"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–Driving in France and Latin America

The Citroen Deux Chevaux, a car made of canvas and aluminum with patio-chair seats, a top that rolled back like a sardine can, and unless there was some Gallic irony in the name, it actually only had a 2HP engine which had even less power than the Indian Ambassador.  Its gear shift was mounted on the dashboard and you pushed and pulled it to change gears.  Its springs were like bad Sleepy’s mattress coils, and the car swayed and sashayed around every corner.  The seats were bolted to the floor so no adjustments necessary.  You craned your neck up if you were short, and ducked down if you were tall.  The brakes were all right if you didn’t carry a heavy load, the headlights lit up about 6 ft. of road, and the turn indicators were so feeble that the only way to signal your intentions was to stick your hand and wave like crazy – not so much different from India, except the one-size-fits all graceful swan’s neck wave that signaled “Watch out.  I’m about to do something” was nothing like the frantic stabs of the hand out of the Deux Chevaux which, oh yes, did not have roll up windows but flap windows; so you needed two hands to signal left turn – one to hold open the window, the other to signal.

In any case we drove this workhorse from Paris to Brittany for a memorable summer R&R during our stay in India.  We labored up the hills, hewing as far to the right as possible to give wide berth to the Froggies who had had their litre of wine for lunch and were off to their siesta or their early cinq-a-sept, that lovely term which denoted the 5-7pm time slot when men slipped off to lay their mistresses while their wives prepared dinner.  Cars roared past us with lights flashing to get us to move over, you idiot, even though our tires were throwing stones from the shoulder.  Of course this was nothing like Italy when on the Autostrade del Sole when a quick check of the rearview mirror at 85MPH showed nothing, and 10 seconds later a Ferrari had somehow come within 2 feet of the rear bumper, flashing his headlights, then shifting up to 5th and 100MPH, and waved the finger horns as he went by.  No, the French were just as abusive and dismissive, just a lot slower.

Brittany is wonderful – steep escarpments overlooking the sea, small inns and restaurants, and a variety of seafood that beggared even the most well-provisioned Paris fish market.  There were lobsters, ocean crayfish (langoustines), shrimp, crevettes (small shrimp), ecrevisses (even smaller shrimp), large crabs, round crabs, little crabs, giant crabs (tourteau), like a Dungeness, araignees de mer (spiders of the sea), and much more.  We always started with the tiny ecrevisses and worked our way up to the lobsters and giant crab; or had an assortment, piled high on a bed of ice.  So good.  The weather in August reminded me of my childhood vacations in Maine – slipping between cool sheets and under a warm comforter, smelling the moist salt air.

When we returned the rental car, we turned in the keys, paid, and said goodbye; but this was no where close to being enough for the clerk.  “Where are the car’s papers?”, he asked.  “We didn’t have them”, we replied, adding “But you have the car”.

Ah, mais non” he answered.  “Without the papers, the car doesn’t exist”; and to make his point gestured at the tired Deux Chevaux out front.  And then, wanting to be helpful to these American children, he said, “Cherchez dans vos poches, Monsieur-Dame” – check your pockets.  He folded his arms and waited for us to do as he said.  When we found the crumpled rental agreement, he of course said, “See, I told you so”; and then with a big smile and pointing to the car he added, “Now the car exists.”

Our next driving adventure was after India when we decided that if we were to continue in “development” we would have to see other parts of the Third World.  They couldn’t possibly be like India, we reasoned, and compare and contrast was a foundation for learning.  So, we bought a used car, Freddy, a 1966 Ford Falcon, one of those indestructible cars like the ‘65 Valiant that Detroit made by mistake.  These cars clocked 100k easy with few repairs and limited maintenance.  One of NPR’s Car Guys still has his ‘63 Valiant which was even better.  In any case, Freddy was a bear, we paid little for him, and he was the perfect car for the trip.  One day after purchase and five days before departure for Guatemala, we got fender-bendered by a distracted driver.  Instead of the fender getting bent, the plastic grill got smashed; so because there was no structural damage, and because replacing the grill would have cost more than the price of the car, we removed the grill and drove to Latin America in a maw-gaping Ford Falcon.

At every gas stop in Mexico, the mechanics offered to fix the car; but before they did, they asked why we hadn’t fixed it.  South of the Border, even the most decrepit used car was worth a local fortune, especially one that did not gape and show damage.  It was too much of a cultural jump for the Mexicans to understand the US cost ratio; so they filled us up with cheap gas, and we went on our way until the next gas stop, same story.

Before starting off on our trip, we were advised to bring at least one set of points and plugs, because the poor quality of Pemex gas was well-known.  Sure enough, after one fill up, the car began to cough and sputter, and finally die.  Just like in India on the road up the ghats from Bombay, at the very spot that it died, there were four mechanics’ pop-ups ready to do new points and plugs.  In true entrepreneurial spirit, they had figured out exactly how many miles of shitty Mexican gas it took to stall a gringo car.

We left Freddy in Guatemala City after a few months stay there, and took off for Bolivia by land – a series of busses, trains, collective taxis, and trucks which got us to the Darien jungle of Panama, then from Colombia to La Paz.  Originally we had thought that we would do the round trip by land; but after weeks of being jammed into Bluebird school bus seats, crushed by never-washed Indians in the back seat of colectivos plying the altiplano between Huancayo and Ayacucho and on to Cuzco and Puno, we had had it.  It was Aero Boliviana back no matter what the cost. 

The view across the shoulders of the Indians and out the smeared windows was spectacular.  The altiplano is at 14,000 ft., and we were surrounded by Andean peaks for the entire trip. Except for outer space, there is no clearer, more crystalline air than on the altiplano

La Paz, like many cities at that time – Port-au-Prince most stands out in my mind – had a system of urban collective taxis.  You hailed them, told the driver where you wanted to go, and if it was more or less in the direction of his existing passengers, he would take you.  Of course “more or less” was very general; and you never took a colectivo unless you had time to spare; and since we were there only to see the sights, the detours –  Michelin’s “detours touristiques” – were well worth the cramped, smelly, and crabbed time in the back seat.  In Port-au-Prince, the colectivos were easily recognized by the red ribbon or cloth hanging from the rearview.  Taking these “chiffon rouge”, or red rag taxis, you got to see neighborhoods of the city that you never would on your own; and even in the days of Papa and Baby Doc, these were places where you never would set foot.  But, tourists being what they are, it was great to see the slums and miasma of poverty from inside a car.

As I got older, if I was to travel in the back seat of any car, it had to be a big, air-conditioned one with a driver, with only me being driven; but I am glad for those early, young days, when comfort mattered less – a lot less.

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