November 21, 2008

Life Immitates Satire

Quico says: Yesterday's scenes of traffic madness in Caracas reminded me of a classic Otrova Gomas piece called "El Día D." It originally showed up in El Cofre de los Reconcomios - a collection of wonderfully bizarre and extremely funny essays he first published (if you can believe this) all the way back in 1979.

It takes some local knowledge to fully appreciate the genius of this piece, for sure. But even if you've only been to Caracas once or twice you can intuit how the city's location along a long, narrow valley makes this scenario chillingly plausible.

Of course, the original Spanish (which I'll post in the comments,) is way funnier than my translation. Still, here goes nothing:
by Otrova Gomas

A couple of days earlier, I had the feeling that the traffic reports on the radio were showing uncommon concern. I seem to remember one of the chopper guys saying he'd never seen so many cars in one place. But really, it all happened on February 24th.

At 9 a.m., the massive traffic jam from Caricuao bumped up into the one from Altamira, while the tailback on Plaza Venezuela practically cut off the flow of cars from the University, whose drivers got desperate and started trying to flee towards the highway via downtown. That might have worked, except the tailback from Universidad Avenue had blocked the highway in both directions.

A number of desperate drivers then struck off for the Norte-Sur, but the congestion on Nueva Granada Avenue, caused by the gridlock in El Paraiso produced by the cars that were fleeing the jam in Caricuao, ended up blocking every route into and out of Central Caracas.

At 10:30, after a truck overturned on the way into the La Guaira highway tunnel, a rubberneckers' crash on the way up into Caracas shut down traffic between the city and the coast forever. We have to acknowledge that people, driven crazy by the hot sun beating down on them, ended up making everything worse by clogging the breakdown lane as they tried to turn around and head back, making it impossible for tow-trucks to reach the scene and try to patch things up somehow.

Meanwhile, back in Caracas, the cars coming from the Cota Mil got boxed in on the eastern end because gridlock on the East-side highway had set off an unprecedented jam on the Francisco de Miranda Avenue, which in turn got blocked on the west by the traffic jams from Chacaito, la Libertador and the end of Casanova Avenue, and to the east by the collapse of the Altamira overpass (que tiempos aquellos!), which buckled under the weight of the cars stranded on it.

I remember that the Prados del Este Highway, crammed full of desperate drivers, ended up gridlocked from Chacao to the Prados del Este roundabout, where furious drivers tried to turn back without realizing that they would end up locked into a circle formed by the cars that were trying to escape through Alto Hatillo from the jams in El Cafetal and Chuao as well as the desperados fleeing Baruta.

At 11:00 a.m., with the entire city clogged and becoming a bedlam of cars trying to turn back, it started to rain. When Catia flooded, traffic on Urdaneta Avenue shut down completely, setting off panic in San Bernardino, San José and La Pastora. Crazed drivers tried to get out by driving on the sidewalks and traffic isles, even if it meant mowing down trees, but the deep puddles that started to form all over the city closed down every escape route.

By 3:30 p.m., the city of Caracas was completely gridlocked without the slightest possibility of movement anywhere. To make matters worse, a bus accident in Tazón shut off passage through the mountains to the South, after the tailback from the Valle-Coche highway ran into the one from the East-side highway.

At first, traffic wardens and motorcyclists tried to help out in emergency cases, but the desperation of people trying to flee through any gap, even if it meant driving over smaller cars, formed an automotive barricade over every nook and cranny that made it impossible even for bikes to get through.

At 4:55, the bikes were abandoned just like hundreds of cars had been. The army overflew the city and the president improvised a cadena from the jam in La Carlota, calling for calm and promising to work things out somehow. But the suppressed sobs in his voice made it impossible to believe him. There was no hope.

Foreign experts declared it impossible to get traffic moving again, explaining that the streets had morphed into one immense traffic jam that circled back on itself again and again like a snake. The only chance to get any movement, according to a Ministry of Transport communiqué, would involve getting 50,000 cars to reverse at the same time, but that would inevitably just mean replicating the jam backwards.

Worst of all was the irresponsible attitude of thousands of drivers who, at 3 in the morning, abandoned their cars. Some even locked the doors to make sure they didn't get stolen.

It was the worst night in memory. The honking horns of idiots, the carbon monoxide, the smoke, the gasoline vapors and the high lead concentrations caused the first fatalities towards 5 in the morning.

Within two days, the exodus started. Still not quite able to believe the official declaration that it was impossible to move that inferno of cars, people started to abandon the city. The absence of supplies turned it into a dead city almost overnight.

Millions of people began the greatest migration in the history of time, taking nothing more than what they could carry in their arms.

Within six days, the city was completely abandoned. It had become the exclusive preserve of hundreds of thousands of vehicles forming a horrific queue of luxury junk. A ghost city populated only by a handful of very patient and extremely inattentive drivers who, never noticing the exodus, waited patiently for traffic to get going.
(Read the original in the comments.)