Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Traffic Incident

This morning I rode my bicycle into the office just like every other morning. It is a five mile commute. As usual, it was hot and humid and I was dripping with sweat as I approached my office. For almost two years I have always arrived without a major incident—until today. I guess in the grand scheme of life, today’s problem wasn’t that traumatic, but it did disrupt my entire day. About two blocks from the office I was approaching a busy intersection when a bus, called a micro in Santa Cruz, sped past me and then dove to the curb to pick up a passenger. I had to break hard to avoid hitting his bumper. I managed to get ahead of him and then stopped at the intersection waiting until I could safely cross. The bus pulled up behind me and then I felt him nudge my back wheel with his bumper. The intersection cleared so I tried to pedal through it but my bicycle wouldn’t budge. My rear wheel had been crushed (what we cyclists call taco’ed) from the weight if his bumper. Of course I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. The back wheel was completely ruined and obviously unridable. I raised the bicycle up in front of the drivers window to show him what he had done. He kind of shrugged his shoulders and motioned for me to get up on the curb so he could pull his bus over to the side of the road. I said I wasn’t moving until the police came. I believed he would just drive away if I moved from the front of his bus. The intersection quickly became clogged with blocked vehicles and pedestrians standing around gawking at the gringo and his broken bicycle. Several men approached me and encouraged me not to move from the spot. One of them ran off to find a policeman. The crowd began taunting the driver and accusing him of basically being an idiot. Bus drivers in Santa Cruz are notoriously known for driving recklessly and for abusing the rights of pedestrians and fellow drivers alike. After about five minutes a police car came and two officers began to assess the situation, quickly interviewing the driver and myself. At the same time a man in street clothes thrust a radio receiver in my face and asked me to explain exactly what happened. It ignored him and tried to concentrate on the policemen’s questions. Later I learned that he was from the prensa, he was a news reporter from a local radio station.

The police put my bicycle in the micro and asked me to get in the patrol car and go with them down to transito, the traffic police station, to write up a formal report. The patrol car followed the micro and once at the station we all sat down together in a hot office where both the driver and I told our stories. We both told the same basic story. Edgar, the bus driver, said he was picking up a passenger, trying to make change, and had accidentally taken his foot off the brake. The intersection was slightly down hill and he accidentally rolled into my rear wheel. Edgar was quiet and polite and seemed nervous at the thought of what all of this was going to mean for the future of his family. There wasn’t much to the interview, the policeman wrote our names down in a notebook and scribbled a few notes describing the accident. He said that the micro would have to remain impounded until my bicycle was fixed. He said Edgar and I should go together to take care of the bicycle repair and that the bus could not leave the impound lot until I personally told the officer I was satisfied with the repair. I thought it was odd that after an accident the police would send the two parties off together to work things out without an intermediary. If the two parties disagreed who was at fault or had even the slightest bit of animosity toward each other, I could see how that arrangement could go south quickly.

Edgar did not have more than a dollar in his pocket and didn’t know how he was going to get the wheel fixed. He does not own the bus himself. He is only a substitute driver for the bus line, Linea 15. He takes the place of regular drivers whenever they can not make it into work. He said he usually works seven days a week from 5:00 AM to 10:00 PM. For each 17 hour shift he is paid 50 bolivianos (about $6.00US). He has a wife and one child, a two month old daughter, but said he has hardly seen her because he is always gone from the house trying to earn a living. They live in a poor barrio with dirt streets that is over an hour from the bus line parking lot, so he is only home between 11 PM and 4 AM. I have always thought all bus drivers are rude and inattentive, but I never considered the fact that they work such long hours and must be mindlessly exhausted by the end of the day. Bus drivers are constantly distracted because they have to collect money from passengers and make change while they are driving. They are always in a hurry to stay on schedule while trying picking up as many passengers are possible. They constantly dive to the curb and then pull right back into traffic without paying any attention to other vehicles or pedestrians around them. Bus drivers are most offensive in the round-abouts where they stay on the outside to pick up passengers and then dive across three or four lanes of traffic in an attempt to make a left turn around the circle. If other drivers value their bumpers at all they have learned to stop and let the busses come on across.

It was odd getting to know Edgar on a personal level. We ended up spending the entire day together and we talked about our respective lives quite extensively. Previously I had only thought of bus drivers as a single class of individuals, all of whom I thought were selfish idiots. Bus drivers are simply the faceless enemies of commuting cyclists. I think you have to actually live in and drive in Santa Cruz to understand this battlefield. Micros are smallish Toyota busses that hold 30 passengers comfortably, and more commonly 50 or 60 when they are stuffed to the gills during peak commuting hours. The buses are small enough to squeeze into and between tight lanes of traffic. And they are quick, having much better acceleration than our lumbering diesel powered Nissan Patrol. Ninety-five percent of the citizens of Santa Cruz get around town by bus, and there are 1000’s and 1000’s of busses. They clog up every primary traffic artery in town. When I am on my bicycle it sometimes feels as if I am a minnow bumping and squeezing my way through a huge school of tuna. Micro drivers will sometimes respect another vehicle, but when they see a bicycle, they simply disregard it completely. Even if a cyclist has a green light or preferential right-of-way, a micro will often cut him off. I have to constantly be on the lookout for maniac bus drivers, my fingers always on the brake levers, ready to squeeze them hard.

Once out of his bus Edgar was a regular guy, he had a goofy insecure smile and seemed more worried about how he was going to get himself out of this mess than about running over innocent pedestrians and cyclists. He asked me about my family and my job, and we talked a bit about politics and religion. He is catholic but has a brother who is a Mormon. We both agreed Mormon’s have some screwed up theology. Edgar wanted to go to a market area called Alto San Pedro where he thought we could pick up another bicycle rim for about $5 dollars. I explained to him that my bicycle was imported from that U.S. and the rims were specifically made for rugged off-road cycling and that any old steel rim wasn’t going to work. The only shop in town that might have a suitable replacement was Bianchi way on the north side of town heading toward the airport. Edgar wanted to take a series of busses to get there, but that would have taken hours, so I suggested a taxi. He balked at the $1.25 a taxi driver wanted for the trip, but finally agreed on the bargained down price of $1.00. Once at the shop, the shop manager described to us the various options. The only suitable replacement was going to cost about $100 for a rear wheel that would have to be built from scratch, or $150 for a new pre-laced set of imported wheels. My old hub, which was not damaged could not be used because nowhere in Bolivia do they sell rims with 28 spoke holes. Edgar called the bus owner on my cell phone, explained that the bus had been impounded, and described his current predicament. Edgar did not have any means to pay for the wheel, so he was hoping the bus owner would bail him out. I thought about loaning him the money, but then that would have defeated the purpose of everything we were doing. Even from several yards away I could hear the bus owner on the phone yelling furiously at Edgar, who just smiled and told me the owner was pretty upset and was on his way down to the bike shop. I called Susana, a World Concern colleague, and asked her meet me at the bike shop with some cash. I offered to accept $75 for the rear wheel and I was going to put up another $75 so I could buy the pair (front and rear) of wheels, which the shop would only sell as a set. When the bus owner arrived he was furious with both Edgar and me. He said he would only pay for a rim and nothing more because that was all that was damaged. I explained how that was unacceptable because my hub was useless in Bolivia and I needed a whole rear wheel. He said he didn’t have to do anything for me and that he could go down to the station and pay a little bribe and get his bus out in half an hour if he wanted to. He finally calmed down and agreed to take this whole mess to his insurance office and see what they had to say.

Crediform, the bus owner’s insurance carrier, said we needed an official police report before they could process the claim. But because it was approaching lunch time, the negotiations ground to a halt. Everything in Santa Cruz closes between noon and three in the afternoon. At three we met each other again at the police station, but the officer said he would not give us a report until the bicycle was repaired. Finally after much explaining, he agreed to make a report that would be ready at 4:30, but still refused to let the bus out of the impound lot until the bicycle was fixed and I gave the okay. Back at Crediform with the report in hand, we still had problems because the police report had incorrectly reported the license plate number of the bus. Back to the police station to take a digital photo of the bus to prove its identity and to photograph the bicycle to prove it was the model I had declared. The insurance adjuster had a hard time believing that my Klein bicycle originally cost over $2000 or that a rear wheel would cost $100. He just kept saying that he could buy a whole new bicycle for $100. But after a quick internet search he verified the value of the bicycle and agreed print a check for $95. But he had to send someone from the insurance office with me back to the shop to purchase the wheel and bring back a receipt for the exact amount. I added $55 of my own money and bought the better wheel set. By the time everything of finalized and the micro was released from the impound lot it was after 7:00 PM. Edgar still had another three hours left on his shift and was eager to get back to work. Earlier in the day he said he was sure he would be fired over this incident. He said he had had one other small accident two years earlier and ever since then the bus syndicate president had not been nice to him. He assumed today’s problems would be the end of his job. Also, the police had confiscated his drivers license and would not give it back until he paid a $25 fine, an amount equal to five days wages, and more that he could possibly pay in the near future. I left Edgar with well wishes and a bid to be careful.

A one second lapse of attention had crushed my rear wheel (really just a minor inconvenience to me), but to Edgar it would probably mean the loss of steady employment and the creation of an economic hole that he will not be able to crawl out of for months. Vanessa wanted to help Edgar’s family by buying some clothes for their baby daughter, but I had already washed his cell phone number from my hand and don’t know how to contact him again. Maybe we will bump into each other again in the streets.

1 comment:

Genevieve said...

We lived in Santa Cruz in 1980-82 and taught at Santa Cruz Cooperative School. It doesn't sound like some things have changed much, and other things (the traffic) are probably much worse. Do they still have the sloths that live in the trees in the central plaza?