What they don’t tell you in guide books, or, we tried to figure it out so you don’t have to

“Is this a two-lane street?” asks Stu, both frustration and panic in his voice. He is driving our rental car into Oaxaca Juarez, the colonial city in Central Mexico we have been living for two months.

Who knows? It’s a two-lane street if the drivers using it want it to be. Gutters, parking lanes, breakdown lanes, the lanes going the other direction, can all be utilized by drivers if they need them at any given moment. And then I utter our refrain, the one we use whenever we attempt to use American logic to understand anything here:

“You’re assuming someone is in charge.”

If Mel Brooks had directed Fury Road, he might have set it in modern-day Mexico. Driving here is a comedy action thriller.

Take one-way streets. Many streets in Oaxaca and surrounding pueblos, towns and barrios, both paved and unpaved, have large painted arrows on facing walls, showing if the street is two-way or one-way. The Mexican driver believes you should probably obey those arrows, unless you really need to go the wrong way on a one-way street, in which case, you should try to avoid the oncoming cars as judiciously as possible. Wave, showing your appreciate their understanding.

Take crosswalks. Someone, somewhere (the person who was temporarily in charge?) painted many crosswalks on Oaxacan streets. As near as we can tell, these painted areas tell drivers that this is the area where they should, if convenient, avoid hitting people as they drive through, very rapido. It does not mean, under any circumstances, that they should stop and let the people standing nearby cross. Unless of course, they are already stopped because of a red light, in which case it is the pedestrian’s responsibility to make eye contact with the driver, and wave at the driver, just to make sure the driver agrees with the pedestrian’s interpretation of the event. And of course, Oaxacans, being extremely friendly and accommodating, always smile back, “Why, of course, go right ahead!” It’s such a civilized approach.

Take bus lanes. Actually, yes, take bus lanes. The sign on the lane repeated every 100 feet that says “Bus Only” is meant to be poetic. It may mean that a bus uses the lane sometimes. But the definition of bus is rather lax, and encourages creativity. Cars, trucks, motorcycles: we all feel like a bus sometimes, don’t we? A couple of “Bus Only” lanes are the only lane you can take if you want to turn right or left at the next light. So call me a bus. I’m OK with that.

Take other traffic violations. Some weeks ago, the erstwhile traffic department of Oaxaca (the people, who, at one time or another, are briefly in charge) put up a nice tent on Alcala, the main downtown tourist pedestrian-only street. Inside the tent, they put 20 posters on easels, each with a drawing of a traffic violation, and a recitation of the Oaxacan law at issue. The first thing about this display that struck me is that it was set up on a street few where cars can’t drive. It was honest and sincere, but in a state where literally anyone can get a driver’s license, no test required, it seemed woefully inadequate as a driver education tool.

That said, here are some of the things, pictured on the posters, that are illegal here:

– Putting rocks, buckets, old chairs or spare construction material anywhere on a public street to reserve the parking spaces in front of your house or business. So, who knows why every street in Oaxaca sports one of these free-lance loading zones. Illegal, we’ll give you that. Enforced? OK, now you’re acting like there’s someone in charge.

– Riding with a dog or child loose in the front passenger seat. The poster only showed one loose child and one loose dog. Maybe that explains why we’ve seen three or four children loose in one front passenger seat. One child could get knocked about, but there’s safety in numbers.

– People riding in the open bed of pickup trucks. Seriously? Even the local, state and federal cops ride around standing in the back of pickups. Of course, they are all carrying semi-automatic weapons, which they use to steady themselves against the truck frame when they go around corners, so that probably makes it safer for them. It also ensures I won’t be pointing out to them that it’s illegal.

If you’ve ever watched a bee hive, or an ant hill, it is obvious that advanced civilizations have no need for traffic signs or bureaucracy, as long as all the bees and ants are just going about their genetically-inspired jobs as judiciously as possible. The primary rule here is: we’re all on this road together, trying to get to our destinations. Let’s just get along. And if that means I need to drive the wrong way in your lane for just a minute, we’ll all just smile and wave.