Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Panamaniacs Part II

The day after I wrote my previous blog on driving in Panama the front of my car fell down a hole. In the city centre, on a quiet Sunday afternoon. We were driving back from a bakery. I was in my brave mood and feeling happily sick on a huge piece of cheesecake I'd scoffed and the family was with me in car. The sun was shining and there was not much traffic about. Waze was, as usual, taking me the wrong way but I knew eventually I would get home. After being told to take a right turn (which I didn't as it was a one-way road), I turned left and then before I knew it, the car was kind of leaning to the side. No problem just put the car in reverse. Nothing. OH gets out and starts trying to push the car out of the hole, telling me that the front wheel was spinning in mid air, in a hole. Nothing. Child getting mildly hysterical in the back. Driver door not opening because of the angle. Fun. At least the area was okayish. Not in any immediate danger. It could have been a lot worse. Eventually I move the steering wheel at a 180 degree angle and with the pedal to the floor and the car filling with the smell of clutch fluid; I manage to reverse the car out of the hole. This is when I discover that although placed in the category of 4 4 this car isn't. This big 4wd are not vanity cars in here, they're bloody essential.

The beauty of a rental car is that the next day a guy came over and brought another car. This time it was a 4 4 but not one of the huge Chelsea tractors that I was hoping for. He looked at the front side of my car with the bumper hanging off and scraped paintwork and some other bit of twisted metal that was actually scraping the floor and he didn't bat an eyelid. It was almost as if he thought "You're changing the car for this bit of measly damage"? Fair enough comment as most cars here look a damn sight worse than this and are deemed perfectly roadworthy. Since then no trips into town - yet.

There are certain driving styles that I have come across in my many years of driving in many places worldwide. These are sometimes a little clich d but there's some truth in them. USA slow but a bit random, Spanish impatient and macho, Italy ditto, Belgium dangerous. I could go on. Panama's style is however unique. I've christened it "bumper car". It's the ducking and diving, swerving and scraping weaving and scraping, tailgating and swerving with an extra of full on side impact that seems so familiar. I can't imagine there are any major car accidents within the city itself as traffic well exceeds road capacity and a 10 minute journey can easily take over two hours at certain times of the day. The bumps, scratches and dents that I mentioned in my previous post are from this bumper car style of driving and also people just driving without due car and attention i.e. crap, really crap. No one ever signals. Never have I seen a car signal. Hazard lights though are used quite often, in rain, in traffic, for the fun of it. They like the sound of their car horns. No reason really as most people are stuck in traffic most of the time. The horn is not going to speed you up. Maybe it relieves boredom? Cars randomly slow down, speed up turn left right stop, pull over, whatever. There is just no consistency. Hence bumper cars. It really is the same. I thought it was just me and I was being a tad mean until this morning when a friend commented that she thought that the driving here was akin to driving a golf cart around. Not just me then. I was telling her my hole in the road story. You mean an uncovered manhole? No I said just a hole, at the side of the road. She said you must listen to the English radio station between 7 and 10am and they tell you which manholes (large ones) in the middle of town have no covers on them but they're in the middle of the roads and not the side. Must I? To me that is just reason no. 354 not to drive in the city, no. 353 being that lots of roads are impassable from flooding, this in a country that rains 9 months of the year.

Mercifully my drive to work is not through the city and is about 25 minutes on fairly decent roads. This stretch of road was built by the American army when they ran the Panama Canal. Good roads then but no pavements. I drive through lush rainforests and it's nowhere near the city. It's a beautiful drive. It runs alongside the Panama Canal and I pass huge cargo ships and cruise liners lining up to go through the locks and the proximity to these ships is close and its breathtaking. I then drive past part of the Gatun lake and then towards more dense rainforest towards the wildlife centre and the Soberania National Park. A poster at a remote bus stop advertising "Downton Abbey" always makes me smile with its incongruousness.

There's a little expaty hairdressers near where I live. The staff are English. They seem to know everything and everybody. Panama is a small place, the expat community even smaller. We were chatting about the perils of driving and taxis whilst my son was getting his hair cut. "Yeah" she said, " .so like when you get in a taxi yeah you take down the number on the taxi and you ring someone with the number of that taxi case you get abducted n'that". I am therefore now looking into getting a recommended driver maybe just for a few hours at the weekend and perhaps one night in the week you know, so yeah, I cannot be abducted n'that.

Not me but gives a general idea

An aerial view of my route to work
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