My dad is an old-fashioned kind of guy. He was taught to remain on the street-side of the sidewalk during a stroll to protect females from any stagecoach mud. Just kidding about the stagecoach. When we walk together, he often switches to the left or to the right of me as we turn corners to keep me safe from the dangers of the road. I’ve teased him about this protection since I was a child. Although, once in a while during a rainstorm, a car careens through a puddle and he gets soaked not I. Then he says, “Eh? See?” and I concede his point. His habits opened my eyes to a custom in Guatemala I wouldn’t have recognized without knowing his chivalry.
In Antigua, Guatemala, I hoofed it wherever I needed to go. I enjoyed seeing the houses on the way, beautifully painted gems with ancient wooden doors that open right onto the sidewalk. Outside downtown, commercial districts are not zoned and stores may be on a residential block. Down one avenue you could see a ferretería (hardware store) casa (house), casa, restaurante, casa, casa, mercadito (mini-convenience store), and a casa. Antigua is a human scale city. People pack the narrow sidewalks during local rush hours; going to and from work, the market, or school. Guatemalans avoid the sun and the heat, choosing the shady side of the lane. I thought often of the proverb from India, “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.” The tourists revealed themselves by flocking to the sunny side.
However, I took to the shady sidewalks because I burn easily. That is when I began to notice a pattern. The indigenous women who wore the traditional huipil shirts and woven skirts passed on the side exposed to the autos with their heads down and the women in modern dress passed on the protected side with their heads up. I observed this twice, noticed the hierarchy, and hatched an idea. To the next indigenous woman in her colorful blouse coming in the opposite direction, I said, “Señora,”* and motioned for her to pass to the inside, while I passed on the outside. The Señora gave a surprised look and a little smile, “Gracias.” Her positive reaction confirmed what I observed. For three weeks, I practiced this one small change in my walks; taking the passing position with lesser status. I yielded the right of way to Maya women and found reward in the bloom of their smiles. Upon returning to Minnesota, my father loved hearing this story.
Have you had a similar experience while traveling, or in the city where you live? What are the unspoken rules about right-of-way?
*Señora is the term of respect I would use for a woman older than I am.
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