Friday, August 31, 2012

The guns are scary, but it's the roads that'll kill you

The road that convinced me to get out and walk

Before we left Canada in January, Cuso International asked us to watch a 90-minute video presentation on health concerns put together by Dr. Mark Wise, Cuso's doctor in residence.
He listed what seemed like a hundred different health problems to watch out for in our international placements, from malaria and dengue fever to chagas and rabid dogs.
He ended it with a humorous little lecture noting that even if we couldn't be bothered to wear mosquito repellent - even if we insisted on patting stray dogs -  at the very least we should always use a seatbelt when riding in a vehicle, because car accidents are by far the most common bad things to happen to Cuso volunteers.
I think back on his advice with a rueful smile whenever I'm jouncing along any of the truly terrible roads in Honduras. If only it were that easy, Dr. Wise.
Sure, I do up my seatbelt if I happen to be sitting in the front seat of somebody's vehicle. But I don't think I've been in a back seat yet that had a functioning seatbelt. Nor are there seatbelts in the back of a pickup truck, which is where I've ended up sitting a striking number of times when heading off on some adventure with my co-workers at the Comision de Accion Social Menonita.
And a few days ago as we crept over an alarmingly fragile sliver of road, undercut to the point of imminent collapse by the vast quantities of rainwater that had been eating away at it for what must have been a dozen rainy seasons, I wondered whether a seatbelt would actually be a help or a hindrance were the road to give way right at that moment and send us tumbling into the ravine below.
Seatbelts are a good thing in a Canada/U.S. kind of  country, where the most likely thing to happen to you on the road is that you smash into another car.
Ah, but there are many more things besides collisions to worry about on a Honduras road - from car-eating potholes flipping you sideways to giant sinkholes opening under your wheels. There are skinny mountain roads so steep that even a 4x4's tires spin helplessly in the mud when the rains come, and roads that are really just river beds that surge to life in a single downpour.
The dirt roads of Honduras aren't just rutted, they're gouged, two feet deep in places and impossible to negotiate. And it's not like you can just make a point of avoiding the dirt roads: 80 per cent of the country's 13,600 kilometres of roads are unpaved, and for the most part profoundly neglected.
The municipalities have responsibility for maintaining the roads near their towns, but they don't have any money. The national government has responsible for the main roads, but nobody seems to hold them to that.
A rear tire from the CASM truck
We caught a bus to Santa Rosa de Copan recently and came across people who make a living filling in the giant potholes along that route. They come dashing out in between traffic surges and scoop gravel into the holes, then collect lempiras that grateful drivers throw out the window. My co-workers tell  me they remove the gravel every night so they can do it all again the next day.
And then there are the vehicles. People don't have a lot of money here, so vehicle maintenance isn't exactly a priority. If you're a non-profit like CASM, you'll have a heck of a time convincing any of your funders to include vehicle maintenance in your contract, even though virtually all development work is done in isolated villages that are impossible to reach without a vehicle.
Because of that little problem, it's common practice to take a pair of tires down to the steel belts before anyone even thinks about replacing them. I had that unfortunate realization one day a couple of months ago after we'd made our halting way down a typically horrifying mountain road and  then stopped the truck to see what was up with the rear tires. Not only were they completely bald, they were bristling with shredded wire.
I don't like to come across as a chicken, but last week when we had to drive back across that eroded, undercut little strip of road not far from La Cumbre, I lied so that I could get out of the truck. I asked to be let out so I could take a photo of the truck inching its way across. In reality, I just felt a lot safer walking.
So yes, Dr. Wise, I wear my seatbelt when I can. The rest of the time, I pray.


John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

As one who drives the backroads of Copán, your experience rings true - in part. There are some places - for example, the municipality of San Agustín, Copán - where the dirt roads are quite good and they are improving them. This is due to a mayor who made this a priority, partly because such roads are needed for the coffee harvest.

In other cases, the roads are bad because though the government made promises they never came through, or the work began and the money ran out (possibly through corruption by the companies).

A lot depends on the local and national governments. The road from La Entrada to Copán Ruinas used to be terrible - and at times Copán Ruinas was cut off for a day or two due to landslides or washouts. Someone decided it was a good idea to fix the road.

Also, I believe that the fuel taxes go into the general government fund and the government decides on the annual budget for roads independently. Neighboring El Salvador now has a fairly good road infrastructure, partly - someone suggested to me - because they use the gas taxes for the roads! There are of course other reasons.

The infrastructure problem here - of which the roads are a very visible sign - point to the structural problems of the Honduras government and economy which do not respond to the needs of the majority of the people who are poor.

I would also suggest that the southwest of Honduras is the part of the country most neglected by the government.

Potholes and unpaved roads are not an accident - but the result of the systematic injustice here. said...

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