Since getting back to the States five weeks ago, we’ve driven about 5000 miles, seeing family & friends and attending a couple of missions & nonprofit workshops. This adds up to 80-100 hours in the car so far, and I’m having trouble unlearning my honking habits learned in Nicaragua. Back in the tropics, it would be unusual to drive half an hour without honking at least twice. An American visitor rode with me once and told me that he hadn’t honked as much in the last 10 years as I had done in that single day. And I hadn’t been aware that I had honked much. It’s become a reflex.
Honking happens a lot more in Nicaragua because it has a wider range of communication, which I’ll generalize with these five phrases:
1. Lookout, I’m right here! This is used if someone seems not to be paying attention and is drifting into your lane. The honk alerts them to your presence. Offense level: low.
2. Don’t try it! Similar to #1, this is directed at someone you suspect might be about to do something that will require you to slam on your brakes (cross the street in front of you, swerve around a stopped bus, etc.). Offense level: low to moderately high, depending on your own level of inflexibility and whether or not the other driver is a operating a taxi. Universally hated by every other motorist, the taxi driver typically causes and receives maximum levels of offense.
3. The light is green! (Self-explanatory.) Offense level: low to moderate, depending on how long the light has actually been green and whether or not the honking party is operating a taxi. See above.
4. Move, animal! Used to dispel stray dogs. Granted, most people in the States have tried this method at one point or another, but the warning seems to fall on deaf, floppy ears. Somehow, American strays know that drivers will slam on the brakes to avoid a lifetime of guilt. But in Nicaragua, honking at dogs works! They get off the road quickly. A difference in the perceived value of animals is a cultural difference that I won’t get into here, but the takeaway is that the average Nicaraguan feels little remorse should a dog not heed the honk—hence, strays know to hightail it when they hear it. Ineffective on heavier animals. Offense level: unknown.
5. DIE! Directed at those you perceive to have committed a grave violation of human rights and should not—in your opinion—be operating a motorized vehicle. Offense level: high to murderously high, depending on how long the driver sustains the honk.
This presents a challenge for me, because I think #5 is the message of 99% of American honking, but has accounted for only 10% of my honking in the last 6 years. If I’m in a situation wanting to say Lookout or Don’t try it, people instead only hear me yelling DIE! DIE! DIE! (And that possum apparently only heard me say If it’s not too inconvenient…)
So I’m having to unlearn the reflex of honking several times per car trip. This is just one of many examples of things we’re having to re-learn now that we’re back in the States. Some behaviors just aren’t connected anymore to the emotions that they used to be, telling me whether they’re acceptable or not.
I’m trying to adjust to honking by merely tapping the steering wheel instead of actually honking. This is deeply unsatisfying and feels terribly inadequate, but it just may keep me from harm.