Friday, August 29, 2014

DRIVING IN VENEZUELA: LESSON #2

(Please read the introduction to LESSON#1 in the previous post if you have not already done so)
 
DRIVING AT NIGHT


The most dangerous time of day to drive in Venezuela is just at dusk.  This is that magical time of day when the driver does not really need his headlights to see the road, but when other drivers on the road may need him to put his lights on so that they can see him.


It is that disconcerting time of day, if you are unfortunate enough to be driving, when you gaze into the falling darkness on the road ahead.  With intent stare, you try to discern if the two shadows coming toward you are your imagination, or if they are two cars; one in the opposite lane, and the other passing the first and coming toward you in your lane.


It is that bewitching time of day when a car may suddenly appear out of nowhere in the semi-darkness, right beside the door of your car.


It is the habit of drivers in Venezuela not to overuse their headlights.  They feel they need to save them.  After all, if they should wastefully put on their headlights at dusk when they can still see perfectly well without them; they may be sorry on another night when they really do need them, and find that the lights are all used up.
      No, it is best to leave the headlights off until the gray shadows of the road turn completely black.


Then there is the question of your battery.  The thinking of some is that when you put your headlights on, you use up the power in the battery. If you do this before you really need to, you later may not have enough “spark” (that is what they call it: “chispa”) left in your battery to light your sparkplugs, leaving you stranded on the road.

       All this talk about the alternator powering the battery when the car is running is just a little suspicious.  They would much rather trust in the power that they know is available in the battery.  If the “alternator theory” turns out to be true, so much the better.  But just in case it is not, it is better to leave the headlights off.

This leaves everyone on the road plummeting through the semi-darkness wondering where all the other cars are.  Passing a car in front of you becomes almost foolhardy.  There is no way of knowing with any degree of certainty that, as soon as you pull into the other lane, you will not be suddenly met with a ton of steel on four wheels hurling toward you at 80 kilometers per hour.  The most sensible approach is to quietly drive your car, stay in your own lane, and wait for darkness to settle so that the other drivers will be obliged to also turn on their headlights.

Of course, once the darkness completely falls, neither is the mere darkness of night a certain guarantee that there is not a car without lights on the road.  Some drivers simply have no lights, and they depend upon the lights of the other cars to tell them where they are.  Often they will follow another car, using the taillights of the car in front of them as their guide.  This is not so bad except if you are meeting this first car (the one with the lights) with its hidden shadow (the car with no lights) following close behind.

       Once, when I was waiting for this first car to go past so I could pull out to pass a car in my own lane, I suddenly saw the “shadow car” in my headlights.  I had no idea it was there until it was almost too late.  He swerved and I braked, and between the two of us, we were able to avoid hearing that irritating sound of sheet metal hitting sheet metal.

These ghost cars, lacking someone to follow, simply go slow.  I suppose they think that in doing this, they are being safe. But suddenly coming upon the rear of one of these can also be a frightful experience.  What they want you to do is to pass them so that they can then follow your taillights.  They then, become your “shadow car,” waiting to surprise another driver that is passing from the opposite lane.

Strange things are seen on the night roads in Venezuela.  Very late one night I was driving into the city of San Cristobal. Although I was on one of the main highways, there was very little traffic at that hour. But I did see the lights of a car far ahead of me, evidently coming in my direction.  I drove for some minutes, but the car did not seem to be getting much closer to me.  This seemed strange, since I thought I should have met it long before.  As I finally did get closer, the lights seemed to be in my own lane.  They did not seem to be coming very fast and I could not yet tell for certain that they were in my lane, but I expected that I would learn as I continued forward.

As I got even nearer, I saw that the lights were, indeed, in my lane, but the car was not meeting me.  He was going in reverse in my lane, his headlights shining in my eyes. As you might imagine, when I passed him I did so with great caution. I have no idea what was going on, but my best guess is that the forward gears of his transmission went out, so that the only gear that he had was reverse.  He was backing home at night!

Cars are not the only hazard, of course.  Bicycles are also out at any hour.  These two-wheeled wonders navigate by the stars, and have no need for such things as lights.  Another night I rounded a corner and came suddenly upon a man riding his bike right in the middle of my lane (he did not want to get too near the edge of the road on such a dark night).  Not only did he not have lights or any kind of reflective material, but he was head to toe in camouflage clothing!

The most deadly mixture, of course, is the one part of darkness with two parts alcohol.  This danger comes not only from other drivers on the road, but also from pedestrians.  Never have I seen drunks stagger the way they do along the country roads of Venezuela.  More often than not, there are no sidewalks and not even shoulders on the roads.  Pedestrians there must walk on the very edge of the road, with cars speeding by them a foot away from their arm.  This is very dangerous in the best of circumstances in the broad daylight, but when you take the sun away, and replace it with a snoot full, it becomes downright hazardous.

Normally, it is not difficult to spot which pedestrians are drunk (if you can see them in your lights).  As you watch, it is obvious that they are putting all their thought power into the very difficult task of putting one foot in front of the other, while at the same time maintaining their equilibrium.

       It is the equilibrium part that seems to give them the most difficulty.  Suddenly, without any indication or warning, the foot that was supposed to go in front of the other, will instead plop down to the side, and the drunk will stagger and veer right out in front of you.

My rule for drunks is two-fold: they always have the right-of-way, and that they will always act as if they are suicidal.

To any who would drive at night in Venezuela, please take the above advice to heart.  But the very best advice of all for driving at night there is also very simply stated.

      Don’t!

 

No comments:

Post a Comment