Honduran Rules of the Road

Kathy Martin O'Neil

Kathy Martin O'Neil

I have a Driving In Honduras t-shirt.

This is a ubiquitous item of merchandise (you can find it in every tourist shop) and a ubiquitous experience of visitors to Honduras (whether you traverse Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula or Roatan or travel any distance at all in a vehicle). The graphic shows a car in the oncoming lane of traffic, careening past a truck on a mountain curve, with the title, Rules of the Road, followed by this list:

• Blind curves are ideal for passing.

• Use horn in all situations.

• Green light signals start of the race.

• Red light means “Watch out, I’m coming through!”

• All garbage goes out the window immediately.

• When driving at night at least one headlight must be out of order at all times.

• In all city driving situations, jungle rules apply.

On my first ride in Tegucigalpa, our rented bus left Toncontin Airport to drive a mile or two to a nearby neighborhood, Colonia Miraflores. The city streets were a spectacular cacophony of honking horns and squealing brakes that sounded almost festive, not angry. I wondered if drivers and walkers milling around in the streets were celebrating a holiday. Cars and trucks wove in and out and around each other with no discernible lanes. Whenever we slowed down (which was always), I was startled by people walking up to vehicles to knock on windows and peddle newspapers or plastic bags of cookies or fruit. At stoplights on busy street corners, young boys darted into the intersection with grimy wet rags and attempted to wipe windshields (that they had just dirtied) for a few lempira. Most were shooed away by drivers. I also saw a public bus crammed so full that riders were hanging halfway out the doors, dangling over pavement.

My second ride was a highway trip through the mountains to the rural village of Nuevo Paraíso, off the road to Danlí, about an hour outside the capital city. Here’s where the Honduran Rules of the Road really kick in. Blind curves are indeed regarded as ideal spots for passing. Not just a single pass, mind you, but a double or a triple pass. I don’t mean passing three or four vehicles back to front. I mean side-by-side, three or four abreast across the entire width of the road: a motorcycle passing a car passing a van that is passing a truck. From the other direction it looks like a wall of doom bearing down upon you.

But we have an amazing driver for our Honduras trips. Truly he has saved our lives countless times with an expert flick of the wrist on the steering wheel or tap of the foot on the brake. He has some kind of magical x-ray vision to see exactly how the triple pass needs to resolve and whether we will brake or one of the oncoming cars will have to duck back into the lane. He maneuvers a tourist bus over boulders and deep ruts on dirt roads without making anyone sick to their stomachs and can thread through a group of horses, cows, or whatever is in the road. He is a driving god and my hero, and so I just don’t worry when he is at the wheel.

Which might be naive, but really, what else can I do but trust? I would never in a million years try to drive in Honduras myself—not unless I lived there for a long, long time first. I’ve heard of some (cough! arrogant!) U.S. mission trip leaders who bully their way into driving the Honduran mission bus or van. I can only imagine the close calls and fervent praying by passengers both inside and outside that vehicle.

Over 13 years of Honduras trips, I’ve witnessed the aftermath of several crashes, many of them Tiny Motorcycle vs. Giant Truck. I once saw the lifeless body of a teenage boy in a leather jacket crumpled on the ground. In another accident, I think I saw a chalk outline where someone had died hours earlier. Once, we stopped on the highway and our guard and driver helped a woman carry a large bundle of sticks up a steep hill to her home, a shack just above the road; by my next trip six months later, she was dead, struck while crossing that busy road. Often, someone on my team will bring up the sense that life feels more fragile or even cheap here in Honduras. They are absolutely not saying that a Honduran accident victim’s life is any less precious and valuable than one in Indianapolis, Indiana; that is patently untrue. But they are noticing that fatal accidents seem to happen with great regularity and the Hondurans we love seem resigned to it as a way of life. Seat belts and safety standards are not really the highest priority when men or children have to pile into the open back of a pickup truck or stand on the back of a moped on the highway just to get where they need to go.

One of our Honduran handlers (a.k.a. coordinators) for our mission trips carries a rosary in her purse that I see woven between her fingers during every lengthy ride we take. When she’s not in conversation with someone, her lips are still moving and her beads are clicking; she is sending up Hail Mary’s for safe passage wherever we are going. It’s not that she doesn’t trust our beloved driver; the Blessed Mother is just an additional insurance policy—and her close friend. A priest I know, who travels to Honduras from the United States, often says that Honduras feels a little closer to heaven. That feels true, in the sense that life and death commingle side by side so closely there.

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