Bumps in the Road

November 7, 2022

There are two categories of drivers here. One is locals, who often drive decrepit relics like the Titanic, the 1993 Ford Explorer I use but don’t own. We know there are likely to be cows or horses in the road, grazing on the verges or crossing to check out other vegetation, and as a result we don’t stomp on the gas pedal. Farmers whose wandering calves or foals are killed can be remarkably vengeful people, and they tend to view paved roads as an intrusion on their ancestral pastures. 

The other category is visitors who can’t grasp that winding country roads are often occupied by cows and horses. Also by dogs, old ladies and the occasional chicken. Their stupidity is irritating, but they drive as if they’re on a main highway.

The local counter-measure to speeding is the tope (TOH-peh) or speed-bump. There used to be 29 of them between our village of Amatlan and the town centre in Tepoztlan, five miles away – I used to count the up-down-ouches as I passed over them. By now there must be closer to 40, but I’ve lost count of the precise tally. Last week, the total went to 42, but on Sunday morning, the additions had been removed.

Gravel marks an ex-tope in Colonia Carmen.

Halfway between Amatlan and Tepoz is Colonia Carmen, which is a scattered village that is gradually becoming more built-up. It is, by repute, a lawless place, and a local wag once changed the village sign to read Colonia Crimen, meaning roughly “Crime-town.” Like Amatlan, it has scant respect for the municipal bureaucracy in Tepoz.

The two topes the community installed 10 days ago weren’t approved by any official. But many Mexican men learn to mix cement as a basic life-skill, the way their sisters learn to cook and clean, even if they dream of greater things. The week before last, I passed a score of them making a new tope, then a second, to slow drivers passing their community. 

The design of what they put in was in the older style that faced out a decade ago, which can rip out the underside of sports cars or other vehicles that are low-slung. The current official design is bigger, but sloped, so it risks less harm to a muffler or suspension. It’s also painted yellow, with a floral decoration, to be seen better. 

That design difference, I assume, was what caused the complaints as much as it being an unofficial initiative. The vans with bench-seats that serve here as microbuses weaved onto the grass verge around the topes rather than go over them. And obviously, deliberately cocking a snoot at the mayor and his staff was itself bound to invoke the karmic forces from town.

On Sunday, as I headed to a local market for cheap fruit and veg, I saw exactly the same gang of people as before standing close to the topes. But in place of the up-down-ouch of the speed-bumps, I realised there was a smooth road surface. Someone had come and removed their handiwork, and I’d arrived just around the time they discovered it was gone. 

The anarchic militancy of local communities is a source of both confusion and entertainment to outsiders like myself. Baiting town officials is almost as important an activity here as soccer or religious processions, and even more likely to draw out passionate responses. While the whole topic might seem trivial to someone not from here, it does show how local decision-making actually comes about. When a bunch of guys are upset enough to take matters into their own hands, governments start to take note. It’s a very direct form of democracy, but it can produce results.

I’m fascinated to see if the topes reappear in the next few months, in the approved form. There’s only one reasonable route into town from where I live, and just who ‘owns’ it is never a settled issue.

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