Thursday, July 4, 2013

On trucks

I’ve known how to drive since well before I was technically of a legal age to do so, something not uncommon in the ranch community of eastern Montana where I was raised. I learned to drive in my family’s ’94 Ford pickup, a finicky beast which doesn’t like to change gears and doesn’t turn particularly well. But it does have an automatic transmission.

I had never driven a manual transmission before. I always meant to. I just never got around to it. So, when Dr Collin asked, as an afterthought to a previous e-mail conversation, whether I could drive a stick-shift, my immediate response was “No... but I can learn!”

For the three weeks I had at home before coming to Panamá, I borrowed a friend’s ancient manual transmission truck so I could learn to drive. This car is a stereotypical farm truck: beat up, rusty, mud-encrusted, with a broken window repaired with plywood and a bit of twine, and so much dirt in the back you could plant a garden. The gearshift is finicky and changing gears involves twisting, shoving, and generally manhandling the stick into place.

I learned to drive it though. Sure, I killed the engine a few times (actually, a lot of times) and I never drove very fast, especially as the car wouldn’t go over 57 m.p.h. without the engine sounding like it was going to explode. But I was on country roads where “traffic” is two cars passing, and three cars is a veritable traffic jam. My slow driving didn’t bother anyone.

Fast forward to last Wednesday. It’s a field day, so one of the lab members has to drive an STRI truck to Playa Veracruz. Allan is usually the driver, but it’s Allan’s last week and I’m the only other available person authorized to drive STRI vehicles, though the paperwork was only approved yesterday.

I’m nervous. I’m not particularly looking forward to driving in a city where the drivers are excessively, in my eyes, aggressive as they are here. I am even less comfortable when I have to drive a stick-shift through three different construction zones, onto a freeway, across a huge cantilever bridge, and through an obstacle course of hills and blind curves at 75 k.p.h. This is actually considered easy driving in Panama, as the road to Veracruz never really enters the city and the traffic is generally light.  To make things worse, I pick up the keys and head out to the lot only to find the truck we usually use is not the truck to which I was given the keys. Instead, we have the refrigerator truck:
You will note the large aluminum box in the back of the truck.

This means I have no rearview mirror.  (Dr. Collin notes that driving this monster is some kind of rite of passage at STRI, she herself had to drive a similar truck across the country...white knuckles all the way.... 15 years ago when she was a short-term fellow).

I quickly discover that this pickup, unlike the stick-shift I learned to drive in, shifts gears very easily. Too easily in fact. I can’t tell if I’ve shifted into 1st or 3rd and kill the engine reversing out of the parking space. Twice.

I’m holding the wheel with a death grip as I turn out of the parking lot onto the Causeway. All goes well and we make it to the field safely.  

The return trip was somewhat less stressful. I only killed the engine once at a stop sign, garnering yet more angry horns from the drivers tailgating me. We make it back to our island haven laboratory safe and not much the worse for wear. I am exceedingly thankful.

Now I just have to repeat this procedure every two days for the remainder of the summer…

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