Thursday, April 17, 2008

Now for the bad news

If you’ve been keeping up on my blog, you’ll be tempted to think that life here in Argentina is mostly pleasurable: travel, lazy days with friends, having someone else clean our house, the kids in a delightful preschool a few hours a day. Yes, it's true, there are lots of good things to say about our year in Argentina. I would be negligent in my duties as a blogger, though, if I didn’t tell you a thing or two about why Argentina is NOT the paradise you thought it was.

Driving in Argentina: Not for the faint-hearted.

When you live in a foreign culture, the cultural differences you encounter range from delightful, (ocio!) to slightly annoying, (the idea of “customer service” is pretty different here) to REALLY annoying (long, long lines almost anytime you want to do something). Driving a car, however, is in a whole different category: it's as scary as hell.

Here's a few of the reasons why: red lights are optional. Many drivers will go straight through the red if they think they can make it. Luis almost got plowed down by a semi truck going 100 km (60mph) the other day. Stop signs, likewise, are completely ignored. If you actually stopped, they guy behind you would probably ram into you. Double parking is the norm. Lots of traffic gets stopped up because of double parkers. Even the cops double park. Blinkers are mostly unknown. There are bikers EVERYWHERE. They look straight ahead, headphones on, right out in traffic. It is your obligation, as a driver, to pay close attention to them so as not to kill them, even if it's dark and they have no lights or reflectors. They make no effort to move over --the lives of these riders and the small children sitting on the handlebars are in your hands. Motorcyclists are another fun one: they weave in an out of traffic, rarely with helmets on, as they balance infants on their knees, with two other children clinging on for dear life. I’m not making this stuff up. You can't let your guard down, ever, because everyone and everything out on the road is unpredictable.

A particularly tricky one is approaching an unmarked intersection. Legally, the car on your right has priority, as it is in the U.S. The reality, though, is that the cars on the bigger, “more important” street always go first. If you’re new to Neuquen, it's not obvious which street is more important, so you spend a lot of time watching the other drivers, slowing way down at each intersection just in case. Plus lots of silent praying. If I follow the laws strictly, I will absolutely get into an accident. This ambiguity isn’t only my problem; in the last few months three separate friends have gotten into fenderbenders because of this “right of way” problem.

You won’t be surprised to learn that only freaks wear seatbelts. Even people who have lost loved ones in accidents where a seatbelt would have saved their lives refuse to buckle up. I usually see little kids inside cars, climbing all over the place. Our family always straps in, but we’re serious weirdos.

The horrendous driving conditions is a favorite topic of foreigners living in Argentina. Whenever I check out other bloggers, I invariably find someone who has written about it. How can this possibly be? they wonder. What’s up with the Argentine death wish?

So here is my take on it: People drive this way because they think the chances of an accident are slim, and, more, importantly, they know that law enforcement pretty much doesn’t exist here. For a variety of reasons --lack of training, corruption, avoidance of conflict, laziness-- traffic cops just don’t do their jobs. In just about every third world nation I have been in, in South America, Africa, and Asia, driving is a nasty affair. And like Argentina, these countries all lack a good justice system and effective law enforcement.

Not only is there a lack of law enforcement here, but it's embarrassingly easy to get your license. The hardest part about it is all the hours of waiting in line you'll have to do. When I went in to get my license, this is what happened: first we watched a safety video, which, admittedly, was pretty good. Very graphic scenes of what can happen to a person who doesn't wear a seatbelt, goes too fast, etc. Scared the heck out of me. Then an officer gave a presentation to my group, to review basic road rules. Everyone was frightfully clueless. I mean, there is no spiffy little road manual to study up for your test. Earlier in the month, when I asked for some written material, explaining that I wanted to learn about the laws, I was told "oh no, we don't have anything like that to read. The test is about what you know."

Is it just me, or does that make absolutely no sense?

The driving test itself was a joke, just a drive around the block. At least the officer was able to see if I could handle the car somewhat. There are a few towns in the area where a person doesn't even have to take a road test. Just pay a few pesos, and you can get a license. You have to pretend to be from the town, but coming up with a fake address is not hard; that's why in the town of Cervantes, population 5,000, there are 23,000 legal drivers. Issuing drivers licenses appears to be the town's main industry.

This messy combination of corruption on many different levels, ignorance of traffic laws, and lack of law enforcement makes for some pretty scary driving conditions, believe me. You'll find stories about fatal traffic accidents almost daily in the newspapers.

As we draw closer to our departure, we are already reflecting on the things we will miss. Driving is one of things I will be very happy to leave behind. On my first day back on U.S. roads, I will probably wear a big goofy smile and blow kisses at everyone who comes to a complete stop at stop signs.