Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Puerto Rico on Four Wheels

The motorcycle zipped past, riding the dotted center line that separated my rental car from the one just a few feet into the next lane. My wife gasped. We looked at each other, eyes wide, then wondered aloud why someone would risk his life to show off for motorists he doesn't know or shave a few seconds off his commute.

I would say we couldn't believe it happened, but after a few days of driving in Puerto Rico, it wasn't much of a stretch.

I was warned that driving would be an adventure in the island territory, and we weren't disappointed. Along with the motorcycle fiasco in San Juan, we were trailed by an old clunker in Isabela that rode our bumper for miles, beeping fanatically until we finally pulled over to let him pass. 

Generally, driving in Puerto Rico isn't stressful if you see it as an exercise in cultural adaptation. Just as you reset your watch in a new time zone, you have to learn a different brand of road etiquette when entering a new place, even if the traffic laws are the same. Here are a few rules that I learned while urging my gray, four-cylinder Kia Rio up near-vertical hills in the rainforest and across freeways spanning the island from east to west:

Our Kia Rio in Pinones. 
1. Yellow lights mean speed up. Traffic lights rigged with cameras don't seem to have made their debut in Puerto Rico.

2. Drag racing is permitted (perhaps encouraged) in parking decks.

3. The crowded, brick-paved streets of Old San Juan could hold the world parallel parking championships. Extra points are awarded for moving trash cans to open up spots that obviously aren't big enough for your car.

4. Dents in the island's ubiquitous Toyota sedans are more like scars on a warrior than blemishes on a maiden. These show that the car has taken on Puerto Rican traffic and lived to tell about it.

5. Exceeding the speed limit while going backwards on a dead-end street is OK, as long as the other cars frantically move out of the way.   

6. If you are an outsider, you must rent a Kia Rio, a Jeep, or a Toyota FJ Cruiser sport utility vehicle. 

Perhaps the biggest driving rule could be borrowed from a mob boss's manual: If you want something, you just have to take it, whether a U-turn that would make your driver's ed teacher cringe or a better spot in line at the red light. A little bit of offensive driving helps earn your street cred, showing other cars that you will nose yourself into that lane, no matter how loudly their horns protest.

A tunnel of trees driving east from San Juan.
The surge of confidence this brings is amazing. I quickly learned to honk while rounding narrow, blind curves in the rainforest. I slowed to miss iguanas in the road and accelerated through yellow lights. I even began converting kilometers to miles, a skill that evaporated again as soon as I arrived back in Georgia. (In Puerto Rico, distances are measured in kilometers, though speed limits are in miles per hour.)

In some ways, I would've liked to have better public transport options, even those that are less than official, like Panama's red-devil buses or the makeshift cabs I hailed in Mongolia. But this was my first time driving abroad, and it felt freeing. Our exploration wasn't limited by train or bus schedules, and a $3 map from Walgreens was the only ticket we needed to access this scenic and photogenic 90- by 30-mile world.  As the concierge at our first hotel said, you can never get lost. On this island, you'll always know where you are. You're in Puerto Rico.


A. Taylor Rollo... said...

Ah... nothing like driving in the third (I guess Puerto Rice is third) world. In the Philippines we said that the driving rules are analogous to walking on the sidewalk: there are no lanes on a sidewalk, there are no speed limits, lights? what lights?, and the biggest person has the right of way.

Trevor Williams said...

Very good points, Taylor. I definitely like the one about he who's biggest having the right of way.

That said, I don't think PR is considered the third world at all. Per capita GDP is $17,692, so it's a pretty rich place, relatively speaking.

That fact makes it all the more interesting that driving hasn't become less frantic. Is it cultural? I don't know.

In Mongolia, the driving is 10x crazier than Puerto Rico. The sidewalk analogy would fit perfectly, but they don't have very many paved sidewalks there: