Driving in a foreign place is an impressive feat. As I've slowly started to figure it out, I've grown increasingly satisfied with myself. When I first got here, the streets and the culture of driving were a mystery to me. Rightfully so, I think, as San Juan is supposed to be one of the worst cities in the world to drive in. People down here on the southern side of the island have taken to calling it Tapon - Traffic.
Yeah. People who live here call San Juan traffic.
Traffic makes me a little nervous anywhere. I'd rather not have to make multiple lane changes at 70 miles per hour - or 80 if dictated by your fellow travelers - in order to narrowly avoid missing my exit and consequently flying who-knows-where too far down the freeway to find my way back. Doing it in a 15 passenger van should require a special license. Doing it a 15 passenger van in a foreign land should earn you a medal.
Luckily, in modern times we have the GPS unit.
And I sort of hate them. Hated them.
Sure, it's nice to know when your exit is coming up, and it's nice to know where you'll be able to find a Coldstone along the way, and the GPS is great when you're trying to find your way around a big or unfamiliar city. But it becomes troublesome when you become dependent on it, when you answer to it. "The machine knows where it's going" are famous last words. Ask Michael Scott. I would much rather just know my way around than have to futz with the GPS everytime.
But then, of course, I was driving back from the airport late last night - creeping right up on 1 am - when I knew caffeine would help perk me up a bit. I'd rather not ever have a "I fell asleep at the wheel" story. So I stopped where I thought I would be able to find some Dr Pepper - a rarity here in Puerto Rico, unless you know where to look. With a crisp, refreshing Dr P in hand, I hopped on a road that ran parallel to the freeway, thinking it would bring me back. It didn't. It went from nice, straight road right next to the freeway to windy, roller-coastery mountain thrill ride pretty quickly. Luckily, the GPS was suction-cupped right to the window and got me out of that mess. And it brought me through a presumably beautiful part of the island.
So I've learned to stop hating the GPS.
For the most part, driving around down here isn't nearly as complicated as you might think. Still, people seem impressed when I report that I get around on my own somehow.
Over the last week, I had multiple opportunities to drive some Grand Valley and Grace Bible College kids around. At one point, we met a traffic jam in the middle of the barrio, of all places. That's another thing - there aren't many alternate routes. So I had to backtrack, went way out of the way but probably avoided a pretty nasty traffic snarl. And of course, once we were nearly back on course, we found another even worse traffic jam. It was backed up farther than we could see, and had spilled over into another intersection. Of course, drivers from all directions staked their claim in the intersection trying to get through it, effectively turning it into a parking lot. Naturally, when a vein opened up, I crept through it with a full load of nervous, unacquainted college kids. I stepped right out there and made some maneuvers that would get you tickets or jail time in the states. I think I heard whimpering from someone in the seats behind me.
But we made it through okay. It wasn't an easy trek by any means, but I kept my cool. I'd seen this before.
And therein lies the key to successful driving in a new place: Familiarity.
Knowing the culture of driving, going places you've been before, that's how you figure it out. That takes time. That takes experience. A GPS is a nice temporary substitute, but I'll take the experience - even with the errors at 1 am - over one any day.