Monday, July 12, 2010

Death and Motorcycles

Two weeks ago I attended my first funeral and saw a dead body for the first time.

I think I am lucky that at 25 years old I have not had to experience a lot of death in my life. Only since I came to Paraguay have I experienced death more up close. Peace Corps told us in training that two people die everyday in Paraguay from motorcycle accidents. In a country of only 6 million people, this is a lot. Motorcycles are everywhere in Paraguay, in the cities and in the countryside they are the most common mode of transportation. Recently Paraguay has opened five new motorcycle manufacturing plants which has driven the cost of motorcycles way down and made them extremely affordable even to the poor. Plus, companies make their product easy to pay for in a series of small installments. So, now everyone drives a motorcycle from 14 year-old girls to grandmas. They are cheap and useful. But they are extremely dangerous.

Motorcycles and their drivers have an entire image all to themselves in our country. They are badasses. But that whole image is lost in a country when everyone and their mother rides one. Motorcycles are no longer just for the daring and risk-taking, they are for everyone. So, without that image of the risk taker that comes along with the motorcycle culture in our country comes a false sense of normality and security in this country. Some people here understand that motorcycles are dangerous but still a different set of rules are applied than we as Americans would expect. Helmet laws are not enforced and so I rarely see drivers wearing them, except on the highway. I often see a whole family (3,4 or 5 people) piled onto one motorcycle. The respect we give to these death machines is lost on Paraguayans and caution is thrown to the wind. I am sure it is for some of these reasons Peace Corps volunteers are banned from riding motorcycles. The worst part of all is when teenage boys get on a motorcycle.

By far the most common drivers of the motorcycle in Paraguay are the most reckless. I often see young boys in my town speeding down the newly paved road, popping wheelys, swerving carelessly, not watching where they are going to check out a girl on the side of the road, steering with their feet, never wearing helmets, with 3-4 of their friends on the back, standing up while speeding, standing on the seat while speeding, drag racing,drinking alcohol, and the list goes on and on for what stupid things young boys think of to do with their motorcycles.

Since I have been in Paraguay I have heard so many stories about motorcycle wrecks and the resulting deaths of young boys. Although lots of women drive motorcycle I have never personally heard of a woman dying in any of these accidents. I have seen the wounds, scars, burns, and scabs first hand, even on little kids.

Two weeks ago two young boys from Fassardi died in a car accident one morning driving back from a party in a neighboring town. Their were 7 boys in the car. The driver, Elias, 17, dropped his phone and was searching for it when he came to a curve and didnt turn in time, he tried to correct it too late and flipped the car, the car went off the side of the road and flipped over 14 more times. The newspaper article I read said Elias died immediately. The other boy who died, 16, I had seen him two days before and he had participated in my lecture at the school. One boy went to the hospital in critical condition and two others were uninjured. Although the article did not mention it, everyone says the boys were drinking.

I was in Asuncion that morning but I got a cal from my contact to tell me about it. I arrived back to Fassardi that afternoon and the whole town was very somber. I had to cancel my English classes because all my students were at the town cemetery. Later that night my neighbors invited me to go to along with them to what I thought was going to be a prayer memorial for one of the boys in the next barrio. I still do not have a handle on the Catholic mourning process. All I know is many days of praying follows a death so I figured that is what I was in for. But it was the actual funeral, and I was not prepared. I didnt know the boy or his family and I felt like I didnt belong. The body was displayed in an open casket in a small front room with a large crucifix displayed over it. The room was crowded with Elias's loved ones. When I walked in I stood in the corner and didnt move, there was no where to sit and people werent moving around a lot. A lot of people were just standing and staring at the body, so that is what I did. Elias's face was bruised and cut up. He was a very handsome young boy. Two men stood on either side of him and caressed his face, kissed him, and cryed. This was the first time I had ever seen Paraguayan men cry and it struck me as incredibly odd. They are normally so manly and stoic.
Elias's mother was in the next room on the couch surrounded by her family and wailing the most desperately sad cry I have heard in my life. It could only have been the sound of a mother who had lost her only child. I was told she was living in Spain to save money and had to fly back when she heard her only child had died.
A woman came in the room and announced anyone who would like to pray should come in. The patio outside was full of mourners. All people from town, I recognized half the faces. The woman led the group in prayer with a stone cold face and without interruption for 20 minutes. When she was finally done she fell to her knees and screamed.
I finally found an open seat outside on the patio next to a friend of mine. We made some small talk but mostly didnt say anything. One of the boys who was in the accident but was not injured showed us pictures of Elias on his cell phone. A few people came up to me and asked me about the eye glasses I had ordered for them and when they would be arriving. Otherwise I sat in silence and listened to Elias's mother sob inside and yell out his name. Finally it was time to go. I was very happy to leave.

Elias' body was taken to the cemetery the next morning. Then we settled in to watch Paraguay beat Japan in the World Cup. It was a bittersweet day in Fassardi. The mayor called for two days of mourning and all schools and activities were shut down. Fassardi is a small town, a place where everyone is family or friends. When someone dies the whole town mourns and comes together.

It was a tragedy and one I hope I wont have to experience again during my time in Fassardi. But sadly, no one seems to have learned a lesson from the boys who died. The day after Elias funeral I saw people speeding down the main street on their motorcycles with no helmets and without a care. Young boys, no matter what country you are in, have a false sense of invincibility which hurts them in the end and makes their loved ones suffer.

Even though Elias died in a car accident and not a motorcycle accident, I felt it was necessary to talk about motorcycles because they are so omnipresent in Paraguay. My dad put the fear in me about motorcycles since I was a little girl. He has repeated countless awful stories about motorcycle accidents and always warned me about the danger. Despite Peace Corps rule, I personally hate motorcycles and have avoided them my whole life. In this way I am lucky that i dont have to rely on motorcycles as my means of transportation. I come from a country where I have choices. This is just one more example of the unlucky costs on life people have just being born in a poor country.

No comments:

Post a Comment