Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Highways and Byways

As we drove down the dirt rode, our fingers sticky from the fresh papaya, the sun began to set. Colors splashed across the sky and the night time coolness slowly descended on the Salvadoran countryside. The four of us squished into the old beatup Toyota pickup truck driven by our host mom, Elena, who just so happened to be a Catholic nun and one of the wisest women I've ever met. She casually asked us questions about our lives, and slipped in the seemingly insignificant question, "Do any of you know how to drive a stick shift?" Two of us said that we knew the basics of it, but we hadn't driven one in a long time. The conversation moved on, nothing too spectacular.

Suddenly, we were on the highway, darkness rapidly approaching, and we were literally averaging 35 mph. Something was clearly not right. Elena delicately pulled onto the shoulder and sweetly said, "Girls, I'm sorry to do this to you but I can't see." The four of us gave each other fearful glances wondering what we were supposed to do.

Elena: Can one of you drive?
Marie and I looked at each other with complete bewilderment
Marie: No. I really don't know how to drive a standard. It's been way too long.
Molly: I don't think I can do it. I really... I just don't think I can do it either... I mean... no. No.

After about two minutes of discussing the situation that was at hand... sitting on the side of the highway in El Salvador at night with a nun and a pickup truck full of people and no one to take the wheel...

Molly: Okay. I'll do it.
Elena: Wonderful! Let's switch seats.

I shakily opened the door, slipped into the driver's seat and adjusted the mirrors only to remember that the entire bed of the truck was full of chairs and other equipment from the day. I could not see out of the back window... at night in El Salvador. But there was no other choice, someone had to get us off the highway and back home. Someone had to drive that damned stick shift.

Literally making the sign of the cross, I put the car into first and took off. Cheers and laughter and applause errupted inside the truck. Elena could not stop encouraging me and telling me how great I was doing. Second and third gear came quickly, and the highway unfolded before me. If it hadn't been for the fact that I hadn't driven a standard in about three years and even then, it was only for a summer, or the fact that I held the lives of four other people in my hands, I might have enjoyed the drive. Instead, my knuckles were white and I thought I might have some type of emotional breakdown when, or more realistically if, we ever made it back safely.

It was completely black on the highway, no street lights to be found anywhere. We desperately searched for our turnoff, although with Elena's lack of sight it made it all harder. And then we saw it... our road that would take us back. I slowed down, put on the turn signal and waited until the massive bus that was coming the other direction passed me. Then... the car stalled. On the highway. At night. In El Salvador.

My next task was to turn the car back on, put it in first and make a left turn on the highway without stalling in the incoming lane. As I look back on this moment, I realize that it might be the most pressure filled moment of my life. If I stalled the car while turning left, we were in a massive amount of trouble. Real trouble. My mind raced with plans of survival. I envisioned screaming, "Get out of the car! Run!" I would run around to the other side, pick up little Sister Elena and carry her off the road. She couldn't run fast enough, could she? Plus, I wasn't sure how to say it all in Spanish. There would be no other way out. So Elena squeezed my hand and told me that I was going to do fine. Quietly freaking out in my head, I breathed, put it back into first gear and made a left turn onto the dusty dirt road that bumpily and yet safely led back to the church where we were staying.

We survived! Cheers, screams and huge sighs of reliefs filled that little pickup truck. Elena repeated over and over, "You're a star! You're a star! You have shown me confidence! A star!" As I got out of the truck that night, my legs and hands still shaking, I smiled a smile of survival and accomplishment. And then I ate some ice cream.

The end.


center my heart said...

You make me laugh. Out loud. Everytime I read your blog.

I'm glad you survived. :)

Seastar of the Midwest said...

Dad would be so proud to read that blog! He loves stick shifts. And you. Dudes, you saved a nun. Something to put on a "things I did" list. I love you!

Anonymous said...

Dude. I told you that you are way cooler than me.