Caribbean musings #10 Lost and found: adventures in driving around the island of Barbados
June 10, 2016
Meandering down the steep, narrow bumpy road towards the glistening sea, driving in Barbados in this very moment, feels exciting. Like riding a bicycle on holiday or rolling down a hillside, it's exhilarating. And I take in the view as I pass chickens and a small dog on the dusty track, bright orange and pink and turquoise chattel houses with lines of washing hanging outside.
There are green rows of banana trees and a red rum shop with peeling painted walls and a few men sitting outside in plastic chairs drinking bottles of Banks beer. I'm a bit lost but I don't really care. I love days like this. Exploring the east coast in the parish of St John.
But driving in Barbados is one of the great paradoxes of life here. Because the rest of the time it's a chore - at best a drag, at worst, it's just plain irritating. Away from the quiet rugged roads of the countryside you'll find yourself in heavy traffic, on roads that weren't built for the large numbers of vehicles that pass over them day after day. You'll find yourself at crossroads that don't appear to be crossroads because the markings have faded or disappeared, the angle, as you approach, is very deceiving, or at one particular junction that I regularly pass through, the rusty red stop sign is virtually invisible because it merges into the red wall behind it. You'll find yourself on narrow, two-lane roads without pavements, where no one wants to slow down for the man pushing a shopping trolley pull of plastic bottles or the woman escorting her children to school. You'll find yourself witnessing (minor) traffic accidents practically every day, although miraculously I've yet to be involved in a collision (touch wood).
There are very familiar things about driving here - cars travel on the left, road signs are the same as those in the UK and there are lots of roundabouts. Yet it also feels alien. Rules are not enforced in the same way. Everything is much more relaxed in a system that assumes familiarity and common knowledge as opposed to the UK's matrix of speed cameras, traffic police and drivers who follow the highway code. There is no MOT here, no standard that deems cars fit for the road. So, with broken brake lights on their vehicle or indicators that don't work, many people use arm signals - something which my driving instructor back in the UK informed me I shouldn't ever attempt to do because without two hands on the wheel you're not in proper control of the car. But that rules out driving while talking on your phone, driving with your arm resting on the open window, slowing right down to give 'a knock' to a friend who's walking by the side of the road. Yes, this is the reality of driving on a tropical island.
So I've always got to have my wits about me. But with heightened senses, everything becomes more vivid. More exciting even. Every day I seem to take a route or pass a stunning view I've never even noticed before. And the surprising thing is that although I struggle with the traffic and the near misses, I've had some of my most profound experiences while driving around this rock.
When the road opens up, driving can feel like a magical transition between the hectic rush of getting out the house and what lies ahead. Only yesterday, I found myself driving down a lane that until recently was surrounded by stubbly fields that smelt of molasses. Now it cuts through a huge swathe of fresh green sugar cane that ripples in the breeze. With the windows open and nothing but the clear blue sky and tufts of cloud above - I'm transformed.
There's a transformative element to getting lost here too. Something that's happened to me many times over the past three years. On one occasion, trying to find a 'Back to nature camp' taking place at a tropical forest gulley in the middle of the island, I found myself stuck, unable to find the address, driving the same loop over and over again with a car full of children.
Finally, when my five year old pointed out that we were now really, really late, I stopped by the side of the road and put my head in my hands, not knowing what to do. But then I looked up to see an elderly man come out of the house opposite and make his way towards us.
'You okay?' he enquired as he peered inside the car.
By now, my my toddler was crying in the back and when, in my slightly disheveled state, I admitted that I was really lost, he just nodded and slowly said: 'It's alright, you follow me'.
'That man is so kind, mummy,' the children kept saying, as we watched him climb into his old blue Cortina, 'He's really helping us'.
Being lead out of the maze of roads I'd been stuck in, by a complete stranger, was one of the most humbling experiences I've had. And when we reached the junction where he waved his arm out the window to say goodbye, I felt an enormous rush of gratitude and relief.
Since then, there have been so many times when I've been driving along the road in Barbados and everything has changed. Days when I'm feeling frustrated with the slowness, the difference, the lack of things I want, and then I swing a left to take a short cut and everything slows down. I'm in a village with a steep road between small houses made of corrugated iron, a ramshackle snack shop with a rooster on it's steps, a couple of women walking by the side of the street, one of them holding a tiny baby against her chest, the other one carrying an umbrella to shade them from the hot sun. I pass a flamboyant tree in full bloom, it's flame orange blossoms luminous. And I remember where I am, and where I am not. And everything changes. Everything opens up again.