Thursday, December 12, 2019

Andean hairpin turns: I tried to stifle my hysteria

The taxi driver returned, a receipt in hand—a permit to transport us, our fellow traveler, Laura, said—and we set off again, our eyes and throats stinging from exhaust. (If you missed last week’s post, click on Setting out before dawn in Bogotá.)

We passed hundreds of people on foot—businessmen in dress suits, youngsters hurrying to school, and women clutching metal lunch containers—all wearing poncho-like thick wool ruanas.

Bogotá lies at 8,700 feet above sea level. When we climbed to 11,000 feet, we entered a layer of fog, and a chill crept into the taxi. Scrubby trees dotted rocky terrain throughout the Andes towering over on all sides of us.

The steep, narrow road curved left and right and left again—no wonder people got carsick—and, without guardrails, those drop-offs took my breath away.

Every few moments the driver blasted his horn and we bolted forward. He used his brakes as often as his horn.

Buses and cars careened toward us down the mountainside and around corners.

I tried to stifle my hysteria, but Laura wasn’t fooled.

“We have such a good cab driver. He’s driving more cautiously than usual because he has new seat covers.”

What? A good, cautious driver?

And what did new seat covers have to do with anything?
I must have looked frantic because Laura hurried to explain, “He doesn’t want us to get carsick all over them.” (from Chapter 5, Please, God, Don’t Make Me Go: A Foot-Dragger’s Memoir).

Later, we would learn from new colleagues in Lomalinda that severe carsickness plagued most of them on drives through the Andes. Their memories are still vivid all these years later.

Jim Wheeler, who was in eighth grade our first year in Lomalinda, recently shared the following childhood memories about that route through the Andes:

“I remember waking up early to an old wind-up alarm clock [and] getting dressed, having a light breakfast, and hauling our suitcases and boxes to the first-floor entrance.

“Mama would give us all Dramamine as the taxi driver loaded up the car. Soon we were packed into the car (six of us in my earlier memories, eight later) and headed out of Bogotá.

“The car ride was fine in the city, but the higher up the mountain and the further away from the city we got, the faster the driver would go.

“I always loved driving up in the Andes and looking way down into the valleys where small farms made patchwork designs so far away. The mountains were always so green, even at 12,000 to 14,000 feet.

“I always did NOT love the taxi going so fast around the corners. . . . Almost every taxi ride on that route involved somebody (usually several of us) needing to stop to lose our breakfast. Most of the drivers would . . . stop because they didn’t want a messy, smelly taxi. They counted on another fare returning to Bogotá—if they drove fast enough with the right circumstances, they could make two round trips. . . .

“I loved and hated those rides.” (Thanks to Jim Wheeler for his story.)

On that day, though, our family’s second day in Colombia, carsickness should have been the least of our worries. But it wasn’t. That’s because none of our new colleagues had yet told us about the real dangers of the trip: those drop-offs without guardrails.

No one had yet told us about a taxi full of young parents and infants, the driver going too fast on wet roads and around sharp curves. Nor had we heard they’d plunged off the edge, rolling hundreds of feet into an abyss. 

Those were pre-seatbelt days—but by God’s amazing grace, everyone in that crash lived to later tell about crushed body parts and broken bones, about climbing or being carried up the steep terrain back to the road, and about their hospital stays.

Others of our new colleagues would later tell us of buses careening off the road and tumbling down steep mountainsides, leaving every person injured, and of helping wounded fellow passengers back to the road and, eventually, into ambulances.

Be sure to come back next week because I have more stories about harrowing trips through the Andes.

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