Thursday, October 01, 2015

Walking in Managua: Pedestrian tips from the front line

 My walk to work is quite a bit longer this time in Managua, about an hour each way. It gives me more time to reflect on all the ways I could be killed in traffic. 
     Managua certainly doesn’t have the craziest traffic I’ve ever had to walk through; I have, after all, lived to tell the tale of crossing the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. But fresh from a summer wandering along the coddled streets of Victoria, Managua is quite enough crazy for me at the moment.
    So herewith, a few words of advice for those who would be pedestrians in a busy Central American city:

Cars rule. Never assume that any driver is going to slow down for you to cross the road. Never assume that they even see you at all, even if they appear to be looking right at you. Yes, every now and then you are going to spot a crosswalk, but you’d be out of your mind to think it means anything at all. 

Do way more than simply looking both ways. Approach every road crossing as if you were a CIA agent anticipating an assassin coming at you from an unknown direction. 
    Sure, the nice little green man is signalling that you can walk, but don’t trust him. Sure, the guy in the lane closest to you is smiling at you and giving you a friendly go-ahead wave. But what about the guy in the lane next to him? Or the motorcycle that is almost certainly coming straight up the middle of the two lanes? Or the guy turning left against the lights? Or the guy turning right from the street down the way – the one who’s gunning it to clear the intersection you're crossing before the light changes? 
    Think of it this way: If there’s a car anywhere in sight, it just might run you down. Act accordingly.

Always look behind you. This is probably my most common error. I look both ways, step into a side street to cross it, and boom, a car comes hurtling from behind me doing a high-speed left-hand turn to sneak through a big line of traffic travelling in the opposite direction.
    Equally deadly are the cars coming up from behind that are turning right into some parking lot or gas station whose entrance you are walking past. Back in Canada, such cars dutifully wait until you’re safely out of their way before turning in. Not in Managua.

Never assume that being on a sidewalk means you’re safe. Aside from major pedestrian hazards like cracked cement, giant open storm drains, tree roots, dangling electrical wires, dog poo and wildly uneven surfaces, it’s not unusual to encounter a motorcycle driving along the sidewalk toward you. A couple days ago, I had to jump out of the way of a small car making its way along. Do not allow yourself to grow comfortable.

And anyway, a lot of the sidewalks just end. And just like that, you don’t have so much as a gravel shoulder to walk along. All of a sudden you go from being a relatively happy pedestrian on a sidewalk to someone who’s scrambling to get out of the way of fast-moving buses that are pulling in to pick up passengers, or inching your way around a higgle-piggle of strangely angled parked cars, food vendors, and clamorous hordes of tired Nicaraguans trying to get home on those buses.

The safest place to cross is between stopped cars, not in front of them. Let’s say you’ve got a choice of crossing the street at a controlled intersection, or walking a few metres further up and weaving your way between the cars that are stopped waiting for the light. 
      Pick the weaving option. There’s just way less risk when you can pick and choose which stopped cars to walk in front of, and more chance of escaping unscathed if the line of traffic suddenly starts moving.
      But remember to watch for those motorcycles coming up between the lanes of traffic. Walk. Stop. Peek. Walk. Repeat.

Embrace medians. What lovely things they are, turning impossible four-lane highways into manageable two-lane chunks. And they’re great for standing on while you take a photo of all the traffic coming at you.

Get yourself a good pair of shoes. You do NOT want to be doing all this bobbing and weaving in shoes that are slippery, high-heeled, dainty, or otherwise unsuitable for a last-minute dash when all goes wrong. Never mind what the Nicaraguans are wearing – they’re experts at all of this. Get yourself a sturdy pair of runners and don’t worry about fashion faux pas.

Save the “empowered pedestrian” crap for when you’re back in Canada. You know what I’m talking about: Waving an angry fist in the air at a driver who came close to hitting you; thumping on the hood of a car as you walk past to signal your annoyance that he’s protruding so far into the intersection; fixing the driver with a steely, disapproving gaze to convey Just How Mad You Are; crossing the street at the speed of a tortoise just to prove the point that you’re the one in control.
     It’s hard enough to take empowered pedestrians back in my own land. Down here, they’d just be run right over. Come to think of it, that might be the one endearing feature of Managua traffic. 


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