Driving is dangerous, but I like driving. I don’t, however, like being a passenger while other people (with probably the sole exception of my dad) are driving. I hate being in a car when a stranger is driving. I abhor being in a car in Ecuador when a stranger is driving. Traffic laws here are mere suggestions at best. Stop signs, in the rare, rare case they actually exist, are laughably ignored. Traffic lights are usually obeyed if there are people around, but after dark a red light doesn’t even warrant slowing down to check the corners. Instead of checking the cross-streets before entering an intersection, drivers will just honk the horn and assume the other drivers have heeded and slowed accordingly. Problem is, every single driver in Ecuador honks about 5 times per minute for any variety of reasons, so they pretty much lose their meaning. Double yellow lines here have absolutely no bearing on whether someone will pass you or not. Nor do blind curves. You’re going 65 and the guy in front of you is only going 63? Unacceptable. The typical driver here will speed up to 80 to get around such an obnoxious inconvenience. Blind curve? No problem. We won’t even get into the appalling lack of seatbelts in 85% of cars.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that being a passenger in an automobile here is downright terrifying… but it is an experience that’ll sure get your heart rate going. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve surreptitiously told a taxista or bus driver that we’re not in a rush, we have plenty of time/money, so there’s no reason at all to drive fast. It occasionally works, and I usually get picked on for being such a ninny, but that’s okay by me. Unfortunately, nobody’s quipping anymore.
Last Friday night, four of my program-mates were involved in an horrific bus accident. The four of them survived, somehow. According to the news, all 7 fatalities from the accident were passengers/employees within the first few rows of the bus. The girls occupied the 4 seats of the second row. Two of them got off (somehow) with bumps, bruises, and stitches, the third had what appeared to be a broken orbital and tore every single ligament in her left knee. The fourth was thought to be dead by the first responders–they found body limp and blue. Someone had the wherewithal to double check among all the chaos, and found that she had a pulse. She broke 6 ribs, collapsed both of her lungs, damaged 4 vertebrae and crushed a fifth. When I visited her in the hospital she, by some miracle, had never lost feeling or mobility in her lower body. Somehow she was actually pretty peppy too, even though she couldn’t speak for the breathing tube that was keeping her alive. When I retrieved her bloodstained journal from the tattered remnants of what had once been a backpack, I opened the first page to verify it was hers. Under her name/date, I couldn’t help but notice the first line she’d written: “Today was undoubtedly the scariest day of my life”. It was written on the first day of our program, so I’m sure she was referring to the nerves of the transition to Ecuador. Funny how things can get put into perspective in an awful hurry. The three other girls have left for the States, but she is remaining under observation for a few more days. Her father has arrived, she’s off the breathing tube and it looks like she’s going to be okay.
The scenario in which the accident occurred still infuriates me when I think about it: Full passenger bus, traveling down a steep grade at night in the rain. Slow moving car in front of the bus. Driver decides it’s a good idea to pass, not only on a curve, but on a curve that had been previously dubbed “Curva de la Muerta” which literally means Curve of Death. He flips the bus, which rolls over the guard rail and down what the newspapers described as a abyss, before finally coming to a rest. Why anyone would decide to try to make pass going downhill in the dark in the rain at night going around a blind curve called “The Curve of Death” absolutely blows my mind.
But that gets back full circle to the broader problem: en masse, Ecuadorians have an astonishing lack of respect for the dangers of driving a vehicle. I’ve discussed it with all of the doctors I have shadowed and they agree that, while some people are perfectly sane, the vast majority of drivers are completely insane. It’s like the wild freaking west. I was once in a car that was passed by a pick-up truck with 12 passengers total—7 in the bed, 5 in the cab. I have seen motorcycles driving around the city with complete families on board–4 people, including a nursing baby (actually nursing as they drove around, again), zero helmets.
There are a ton of great things about Ecuador—I love it here. The countryside is incredible from the oceanside to the highlands to the rainforest. The people are super outgoing and super amiable. The food is great (though very different), and there’s always an adventure to be had. But it’s hard not to have the whole experience tainted by the complete mess that is the roads down here. I love it here, but I have a hard time seeing myself returning unless there’s a dramatic change in how the roads operate.