Motochonchos and the Cheapness of Life

“Es usted Dominicano?” the guide at Demejagua National Park points to me, a smile on his face. Huh? No, I’m not Dominican.

The Dominicans re-purpose old cars as part of their “public” transportation system. Pictured here is one of the fleet vehicles for “La Ruta Muñoz” which costs 30 Dominican pesos ($0.75 USD) and loops through Puerto Plata and back. (Peaskis Abroad/Jacob Bielanski)

“D’yoo haf t‘e kees of la Republica!” He points at a burn mark midway on the inside of his left calf. I bear a birthmark which looks like just such a burn. This burn is commonly earned when your leg, while riding as a passenger, touches the hot exhaust pipe of a motorcycle.

Previously, I noted that the Dominican Republic has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the known world. Hearing these statistics, and being eyeball-deep in her own research, Jamie wanted to see the breakdown of the WHO data. Of the 42 traffic fatalities per 100,000 in 2012, 58 percent came from two-wheeled vehicles*. You don’t have to be here long to chuckle and mutter, “No kidding.”

First off, I don’t believe there is such a thing as highway patrol. Traffic laws, like speed limits and red lights, serve as suggestions; likewise with the lines painted on roads**. Taxi drivers frequently use the horn to say, “I’m driving on the left side of the road around this curve, BTWz.” Left-hand turns are achieved by, first, nudging the nose of your car halfway into the road. I was almost hit by a motorcycle driving down the gutter of a one-way road, the wrong way. That’s “traffic” and, if you didn’t read the WHO report, you might slowly begin to say, “huh, it seems to work.”

But with so many fatalities, “work” is relative. While four-wheeled vehicles are more apt to follow the rules of the road, motorcycles do whatever the hell they want. While waiting for a public, four-wheeled transportation, I witnessed no fewer than ten motorcycles blatantly ignoring the red light at a four-way intersection.  Had our tour bus not chosen to slow down at an intersection where he had complete right-of-way, I would’ve watch a guy get killed. And everyone uses a motorcycle. I would hazard to guess the motorcycle-to-every-other-type-of-vehicle ratio here is roughly, honestly, 4-to-1. Maybe one percent wears a helmet.

Of those, I’d say 60 percent “work” as “motoconchos.” Here’s the idea behind those motoconchos: you’re walking along and suddenly you hear the *meep meep* of a scooter horn, followed by “Tatzee tatzee!!” The next thing you think is, “Oh, haha, you couldn’t possibly be talking about me getting on the back of your 75cc*** bike with my wife, kid and groceries.”

“Tatzee tatzee?”

As if motorcycles themselves aren’t a gold-stamped invitations to the land of the dead, Dominicans frequently up the ante on vehicular deadliness. Jamie and I compare notes on which motorcycles have held the most people. Six is the highest I’ve witnessed, but to be fair, it was two emaciated parents and their four relatively small/young children. Transporting tanks of propane, maybe 10-25 gallons, is pretty common. Driving down highway 5, we saw one motoconcho transporting a guy and, I can’t make this stuff up, his brand-new, apartment-sized, washing machine. Upon seeing this, one of our Canadian neighbors felt compelled to ask, “Is anything ‘crazy’ in the Dominican Republic?”

Ariel, a resident Dominican who serves as horse wrangler and cook at the Sun Camp, furrows his brow. “NO, no, n’tings crazy in the Dominican.” His own dirt bike has a pretty sweet paint job

Yeah, nothing’s crazy. Life is valued, but ultimately pretty cheap.

That next Monday the 29th of April was, according to Sun Camp Manager Samuel, “employee’s day” on the Island, bringing tons of vacationers to Puerto Plata for their long weekend. In spite of this, we decided to get out to our nearest public beach. Before hailing a cab, dozens of kids would zip by—tiny motorcycles doing ungodly speed with at least one other person on the back. Jamie engages her cynicism,  “how many do you want to bet are drunk?”

Further up the road, we see the shattered remains of a shiny motorcycle panel.

Now, here’s a video of me taking a Motoconcho in La Vega. This, I dunno, 10cc engine is holding me and my roughly 50 lbs. of gear. Yes, that truck cut us off towards the end of the video. After the video, this thing went up a mountain.



*For comparison, the U.S. rate is 11.4 per 100,000, 70 percent of which came from four-wheeled vehicles.
**You know how, in a city, you get annoyed when a public bus blocks the right-hand lane in a two-lane road to pick someone up? Imagine if any right-hand lane, at any place, at any time, could suddenly become a bus stop. Like, even on a 55-mph speed zone.
***I’m not a “bike” guy, all I know is that you don’t need a motorcycle license to drive something under 50cc, but the real badasses “ride” something with, like, 1,000,000cc engines, right? The point is, these are just BARELY the things we, in the U.S., think of as “motorcycles.” I never really saw any “hawgs.”

One Comment

  1. Reply
    Maria May 21, 2013

    I bet if you stayed there longer you would find the pattern in their craziness that makes this work for them.

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