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Friday, September 14, 2012

Interesting traffic benefits (and challenges) in Panama

First, I just want to apologize to any readers who have been trying to keep up with my blog. While I still consider myself a stay at home gringo, I have been taking a few freelance jobs on the side, some of which have taken up a lot of my time lately. It's hard to write about Panama in a blog, for free, when other people are paying you to write about Panama. I don't want to use the same ideas they're paying me for, which can slow me down a bit. So going forward I'll try to post more often, even when I'm wrapped up in a job. 

That said, I know the picture didn’t come out so great. Sorry about that. I took it on my Blackberry while the car I was in was bouncing down the road.

One of the great things about living in Panama is the ability to get away with some things you might not get away with back in the States. For example, if you roll through a stop sign (which we all know is a major mistake in the U.S.), there’s a good chance you’ll get away scott free. I don’t even know anyone who  has been stopped for not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign. Likewise, a yellow light here means hurry the hell up and get through before the light turns red.

One other thing that I find so interesting here in Panama, is the fact that Panamanians create traffic lanes, where one was never intended. And the cops do it too. The other day I saw a cop driving down the shoulder of the Corredor Sur (a major toll rode here in the city) and he was waving and pointing at the cars behind him, warning them not to follow suit. Did they listen? Of course not. A line of cars formed right behind him.

I’ve been teaching English part time in the downtown area, which requires me to drive to work each morning at around 6:30 a.m. The picture you see above was taken during this time, when I usually carpool with my father-in-law. As you can see in the photo, we're following a taxi, who has basically created his own lane. The corridor is really a two-lane highway. If you take this throughway during rush hour, whether it be in the morning or the evening, you'll see an extra lane form. It's amazing. And no one stops the drivers that are illegally making their way down this imaginary lane.

The same goes for motorcycles in the city. Most fast-food restaurants here use delivery guys on motorcycles. You seem them parked outside all major fast-food chains. These guys are nuts, and unfortunately their driving habits lead to many unnecessary accidents. They're known for driving right down the middle of a lane, and for weaving in and out of traffic.

Back home, in any state where I've lived, motorcycles abide by the regular traffic guidelines. They sit in line behind cars in a traffic jam. Of course you'll see the occasional maverick (I never thought I'd use that word other than when talking about one of the old Sarah Palin skits on Saturday Night Live) who races down I-95, seemingly oblivious to any rules or regulations, but for the most part, motorcycle drivers respect the laws of the road. Not here though.

In Panama, motorcycle drivers create their own rules. And oh how I envy them. I've sat in traffic for over two hours, and watched many a motorcycle skip the traffic by dodging in and out, zigging and zagging through the cars ahead of them. This gets dangerous for pedestrians though. 

I was sitting in traffic one time, on an uphill slant, when I saw a young couple in love, holding hands, and crossing the street. With bumper to bumper traffic you'd think this couple would have nothing to worry about in the way of traffic. As they walked through the line of cars to the right and made their way across to my lane, a motor scooter suddenly shot towards them (right up the center of the two lanes), and screeched to a halt so hard that the driver nearly fell off the bike. He stopped only about an inch from the pedestrians. I have no idea how he was able to stop in time. It could have been a really nasty accident. The funny thing was how the driver of the motor scooter threw his arms up in the air and shook his head as if it was the pedestrian couple's fault. 

As I said before, one of the best things about this country is the ability to get away with some of the laws that would be strictly enforced in the States, but with that comes a certain responsibility we all have. I was scared to death to get behind the wheel 11 years ago when I first visited the country. My wife begged me to drive her dad's car and I simply refused. Things have changed a lot since back then, but still...if you don't know the ways of the road, you'll feel like Mad Max trying to navigate a dangerous new world. The roads of Panama are no place for the shy or timid. If you don't insert yourself and force your way out onto the road, you'll never get anywhere. Panamanians are not known for chilling and letting cars pull out in front of them. So as I'm learning the traffic do's and dont's, I'll try to keep you all in the loop.

Thanks again for reading,