Monday, February 26, 2007

Porteños behind the wheel (Ken)



I post this picture because it is a rare sight. And you would be as surprised as I if you could see how these people drive.

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They are crazy--and I say that with complete admiration.

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Porteños have a Zen-like "one-with-the vehicle" mystical vibe going on. The lines on the road? Mere suggestions. The double yellow line down the middle of a two-way street? That means if you pass someone, it is your responsiblity to get back on your side before you hit an oncoming vehicle. Left turns from the right lane and right turns from the left lane must be something they teach here. It even happens at traffic lights when they first turn green.

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Speaking of traffic lights, they don't just go from red-to-green. They go from red--to yellow--to green, like the light tree at a drag strip, to give these guys a heads-up for when to punch it. Sometime, they don't even wait for it to switch from red to yellow before they head out.

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By far, the most amazing traffic phenomenon is that intersections that are not controlled by traffic lights are not controlled at all. No stop signs. The rule is that drivers yield to traffic on the right. There are lots of close calls but not many crashes.


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Taxis--the Gamblers in the Neon

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There are about 40,000 taxis in this city. These guys bob and weave their way though the streets trawling for fares and getting people where they want to go. At about US$3 (AR$9) to get from just about anywhere in the city to just about anywhere in the city, these guys have to get people where they want to go, and fast, to compete with the 80 centavo (about 25 cents) fare charged by the colectivos (City busses). There is a strange headlight flashing ritual that seems to indicate "You are in my way," or "I'd like to get on the other side of you, please." Blowing the horn seems to be a signal to another driver that, "I am getting ready to do something really dangerous, so you had better pay attention."

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A word of caution: taxis here are Peugots and Fiats , not Ford Crown Victorias. These are little tin can cars. USAmericans are accustomed to really giving the door a tug to get it to close. When you do that to one of these babies, you almost crease it. Taxi drivers HATE that. I have heard of them driving REALLY crazy just to get back at the tourist who dared to close the door too hard. But my favorite mode of transporations is . . .

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The Colectivo: Kings of the Road

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I take the 110 everyday to get from Recoleta to Palermo where I take my Spanish classes. I live not too far from the start of the line, so it is usually empty when I get on, but it fills up fast. You wait at the stop and hold out your arm to signal the driver to stop--they usually do, almost always. If there is a line, he waits until the last prospective passanger has lifted his foot from the street and he takes off. You had better hang on because you still have to pay. There is a coin machine right behind the driver. And I mean COIN. Don't even THINK about boarding one of thes bohemoths without coins. You can get change back, but the machines do not take paper currency. And you don´t mess with these guys. They are captains of their ships and it is an absolute autocracy.

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You have to hang on to a pole, feed in your coins, take your ticket, and get out of the way. The next stop is two-and-a-half-blocks away and that machine better be clear.

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These guys manuver their colectivos within millimeters of each other. They whip to a stop and open the doors for disembarkers several meters before actually stopping. If no one is getting on, sometimes they just coast and you jump. Unwary taxis find themselves in a rapidly closing wedge whenever these guys pull in, or away, from a stop.

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I write this with respect and awe. There is no way USAmericans could drive like this. Not without crashes all day, every day. Porteños have to be the best drivers in the world.

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I have no desire to drive here. None. I do not miss my car one bit. What I will miss, when I come home, is this bus system.

9 comments:

greekinargentina said...

hola Ken and helen

Good blog about the crazy drivers here .Still they are getting better in my opinion from years ago and the cars seem to be improving incredibly in the last 2 years as well.

There are unfortunately too many crashes in Argentina and especially in the country horrific smashes are daily occurences .
I beleive that Argentinas road toll is one of the highest in the world averaging 9800 deaths per year at a rate of close to 30 per day . Now that to me is nothing to be proud off.

Tom said...

Great post Ken! I have learned not to have coffee on a non-signaled corners as watching the drivers do their "I am not gonna stop if I see you slow down" makes me nervous!

Ken and Helen said...

Pericles,
Yes, there was an article in the Buenos Aires Herald on Monday about the new driver's test. It said there are 20 traffic deaths a day in Argentina. That is 7000 a year. I guess my point is that I am surprised that there are not more accidents. The traffic here is really something to witness.

Jos said...

I have heard about the crazy drivers out there. Be careful!

I had a few experiences when I was there (Mendoza). My heart went into my throat, but survived, thank goodness.

Great post!

Mia said...

Because you like the bondis so much, I looked online and found this page (in English) about the colectivo's history. I hope you'll find it interesting.

And here's the only pic I could find online of a colectivero driving an old colectivo (the captions are mine). Before 1995 they had to dispense the tickets (each ticket dispenser had at least four rolls of tickets, each one a different fare), make change, count their bills, fill out their time sheets, watch out for pickpockets, remember to tell passengers not familiar with the itinerary where to get off (Che, el gringo de barba! Junín es la próxima paradaaaaa), etc., while driving that monster around. How could they not be a road menace?

Kat Acosta said...

We thoroughly enjoyed your blog, Ken! Your descriptions reminded us of our visits to Italy. Fun!

¡Tenga cuidado!

miss tango in her eyes said...

One thing I´ve noticed here is there is very little road rage. The collectivo drivers could easy up on the petal to the metal though.

Ken and Helen said...

Mia
Thanks for the "Bondi" links. Interesting reading. Helen and I were on the #10 tonight and the ticket machine malfunctioned. The driver made everyone get off and wait for a new bus.
Ken

99 said...

This is what I call a kind post...