I started driving in New York State when I was 16 years old. That means I've been behind the wheel for more than 40 years now and have roamed across most regions of the US and good chunks of Canada. I've driven on unpaved back roads, sleek expressways, and crowded metropolitan streets in all sorts of bad weather--freezing rain, snow, tornado winds, hurricane deluges, and hail. I thought I'd seen it all until I moved to Puerto Rico.
For the first month after our car arrived, I was too unsure of myself to drive, so I let my husband (who is Puerto Rican and knows all the roads) take the wheel. This allowed me to pay close attention to the routes we took and the driving behavior of the island residents. Every day we witnessed at least one accident, generally at intersections due to the prevalent custom of running lights. Every day we also witnessed at least 20 near accidents due to the equally prevalent customs of not signalling lane changes or turns, drinking while under the influence of alcohol, and stopping suddenly to avoid hitting pedestrians who cross major roads unpredictably. It was almost enough to keep me away from driving permanently.
However, the realities of modern life intervened, and as our family schedule became more complicated, driving was an absolute necessity. So I swallowed my fear and joined the endless tapones (traffic jams) that grace every morning in the San Juan metro area.
Now I was no stranger to traffic jams, having first studied and then lived in New York City for a total of 9 years. Nevertheless, the Puerto Rican tapon has its own peculiar flavor. Let me give you some idea of a typical morning drive at that time for me. At 6:45 am, as I would come down the hill from where I lived in Trujillo Alto (just three miles away from the UPR campus), I would see the tapon beginning to form on our local road. Generally, if it was no later than 6:45, there would be only a few cars lining up to get on the Trujillo Alto Expressway, but if I ran late and arrived between 7 and 8:30 am, then I would be in for an excruciating wait. At 6:45 am, people would be fairly cordial and let me into the line. After that point, as the rush hour built up, people would become increasingly hostile, and one would have to bravear or take the bull by the horns and charge right in, risking life, limb, and auto body work. Once I was on the 3-lane Expressway (expanded to four since everyone would drive in the emergency lane), the real crawl would begin.
A note about the Trujillo Alto Expressway (and it's generalizeable to many other major roads in Puerto Rico): Since housing development all along the Expressway has been unfettered by even the most rudimentary notions of urban planning, every scrap of buildable land has multi-family condominiums planted on it. This means that hundreds of cars emerge from each of these structures (at least 2 per family) and funnel into the Expressway. While clearly unworkable on its own, this system really breaks down when police officers are assigned to "direct" traffic during the rush hour. Then, instead of being able to count on a steady progression with each change of the traffic lights, commuters can end up waiting through several light changes while law enforcement officials permit secondary traffic from other directions to go through. The officers persist in their misguided activity despite regular blasts from car and truck horns, liberal and creative cursing, and vivid hand-gesturing directed at them by the citizenry.
Things have improved greatly in the past few years with the construction of the elevado (overpass) which allows me to avoid the horrendous intersection of the Trujillo Alto Expressway and 65th Infantry Avenue. But from 1986 to 2009, I would inch along, watching school children walking along the side of the Expressway loaded down with book bags and beating me to each intersection, and I would study the other drivers. Anthropology in action!
Peeking into neighboring cars during a tapon the San Juan metro area can reveal extremely interesting behavior. Most common is the sight of women drivers doing their complete toilette in the car, including the removal of hair rollers, application of makeup, and even eyebrow tweezing. Men are not far behind with hair combing, breakfast consumption, newspaper reading, and even shaving with electric razors. Children are often put into the car in the morning still dressed in pajamas, and one can witness them eating cereal, putting on their school uniforms, getting their hair braided, and completing unfinished homework. Other passengers may opt for the less active but more satisfying pursuit of forty winks, and it's truly disconcerting to be stuck beside the same car for long stretches staring at the wide-open mouth of a snoring occupant.
Add to this show the presence of street vendors, pamphleteers, and beggers who meander through the stopped cars pushing their various wares. You can buy water, donuts, fruits, vegetables, posters, flowers, bread, cakes, and even land crabs depending on the hour, collect free samples and ads for new products, and contribute to your favorite charity or homeless person, all on the way to work. The beggers range from well-dressed nurses soliciting donations for the Red Cross, to AIDS-stricken youths vainly trying to wash windshields for loose change, to a wide variety of handicapped individuals in wheelchairs or on crutches, displaying their infirmities in order to provoke sympathy and generosity on the part of the passing drivers.
If you are fortunate enough to experience movement during the tapon, then you will probably also experience the famous corte de pastelillo (literally the arc made when a cook cuts dough to make a turnover but used locally to describe when someone cuts you off in traffic through a dramatic and unannounced lane change). If you haven't woken up by then, this maneuver will definitely get your blood pulsing, if it doesn't cause an outright heart attack.
To make a long story short, my 3 mile journey to work would take on the average 35 minutes if I left early and would sometimes even last an hour on particularly bad days. Compare this to the same route on Sunday which takes 12 minutes (and the new overpass which has cut the trip down to 10 minutes), and you can see why I used to listen to audiobooks in the car every morning to keep from exploding.