Very funny and true. I am temporarily in Boston, which used to have a reputation for tough drivers and driving, but compared to my current home, Oaxaca, these people are lambs. They actually slow and stop at yellow lights, let alone red lights. What’s with that? In Oaxaca there is a good few seconds of red light that everyone abuses. And buses make left hand turns from the right lane. No problem. All good training for the DF, which is always fun to drive in. Viva Mexico!

  12. You should let people in and stop for pedestrians, just for the novelty of it. My husband (who’s Mexican) does it all the time and it really freaks people out. Pedestrians don’t want to believe it… it’s like they are suspicious that you will wait for them to get halfway across and then hit them or something. And of course then people behind you honk for letting people cross. Qué poca.

    Anyway, we try to do that and encourage “cultura vial” in our own little tiny way. Plus it’s enjoyable to see people’s reactions.

    P.S. Have you noticed how women NEVER let people cross/merge? It’s sad but true. The few people who do it are almost always male.

  13. Laura says:

    I never even drove in Mexico City but apparently absorbed all of the crazy aggressive driving just from being immersed in the transportation there. I am now a proudly aggressive Midwestern driver, and I’m sure I scare the crap out of all the Midwestern drivers around me 😀

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