Learning to Walk Again

I almost died while studying Arabic in Amman last summer.  At least that’s what it felt like.  There were three of us in the backseat of a taxi driving up a hill.  We could see the other taxi at the top of hill, coming the opposite way down the same narrow street, far enough away that we had time to stop and let it pass or vice versa.  But this is Amman we’re talking about.  Both taxis continued at full speed towards each other, neither wavering for a second, and I felt myself reflexively grab my neighbor’s leg in preparation for the head-on collision.  I couldn’t take my eyes away; on the precipice of contact I heard a high-pitch yelp in my ear, my own terrified voice, and then there were inches, a mere second in time between metal and metal, between seatbelt-less passengers (cars in Jordan don’t seem to be manufactured with seatbelts or safety in mind) and the windshield into which we would surely be propelled head first. And then…somehow we made it.  We had narrowly, oh so narrowly, missed the front bumper of the other taxi to live another day among the insanity that is traffic in Amman.

But even in Amman, there were some defined rules of the road.  I wasn’t ever sure exactly what they were, but I did know that I was relatively safe in a crosswalk.  And there were unspoken rules as well – eventually I became a pro at crossing the street downtown.  This involved sensing a break in traffic, firmly sticking out my hand like an improvised stop sign, and crossing with all the confidence I could muster.  But it worked, and the cars miraculously stopped, no matter how many times I thought it might be the end of my short life.

La Plata is an entirely different story.  I cannot speak for the rest of Argentina, but La Plata is like the Wild West of driving.  Laws may exist, but they are there to be broken.  And pedestrian traffic? You´re on your own, amigo.  I´m still not sure if the word “crosswalk” exists in this city´s vocabulary. 

However, “learning to walk again” is a process.  Every city has a different walk. In New York it’s fast-paced and focused; in college towns it’s with heads down, texting.  In La Plata there’s no rhythm; everyone is a free spirit.  They walk at their own pace right down the middle of the sidewalk, oblivious to sharing the space with other pedestrians.  They cross the street confidently while I have yet to rid my walk of the timid missteps brought on by oncoming traffic.  It’s a part of absorbing the culture, being adaptable to new customs and new experiences, and maybe each day, blending in a little bit more so that when someone stops you on the street to ask for directions, you can answer them with a street name instead of an apologetic shrug.   

One of my proudest moments here so far, however small or fleeting it might have been, was when I darted across the street to beat an oncoming car, and when the rest of the group caught up after several more cars had passed, our program director Bettina commented with an approving nod, “Ella cruza como una argentina” – she crosses like an Argentinean!

Katherine Downs ’13 is a Middle Eastern Studies major who spent the summer of 2011 in Amman, Jordan and five months in La Plata, Argentina.   On campus, she is a member of AMP Music and involved in Students Helping Honduras.  She wrote about her travel experiences at Don’t Cry for Me, I’m in Argentina! and Summer as an Amman Kat.

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