Saturday, July 12, 2008

Driving Doña Ana

I’ve always suspected that my great aunt Ana (nicknamed Anatia) learned to drive as an adult. You know the type, those drivers with the insecurity that comes with something you didn’t learn with the fearlessness of youth. She owned boat-like Buicks, usually white, with leather interiors and no air-conditioning, a horrible combination in Puerto Rico. (I can still hear the sound of the skin ripping off of my thighs as I climbed out of the car in my shorts.) She would grasp the wheel tightly with her gnarled pianist’s hands and lean into the steering wheel with her chest as if she were riding a sled instead of driving a car. Grasping the stick next to the wheel and staring above her glasses at the dashboard, she would shove the car into drive. Her orthopedic shoes would step on the gas abruptly, and we were off in a lurching frenzy.

The hardest part about riding in the car while Anatia drove was her propensity to slam alternately on the brake and the gas, so that during the entire ride the passengers would be thrown forward, then backward, then forwards again, like marionettes controlled by some spasmodic puppeteer. Given that I already had a tendency towards motion sickness I particularly dreaded these trips because, even though she had no air-conditioning, she would insist on leaving the windows up and the doors locked as it would keep us safe from ladrones. This was a legitimate concern to be sure, but I was certain that there was no way anyone could even touch the door handle let alone reach in the window given the continuous lurching of the car. Their hand would be ripped from its socket before they could perpetrate any crime against us.

One year Anatia took my brother John and me on a road trip. John was eleven years old and already reading Scientific American. Though Anatia had been retired from teaching, she couldn’t help encouraging his nerdy scientific interest, so she planned a trip to take him to see the largest radio telescope in the world in Arecibo. Because I was only six and had no say in where I went, I was dragged along on this expedition. Arecibo is high in the Cordillera--Puerto Rico's mountainous back country—so the trip involved miles and miles of one hairpin switchback after another. A mile as the crow flies could take four miles of winding road. John was also prone to motion sickness, so the combination of the constantly turning road and Anatia’s stop and go driving style was downright deadly. At one point she nearly lost control of the car on a corner overhung by a huge mango tree where fallen ripe fruit had left the road a slick, pulpy mess.

Needless to say, by the time we reached the telescope after hours of driving, John and I were both an interesting shade of green. The telescope was essentially a really big hole in the ground lined with chickenwire. I couldn’t figure out why anyone would even remotely care about it, and all I could think about was that we had to travel back down the amusement ride-like roads with a woman who barely seemed in control of the car. Even John was too sick to enjoy the telescope, so we spent a half an hour on a tour (with me whining the entire time) and headed back down the mountain.

John and I consulted in secret and decided that if we were going to be subjected to another several hours in the car with Anatia, we wanted to at least buy something fun to eat, or a souvenir. We wanted something out of the experience other than a queasy stomach. My brother convinced Anatia (she had stopped listening to me a half-hour of whining ago) to stop at one of the many roadside kioskos on the way back. These outdoor stores, often little more than ragged tents, sold a variety of unidentifiable tropical fruits and vegetables as well as scary looking chicken and pork hanging out in the Caribbean sun. Anatia examined the fare picking at it with a look on her face as if she had smelled something bad, and then determined that the only safe thing to eat was the traditional green coconut served with the top shaved off with a machete. A straw was provided to drink the milk and a plastic spoon with which to finish off the coconut meat inside. I hated coconuts, I still do, and I was pretty irritated that there was nothing else to be had (at least according to Anatia). I stood there with my arms crossed, scowling at my brother as he devoured his coconut. Luckily it had a calming effect on his stomach so at least John was in a better mood on the way home. He chatted with Anatia while we heaved down the mountain and I rode with my head out the window, ignoring the possible threat of ladrones, trying not to lose what little food I had in my stomach.

Through the grace of God, Anatia decided to give up driving at age 80. She told my mother before our visit one year that she had hired a driver who took her wherever she needed to go. Needless to say, this was a great relief to us all, and to the entire town.

When we arrived at the airport a few weeks later for our yearly trip we were greeted by a smiling Anatia. As we waited at the curb she explained that her driver was getting the car. She and my mother chattered away excitedly in Spanish, and ten minutes later the large white Buick pulled up and the driver stepped out. He appeared to be ancient, hunched over and with glasses that seemed to have been broken off the bottom of two Coke bottles. I heard Mom whisper in English, “How old is your driver?” To which Anatia replied with a smile, “86.”


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this delightful piece.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this too. I know that dreadful feeling of having car sickness, especially as a kid when you have no say in the matter. Anatia sounds great! and so does her 86-year old driver... what a pair on the road

Anonymous said...

Thanks Annie, I had forgotten...well not forgotten really. As I read, I felt myself back inside that car, with the Bayamón heat enveloping me, and little, tiny Anatía barely reaching the dashboard and pedals.

Your cousin...

Anonymous said...

I loved this post even though I had more in common with your Aunt than I care to acknowledge. I also did not learn to drive until I was well into adulthood and I am now equally ancient. Learning to drive turned out to be a very scary experience for me because, after taking professional driving lessons, I realized how dangerous a driver my husband was and never felt safe again when he was in the driver's seat. (Ask Rick). Best ever, Elinor Z.