CARACAS, Venezuela – Our motorcycle is headed for an impossibly narrow crack between two diesel-spewing buses, and to my untrained eyes we're not going to make it.
But moments later we have emerged on the other side unscathed, my right knee only lightly grazing one of the buses.Caracas, Venezuela's teeming, dissonant capital, is at its most authentic from the back of a “mototaxi.”
Need to get to a slum where shootings are frequent and regular taxis won't go? Just hop on the pillion seat of one of Caracas' ubiquitous motorcycle taxis.
Weaving through traffic on two wheels can be hair-raising, but also exhilarating – offering a portrait of the quirks, charms and thrills of living in Caracas.
William Espinoza, one of my regular mototaxi drivers, began riding motorcycles without a license at age 11.
He has just parked us in the middle of an intersection, ignoring a traffic cop and the cars whizzing by on both sides. “People here just don't know how to drive,” he gripes, seemingly oblivious to the irony. Yet he has a point: Venezuela has its own disorderly driving code.
Drivers run red lights, rarely use blinkers, and generally ignore speed limits. Cars that miss an exit on a highway will simply reverse back to it.
The “motorizados,” on scooters or full-size motorbikes, win the prize for brazenness: they charge the wrong way up one-way streets, roar onto sidewalks honking pedestrians aside, and mount entire families onto one scooter – children tucked precariously between driver and handlebars.
But they are increasingly indispensable in a country whose booming oil economy has pushed car sales to record highs and increasingly clogged streets.
Heavily subsidized gasoline makes car travel exceedingly cheap, and transport officials say rush hour traffic has slowed to an average of 10 mph in Caracas.
With fares averaging about $5, some mototaxi drivers are making a handsome living – $95 a day or more, they say – as they rush businessmen in suits to appointments or housewives home with their groceries.
Some of my most vivid experiences of Caracas were aboard a mototaxi: seeing the slums melt into a net of twinkly lights across the hillsides during evening commutes; sniffing the scent of arepas, toasted corn cakes, from roadside stands; or discovering after a news conference that I had sat through it with my face blackened from exhaust from the ride there.
And there's the human touch – like the driver who, concerned for my safety in an unruly crowd, risked leaving his scooter unattended to come look for me.
Other drivers have served as escorts in the violent slums where they grew up – labyrinths of brick-and-corrugated tin “ranchos” where thugs carry weapons and bullet-riddled bodies lie in the streets.
The motorizados drive reporters to hotspots and tense political protests, keeping watch while ready to get us out quickly if necessary.
A well-heeled Venezuelan friend was horrified when I told her I preferred mototaxis. The drivers are dangerous thugs, she insisted; mototaxi crashes are frequent and deadly.
Then again, I was on a bus that got hijacked by an armed robber in Caracas. I've seen a mugging in daylight on my walk to the subway, and I've heard a dozen or more accounts of carjackings or armed robberies committed by taxicab drivers.
I'll place my bets on the mototaxis.