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Driving in D.F.

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. :)

Cars to Avoid in Mexico

Acquiring a driver’s license in Mexico City can be done with a concerning level of ease. You just bring your passport & your visa (showing you’re in the country legally) to the Secretaria de Transportes y Vialidad, and after an hour- you are good to go! No written exams, no driving test, no nothing.

This level of rigor is duly reflected in the skill levels of drivers around here, as I have alluded to previously. Mastering the unwritten rules of the road definitely took me a few weeks, but now I have learned to drive as crazily as the rest of ’em. Some key tips include:

  • Never use your turn signal (sign of weakness & alerts others to your secret desires, i.e. to be in the left lane)
  • Never make eye contact (also sign of weakness)
  • When you see a car at an intersection a block ahead of you debating whether to pull out in front of you, give your horn a few rapid honks. This translates as “If you dare pull out in front of me I will slam into your car with the wrath of a thousand angry burros”
  • If their car is crappier than yours, they will win when it comes to who gets to merge first. (they have less to lose)
  • Never drive in the far right lane, as it is constantly littered with peseros stopping to pick up/drop off passengers, cars parked with their hazard lights on, and guys riding 3-wheeled carts selling water jugs/breakfast breads/other tasty morsels.

Anyway, I often wonder how the more timid among us manage to get up the nerve to start driving in this city. The answer is right here:

I think the phrase I'm looking for is "cruising for a bruising"...

I think the phrase I'm looking for is "cruising for a bruising"...

Of all the cars on the road, I fear these the most– with the “Auto School– Caution” warning emblazoned on their rear. I guess I should be appreciative of the fraction of the percentage of DF residents who actually try to learn how to drive from a professional. Unfortunately, these instead strike me as both accident magnets and weaklings who are just waiting to be naturally selected. God bless those Auto School instructors who put their lives on the line daily to try and teach a subject that really can’t be taught… it can only be learned through experience. :)

As for me, I am steering clear of these bright-eyed pupils…outside of giving them the quadruple warning honk if they even consider venturing near my lane while clipping along at 15mph… :)

What really constitutes a “car accident” in Mexico City anyway?

Yesterday marked my first car accident (if you can even call it that) in Mexico City. Frankly, I am somewhat amazed that it took this long for my car to come in contact with another car. Before anyone gets concerned (Mom), know that my car was moving at roughly 0.5 mph, as was the other party’s, through one of the crappiest intersections in Polanco. Rather than attempt to describe said intersection, I will set the stage through this truly-lifelike, high-res drawing done in Powerpoint, graphic design tool of the world’s finest illustrators… (click to make it semi-legible).
Intersection of Ejercito Nacional & Cuernavaca in Polanco. Left-turn lanes do not exist here (it's more of a pile-on approach), and the thought "Hmm, maybe I shouldn't go because the light will definitely turn red & I will be blocking 4 lanes of traffic" has never crossed anyone's mind.

Intersection of Ejercito Nacional & Cuernavaca in Polanco. Left-turn lanes do not exist here (it's more of a pile-on approach), and the thought "Hmm, maybe I shouldn't go because the light will definitely turn red & I will be blocking 4 lanes of traffic" has never crossed anyone's mind.

Here’s a quick loosely-recalled run-down of the incident for those of you perched on the edges of your seats with suspense:
(For realism, translate all statements said aloud into Spanish. Garbled letters/numbers/symbols signifies where I did not understand actual Spanish; does not signify obscenities.)

Julie, to self: I am never going to get through this goddamn light. ADELANTE, you rat bastards! Please, feel free to continue streaming in front of me despite ME having the green light.

[Inches forward more into intersection. Slight scrape-y sounds causes her to realize she has underestimated length of husband’s car]

Julie, to self: Crap. Great, he seems to have noticed & is waving at me. What does he want me to do, get out in the middle of the intersection? This surely is not an uncommon occurence. Do people even stop in Mexico when someone touches your rear bumper at 0.5 mph?

Dude with bushy hair: 3C(js93!. Do you have your license? Let’s go over to that street to look at the damage.

Julie: Yes, of course

Dude: Give your license to me so I know you will follow me over there. Otherwise how do I know you will follow me [repeat 3 times]

Julie: I WILL FOLLOW YOU. Trust me.   [we drive to street on other side of intersection]

Dude: See, there is a scratch. This is not my car, it’s my bosses. j2(S*@@ DK#$kaei@ 8i2 12MVNnw0. This will cost money to repair. Do you have insurance? Do you want to wait?

Julie: Of course I have insurance. Note that you were cutting in front of me when I had a green light. That intersection is crap. It looks like a minor scratch. I am FINE waiting for insurance. Do you want to wait for it over this scratch?

Dude: That is how things work at that intersection. 290DJK@0!)!  ehw%20s  &* 239Sbm 30S*@.

Julie: Hey, whatever, I am happy to call my insurance.

[Policeman arrives onto the scene]

Copper: What happened?

Julie: I barely touched his car while he was cutting in front of me when I had a green light. [essentially true, only detail left out was 0.5mph speed]

Copper: [looks at scratch on his car, looks at me as if to say “WTF? Is this really worth dealing with?”, asks Dude:] Is this really worth the trouble? The scratch is blue, her car is gray.

Julie: [wrings hands & rolls eyes supportively in agreement of cop’s assessment of frivolity]

Dude: sd##) sklQPO!)!! @*K  @()@*KJDA!#>.  This will cost money to fix, it’s not my car etc. etc. etc. You are just taking the side of the pretty lady instead of me. She’s going to call insurance. See, look how this rear portion of my car frame moves [when I vigorously pull it back & forth with my hands].

Julie: I imagine the other side moves the same way if you tried it on that side. Also, the scratch is blue. [ignores blue lettering on her license plate]

[Dude is not convinced, continues whining about how it is his boss’s car]

Copper: [sigh] Fine, call insurance.  [exits stage left]

Julie: [Calls insurance, who is surprisingly easy to interact with in Spanish. Apparently they will call back shortly to advise who is coming to assess & when assessor will arrive. Perfect! Informs Dude of status of waiting for impending call. Asks him if he has called his insurance; apparently not, just hers is enough. Julie is uncertain of validity of this statement, but whatever; it’s his problem if her insurance is mean to him.]  Sidenote: according to John’s similar experience, you in fact need BOTH parties’ insurance adjustors there to resolve the issue at the scene.

[Fill in waiting time with awkward chatter that I barely understand. Eventually resort to pretending something super-important is happening on my cell phone screen.]

[Insurance calls back! Yipee, someone will be here in 5 minutes! Que suerte!!  Julie informs Dude of impending arrival. 2 minutes later, Dude makes call to someone. 30 seconds after hanging up, Dude slowly ambles over to where Julie has retreated to sitting in passenger seat of car, to avoid angry honks of traffic who is hating us for blocking 1 of 3 lanes of traffic.]

Dude: Did you already call your insurance?

Julie: Um, did I stutter during the 10 updates I gave you about me calling them & them calling me back & someone being 5 minutes away?

Dude: Well, the thing is, I called my boss & told him the situation, and he doesn’t really care. So, I don’t know if you want to wait for the insurance, or if you can cancel it or what…

Julie: WAIT, you’re saying this DOESN’T have to be an official accident anymore? Um, YEAH I can cancel the insurance guy. Don’t give it a second thought. I can DEFINITELY cancel it. [tries hard to be polite and friendly during window of hope, despite wanting to yell “See I TOLD YOU it was just a stupid little scratch; we live in MEXICO CITY, pal! If part of your car isn’t dragging along the ground, it’s not worth even stopping for! And why did you wait for 30 minutes to call your boss??”]

Dude: Ok then, I will go.

Julie: [awkwardly offers handshake while seated in car. Dude shakes hand & drives off. Calls insurance to share the good news.]

After this interaction, I was able to see one of the many internal cultural shifts I have experienced after a year in Mexico. If my car had touched someone else’s car in any way in the US, I probably would have been slightly panicked & had my phone poised to call insurance ASAP. Unless the other party immediately waved it off, I definitely would have called insurance just to avoid any unknown drama. I would have been 100% up-front with any cops that had arrived on the scene. I never would have blocked 1/3 of a very busy street for 45 minutes.

In Mexico City, my first reaction was literally surprise that he wanted to get out and look at the scratch. Once we saw the scratch, I was just annoyed that we would have to do the insurance-calling dance. While getting death-glares for blocking a key lane of traffic, my primary thought was “I will be pissed if someone hits my car while I am sitting here.” I barely went around to look at my front left bumper, knowing that any damage retained from a 0.5 mph collision would likely be overshadowed by the next large-sheep-sized pothole that we hit.

The cultural evolution continues… 😉

Alternative Energy?

I wonder if these colorful pinwheels serve solely as a fundraising attention-grabber, or if they also have secret powers of energy generation for the car that lies below them. Perhaps Mexico has some secret alternative energy R&D going on that we are not aware of…?

I fear the donation-soliciting sign may impair the driver's vision...
I fear the donation-soliciting sign may impair the driver’s vision…

Mario Kart D.F.

Last night, I left my safety blanket in the glove box. In a burst of confidence, I drove home in Mexico City without using my GPS, and I didn’t get lost.  Yes, so maybe it was less than 10 miles, and it was from the school that I had already been to 2 times, but you will just have to trust me that it merited a feeling of pride.

As I was driving, the thought of my high-school friends Todd & Matt leapt into my mind, and how they probably have no idea of the part they played in preparing me for this point in my life. And how did they help prepare me? Many hours of playing Mario Kart on Nintendo (or Super Nintendo, or whatever derivative it was in the mid-90’s).

A graphical representation of your average Mexico City traffic interaction

A graphical representation of your average Mexico City traffic interaction

To highlight the parallels:

  • Incredibly narrow lanes of traffic through which one must tightly maneuver. The ‘main’ road I take through neighborhoods out towards my school in the burbs has 3 lanes, but, as one of my friends commented, if you had 3 cars stopped abreast, I don’t think you could open any of the car doors.
  • Numerous sharp curves requiring rapid steering-wheel spins, with various obstacles ranging from traffic barrels in your lane, to people selling gum and/or phone cards, to mammoth buses.
  • Exciting off-roading options like navigating potholes the size of a small goat, to speed bumps (a.k.a. topes) that seem to be formed from only-partially-submerged watermelons.
  • I fit in amongst these drivers (with my blonde hair & Virginia license plates) about as much as the Princess fits in with the other Mario Kart contestants. Initially I thought there was a greater similarity, but after a few weeks of driving now, I realize that Princess Peach was NEVER able to drive as aggressively as I have already learned how to do here.
  • Bumping other drivers was always a favorite Mario Kart move for the lower-skilled players (i.e. if I can’t win, I’m at least going to make it as hard for you as possible). While I have yet to be sideswiped here, I figure it is only a matter of time.
  • The best way to drive here is to closely tailgate another local driver. This a) lends towards your credibility as an aggressive, crazy driver who other drivers should not mess with, and b) since they invariably know the roads better than you, they will know when to swerve to miss the goat-sized potholes, so you can mirror them & do the same. Conveniently, most of my Mario Kart time was spent in 2nd place (or lower), driving behind someone else’s car, so I am well-prepared for this.

Anyway, let me take this opportunity to officially thank Todd & Matt for the hours they spent mocking me because I am so crap at video games. Although their words seemed harsh at the time, without that training period, today I would clearly lack the nerve to fight erratic taxis, intimidating buses, and your average truck whose bed is filled with dead chickens on ice:


To me, this screams "we have mastered the concepts of proper poultry refrigeration"

To me, this screams "we have mastered the concepts of proper poultry refrigeration"

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