Leaving Quito, Ecuador and arriving in Oaxaca, Mexico, I have been made aware (again!!) that so many things are taken for granted in North America. Walking for example – in the southern part of the continent it is so much more difficult to navigate a sidewalk as an able bodied person, never mind an elderly with a cane or a person in a wheelchair.
Sidewalks are narrow (to say the least) or inexistent, with curbs as high as 10 inches or more (it is assumed that during the rainy season the water won’t flood the sidewalk…but it still does every year) At times, the curbs are broken into bits and one has to navigate over the rubble. Ramps if they exist are so steep that pushing a wheelchair is next to impossible …never mind self-propelling it. People passing by usually walk straight into each other, veering at the last minute and many tiny collisions are part of a normal promenade, worse if you are actually in a hurry. Peter’s sling was definitely not a reason to give him space. Usually, the narrower the sidewalk, the more people seem to want to walk on it! Despite the many interesting obstacles and “art projects” one encounters, walking is still an energy consuming business with many hidden dangers and challenges.
Occasionally one is followed by a bicycle or a motorcycle, asking noisily for room – what are YOU doing on the sidewalk, where only THEY should rule??
As a pedestrian one has no rights – cars are ruling the roads and pedestrians are divided into two categories: the quick and the dead! In Quito as in Oaxaca, there are 2 lights at most intersections, both are for the vehicles (one for each direction) and the pedestrians are left guessing. In Quito, the occasional light for pedestrians might have a timer : you are given the generous amount of 30 units (overall the equivalent of 15 seconds) to cross a 4 lane intersection. Pedestrians get angry and try to cross everywhere at all times – drivers get angry and speed up while honking continuously.
Buses are another story: their job is to drive madly from stop to stop. Whatever happens to the passengers is no one’s business, least of all the driver’s. There are 2 high steps to get into the bus (as it is moving, either pretending to stop or taking off….it is a game of sorts, you just have to play it long enough and you will understand it), the strategy is to hang on for dear life and haul the body in at all costs.
Once on the bus it is recommended to hold on with both hands as the bus flies on the road and only stops (suddenly!) at a red light. It is quite usual to see people being catapulted forwards and backwards in the bus, children and elderly in particular.
Numerous accidents happen when people get on or off (our Spanish teacher in Quito fell and broke her tailbone recently) and a newspaper article talked about a young woman needing bilateral leg amputations after falling off the stair and having the bus run over her legs. If one needs to get a wheelchair on the bus…well one has to wait for a kind soul to yell at the driver to wait, and then help heave the wheelchair on the bus. This should be the conductor’s job but since he is the “driver’s assistant” helping out may be beneath his job description so he usually sits and yells at the driver “close!!” as soon as the wheelchair is inside. It makes getting anywhere really difficult and tiring and I am constantly amazed at all the mothers who bring their children daily to INSFIDIM, at all the elderly who navigate the city to get to the food at Abuelitos (many of them have fallen or have been hit by cars during their travels). Walking seems to be quite different from what I thought it was.