Guatemalan Parking (February 2011)

In general Guatemalans are good drivers. In fact, given that they are often driving vehicles at least 20 years old, the average Guatemalan probably has greater driving skills than the average American. However, Guatemalans are terrible parkers.

Guatemalans seem to consistently choose the worst places to park their cars. Inevitably, when they've decided to pull of the highway (sometimes to fix park of their ancient car but often just to take a break or drop something off), they choose a blind curve. While occasionally these curve-parked-drivers will give the courtesy of a little warning (usually consisting of some trees branches in the road), often one only notices the parked cars when coming around a highway curve at 50 miles per hour.

At first, we were consistently mystified as to why people always chose to park in the worst places, but we've reached the conclusion that Guatemalans simply just never learn the basic rules of how and where to park. This may be largely due to the fact that, with the exception of two cities in the country (Guatemala City and Antigua), there is essentially no enforcement of parking laws anywhere in the country.

When we first moved to Xela, we spent some time trying to decipher the parking regulations and were confused. While we instinctively believed that a red line on the curb meant no parking here; these seemingly prohibited spots seemed to be consistently filled with parked cars. We soon figured out while our instincts were correct, there was simply zero enforcement of parking regulations so people parked wherever they pleased. Frankly, with the exception of curves on the highway, this arrangement suited us just fine as it allowed us too the ability to park wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted (which is quite convenient).

After experiencing a few weeks of burdensome driving regulations while in the United States over the holidays, including a $115 ticket for parking outside a pizza shop in NYC (leading to the world's most expensive pizza at $60 per slice), we were happy to return to the unregulated roads of Guatemala (and the cheaper food prices). In fact, upon our return to Xela, we were pleased to go shopping at our local vegetable market and buy a half-pound of green beans, a pound of tomatoes, an avocado, a cucumber and the world's largest carrot for $1 (with some change).

After returning with this vegetable bounty, I realized that we didn't have any garlic for the stir-fry I intended to make. So I drove by the market again on the way back from running some other errands in order to get some garlic (actually I could have purchased garlic at the supermarket but they only had imported Chinese garlic and I decided to be loyal and go to the market to get Guatemalan grown garlic). So as is custom, I randomly double parked our car in front of the vegetable market and ran inside to find Guatemalan garlic. Imagine my shock when I returned to the car five minutes later to see a traffic cop writing a ticket!

My first reaction was to ask the traffic cop what he was doing, but upon getting closer it was clear that he was in fact engaged in the heretofore unfamiliar process of writing a ticket. So I issued the standard double parking protest of "I've only been gone 2 minutes". Rather than responding with the classic "well that's two minutes too long" that I was expecting he said that had he known then he wouldn't be issuing a ticket but he arrived, didn't see anyone in the car, asked if anyone knew who the car belonged to and then, not seeing the hazard lights on, started to issue a ticket.

After much, back and forth, it became clear that my fault was not so much the double parking itself, but my failure to illuminate my hazard lights to show that I was only double parking for a short time. The cop concluded with "I'm sorry that you didn't know that you should have left your hazard lights on but now I'm going to have to give you a ticket". And with that he issued me a ticket for 180 Quetzales thereby also making my garlic purchase considerably more expensive.

Though, he did note, that if I paid the parking fine within 5 days that it would be 25% cheaper. So the next day I trudged down to the municipal traffic office to pay the fine. After some delays and bureaucracy (including a miswriting of my license plate number and the fact that the traffic office and the municipal treasury, where I paid the fine, have non-overlapping hour and a half lunch breaks), I ended up paying a total fine of 75 Quetzales. How 25% percent of 180 Quetzales turns into 75 Quetzales is also beyond me, but I figured if they had some special "pay-the-next-day" rate then who was I to argue?

The next day, when I was already the laughingstock of Xela (since everyone thought getting a parking ticket was pretty hilarious), I did see a story in the local paper that the City was starting a driving education campaign to get people to follow more traffic rules. So perhaps the traffic agents were just getting ready for that. But in the end, I guess 75 Quetzal garlic is a better deal than $115 dollar pizza (especially since at 8 Quetzales to the Dollar, the garlic only cost me a total of $10, which is probably close to the price I would have paid at Gristedes in NYC anyway).

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