Driving in Mexico: No Country for New Cars

Driving in Mexico: No Country for New Cars

By John Scherber
An American Voice in México


The thought of driving in México strikes a deadly fear into the hearts of many Americans and Canadians alike. Of course, they purchased Méxican car insurance when they crossed the border. Yet somehow this only made them feel legal, not safe. Now here’s the reality as they ease their $46,000 BMW onto the pavement and point it south.

They have heard that there is no rhyme or reason to the driving there, and any clown can get a license. There is some documentary evidence for this belief. (See the photo) But they are tourists in the classical sense, they want to cruise from town to town and stop when the spirit moves them. Serendipity is a proven value in their lives, and they would never be caught taking a package tour, even to Antarctica. Furthermore, they hate what air travel has become.

Isn’t that the dilemma for many travelers to Latin America?

Before my wife and I moved to San Miguel de Allende in 2007, she was driving a Saab and I drove an Infiniti. We knew they couldn’t easily be serviced in this mountain town of 75,000, so we sold them and bought a Ford when we arrived. There was the choice between a car and a pickup, and we had heard that license plates were much cheaper on new pickups, but we felt because of the limited passenger capacity, we had to choose the car. After all, wouldn’t hundreds of our friends and family from the US soon be flocking down to see us? We hadn’t yet reckoned on the crusading American media, obviously.

Unfortunately, our estimate of the pickup’s passenger capacity was wildly off too. We’ve since been keeping a running count on the record for the most passengers in a pickup. It presently stands at sixteen people and a dog. This can be very handy running back and forth to the countryside with your extended family, but it occasionally results in some astounding highway accidents.

San Miguel is a great historic town, and appropriately, it has no traffic lights. Major intersections on the outskirts are handled by roundabouts, which are called glorietas here. The idea is simple, although it looks daunting to many. The center island is about a hundred feet across. In the middle is a monument to a patriotic figure, although some believe the statue represents Chaos, the god of traffic. Four streets converge at the circle.

Within, traffic moves counterclockwise. You enter after yielding to the left, and continue around to the right until you exit on the first, second or third street. Or you can go completely around when you’re doubling back. If you can keep your wits about you it works well. People are generally polite and orderly. The worst move you can make is to freeze up, come to a complete stop within the circle, and cover your face with your hands. I have seen this happen and it’s never well received.

This town has a number of stop signs, none of them in the central part. They are treated as advisory in nature, and I have never seen anyone stop for one unless the failure to do so would result in a collision. This includes me.

All other intersections are handled on an alternating basis. You go, then I go, etc. Everyone understands this and it works well unless the other car is driven by a person from México City or the northern border states. In that case you are regarded as a fool and a victim for letting him through. This attitude will be well understood by people who drive in the US.

In general there is an attitude of live and let live. I have not seen road rage here among Méxicans, only Americans. Indeed, people are tolerant of what I regard as free-style driving. A certain amount of improvisation is customary. If you see someone approaching in your lane, the natural thing to do is change lanes yourself into oncoming traffic, which will then slow down to allow your eventual return to your own lane.

The concept of speed limits is understood only by the transit authorities, and is the object of crude humor among the general population.

Flashing colored lights are appreciated for themselves, but using them to signal turns when mounted on cars is a concept that has not yet caught on in México. One exception is their use on trucks in highway settings. Say you are behind a truck signaling with the left blinker. This means either, Pass me because it’s clear ahead, or I am going to turn left now. Your life depends on how you scan the nuance of this.

Streets are generally constructed from the two most common compounds on earth: dirt, and stones about the size of a large grapefruit. The stones are simply set in a matrix of dirt. Over time, the dirt is pounded into a fine dry powder that floats upward and seeks the interior of your electronic equipment, where it settles once again in the tiny connections between wires. Over time the cobblestones loosen and have to be repacked in more dirt. Driving over this rugged surface, charmingly suggestive of medieval London or Paris, gradually loosens all the nuts and bolts in your car until your new BMW sounds like a 1960s jug band as it lurches down the street.

Both tires and shock absorbers have the life expectancy of a butterfly in a hurricane. What the streets do not do to your car, the sun and weather will.

By now I hope I have established that what at first appears to be random and senseless is really a functioning system that can be understood by most visitors with a knack for improvisation and a broad sense of humor. I should point out that I have written mainly about driving in San Miguel. Regional differences exist.

A final word about parking. Someone once asked me how my detective character always finds a parking place in San Miguel. That, I replied, is why it’s called fiction.

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A Word of Protest

A Word of Protest

San Miguel de Allende vendor

By John Scherber
An American Voice in México

One of the points I made in the Conclusions section of my book on the expatriate experience, San Miguel de Allende: a Place in the Heart, was that the United States appears somewhat different from outside its borders than from within. As both a painter and a writer, I spend a lot of time and thought as an observer, and the discrepancy between the inner and outer perspectives is noticeable. Having lived in México for more than four years, the outsider perspective is easy to see.

One of the things I struggled with for some time was the constant negative drumbeat from the American media on the subject of México. Should I make any reference to it in my books? I saw many opportunities to do so. Ultimately I concluded that the bad press emanating from the U.S. is political in origin, and since I consider politics to be one of humankind’s less serious amusements, about as weighty as a game of marbles, I decided not to mention it. Instead, I would only paint the México that I see and live with, and not honor the fictions of the American media by repeating them.

But this blog is different.

Imagine that every day the Méxican media brought out reports on the two or three highest crime areas in the U.S., and by repeating the stories again and again, created the effect of looking in ten mirrors at once. It wouldn’t take long before you started to wonder what was happening. Do these undeniably true problems in the U.S. characterize the entire country? Is Davenport, Iowa no different from Detroit? Is that the only thing going on worthy of notice?

This is what the U.S. media does to México every day. The drug issues at the border are real and deplorable, violence a daily event, but people who live in México do the same thing that Americans do. We know our trouble spots and we avoid them. They comprise a fraction of one percent of the country. Méxicans tend to have the same aims and goals that Americans have: to lead a reasonable life, have a family, pay their bills and enjoy themselves in the process. I live in San Miguel de Allende, a town of 75,000, and it is about as dangerous, or less, as a town of the same size in the American Midwest. I can walk down any street at any hour of the day and not feel at risk. We live a normal life here in a place that is perhaps a bit more exotic and romantic than most of the U.S. So what is the problem? Statistics will tell you that you are five times more likely to be murdered in the U.S. than in México.

I don’t know what the American media gains from this distortion. Some have suggested that it’s a plot by the American travel industry, trying to keep the tourist dollar at home. It’s hard to know whether this has any merit. I do see that the media is mostly liberal, but how this kind of constant misrepresentation serves the liberal interest––or indeed any interest––isn’t clear to me. Most of the expatriates here are Democrats, but my conversations with Americans of any political stripe who live here has not given me any persuasive answers. No one has been able to tell me with conviction what this is about.

I started out my writing career years ago in journalism as well as short fiction, and I recall that there were standards in writing for periodicals, and people of integrity were highly visible on the TV news––Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, among others. I realize, as I will suggest in a later blog, that the truth is a moving target, but that should be a challenge for any writer, not an excuse for blatant dishonesty and distortion.

I recently saw a TV panel discussion of the drug problem. Of the three contributors, one was conservative, one liberal, and one independent. I’m not sure why it was a political issue. In the entire program none of them mentioned the American involvement in the drug trade even a single time. It was as if the problem only existed on the Méxican side of the border. Later I saw a program on opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, an operation that largely funds al Qaida. Once again, there was no mention of the American drug users who supply the customer base.

Let me state the unstated obvious––there is an American customer on the other side of every one of these drug transactions. Méxicans are deeply complicit in this problem, but they are not more than 50% of it. I can’t help wonder if there is an element of self-indulgence among the same news media. Can’t we state an inconvenient truth? (Someone else’s phrase.)

Let me go a step further. The American media, by declining to state the American dimension of this problem, is complicit as well. It allows many of us to keep our heads in the sand, as if the whole thing is an offense that someone else is committing against America. It allows us to see ourselves as the victims of another cynical nation’s evil plan. The liberal media now begins to sound like Ronald Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union as The Evil Empire.

In a recent Time Magazine article, I read that Americans now spend more on illegal drugs than on higher education. This is one of the few frank admissions I’ve seen that Americans are half the problem.

It is sad enough that most of the American news media has abandoned objectivity and allowed itself to become politicized. But to help us lie to ourselves about one of our most fundamental problems is an even greater disgrace.

Wake up America. Stop blaming others. You have it in your own hands to stop the drug trade––stop buying drugs.

And let’s start telling the truth about México.

Posted in Personal ExperiencesComments Off on A Word of Protest

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