One of the predominant issues that I have faced since living in this foreign city has been independence. To be more specific, how to establish the appropriate amount of independence without a) putting myself in danger, b) culturally or personally offending my hosts, or c) (on a more personal note) falling into the extreme isolation and independence that comes so easily to my (and most artists). My housing situation has been wonderful – the family is accommodating and kind, I have my own space, and a great rooftop to sit out on at night; however, my housing situation has left me far from the city center and utterly dependent on a very complicated system of public transportation and finding rides.
Today my problems were solved.
After a week of very serious conversations with Mario about the transportation in this city, I began paying attention to how, when, and where he (and others) drove. I began memorizing landmarks and directions. I took note of the nuances of driving etiquette (or lack there of) in this country. And I asked a lot of questions.
“Why doesn’t anyone stop at red lights at night?” as barely slowed through an intersection in the middle of the night.
“What should I do if the police try and flag me down from the side of the road like that?” as we flew by the officer in the reflective vest on the side of the road.
“What do you do when someone hits your car?” as I watched one car slam into another during rush hour downtown.
The answers I received were a little shocking, but, I assure you, not as bad as it sounds…
“It’s not safe to stop at lights or stop signs after a certain time at night. There’s too much of a chance someone will try and rob you if you stop.”
“I would never stop for the police at night! They probably just want money, and how do you know they’re really cops?”
“Just keep driving. Sometimes, people hit other cars, and when they get out to look at the damage they shoot them or rob them. It’s better to just fix whatever is wrong with your car than to take the chance of getting hurt.”
[pause] “…and don’t talk on your cell phone while you’re driving.”
After many serious observations and intricate lessons on driving in a third world country, I was ready.
Today, Mario called to me from the front patio. I walked out of the house and followed him toward the street. “I need to show you a few things about the van.” He was referring to the large diesel van that I would hopefully be able to drive. It is grey, significantly dinged and dented, and has racks on the front and back bumper that put the deer racks of New Jersey to shame. “Not how to drive it. How to fix it.”
I am suddenly grateful for the eclectic array of older (and yes, a ghetto) cars that I have owned in the states. And that I paid attention when my last beau tried to teach me how to be more mechanically aware of the cars I drove.
“This is the only key we have to this van. You have to be gentle with it.” he points to a slight crack in the shiny metal of the key, “I have already broken one of them.”
I smile nervously.
“When you get out of the car, make sure you lock the door. Like this.” He pushes down on the knob on the inside of the door, then shuts to door while holding the outside handle up. “It’s diesel, so you need to let it warm up before it will start. Turn on the battery and wait for the noise.”
I strain to hear “the noise” and hear nothing. He turns the ignition, and before I can ask what noise it was that I was supposed to be listening for, my thoughts and anything I may have asked, are drowned out by the rumble of the diesel engine.
“There is no air, but the windows work. Sometimes you’ll have to start the car more than once before it will work. I don’t know why, but that’s how it is.”
I nod as he points to the control panel on the dash. “There is gas in it, but the gauge doesn’t really work. When it is full, it will say “full”, but once it reaches about half way down, it stops moving.” He glances up at me as if to emphasize. “You’ll never know how much gas you have after that, so it’s best to just keep it full.”
He shuts off the engine and reaches under the steering column and pops the hood of the van. It opens with a loud pop and he moves around to the front of the van. “It over-heats sometimes. We had it fixed, so it does it less, but now it doesn’t take water from this,” he indicates the radiator, “so you have to make sure this thing is filled with water every morning.” He indicates another small vessel under the hood. “Yolanda keeps a jug of water in the car that you can use. It doesn’t take much.” He proceeds to fill the tiny reservoir with the water he took from the van. Water splashes everywhere except for the small, round opening, but he manages to fill it to over flowing. After replacing the cap on both the jug and the reservoir, he slams the hood closed and returns the jug of water to its normal home behind the driver’s seat. Moving around to the back, he opens the hatch.
“There’s extra water back here if you need it.” He then points to a milk jug filled with a dark greenish liquid. “Also, there’s some extra diesel in case of emergency, but only in case of emergency.”
My mind wanders to the highway where car after car rammed into the back of another, and I cannot help but wonder if a milk jug of diesel in the back of the van I will be driving is a good idea. The slamming of the hatch brings me back and I smile as he drops the keys into my waiting hand.
Tonight, Mario and his family went out for dinner, leaving Jill and I in the house alone. For dinner, we decided to take advantage of my new-found freedom and drive somewhere to eat. After a few false starts and figuring out the trick to the very loose shift, we were on our way. Between the two of us, we managed to remember how to get out of the gated community and onto the highway. I maneuvered in traffic very well, if I do say so myself, and was only momentarily frightened that the van might blow on the up-hills. (That sound, I quickly learned, is “normal”)
Thanks to my endless experience with less-than-practical, decades old mustangs and other such cars, I felt very comfortable figuring out the personality of this car. I learned in the first few minutes how to manage the hills, that the transmission shifts late and to let up on the gas when I can feel the car getting to the place the transmission needs some extra time to shift, and that the car runs better if shifted in to neutral when coming to a stop.
The traffic was awful, a truck of latin men flagged us down the entire time we drove on the high way (to hit on the white girls, of course), and we didn’t go but ten minutes away, but I was both pleased with myself and satisfied at the level of independence this granted me. I am grateful to Mario for trusting me with his family’s van (as indestructible as it may seem!) and am excited to experience the city with this new freedom. Santo Domingo, I can drive.
(While talking to my mom on Skype tonight, she was not thrilled that I would be driving around this country. I have assured her I will be fine and that it is much safer than my previous blogs may have made it out to be. And, in all honesty, it is. I am an adaptable person, and this experience will further my skills as an asset in this type of work. No worries, mom!)