On the Road in Jamaica: Honk, Swerve and Ignore the Brakes
Roller coasters are in short supply in Jamaica, but if you’re a diehard, thrill-seeking, amusement park fanatic, it’s easy enough to imagine how the entire island might become your personal theme park. All you have to do is take to the roads.
There’s something about the bumps and zigzags of Jamaica’s roads that will quickly weed out the maniacal thrill-seeker from the faint of gut. There’s also the Jamaican motorist’s cavalier attitude towards shared road space that gives you a powerful urge to access and demonstrate the tactical gadgetry of the latest James Bond car.
If you’re a first-time driver here you might query the reverse order of the controls of your vehicle. It corresponds to the fact that in Jamaica you drive on the left side of the road – just a vestige of colonialism. So, once you understand the concept of right and left-hand drive, you’ll be ready to scoff at the roads.
As you drive on island thoroughfares you’re sure to encounter the diabolical roundabout where you might expect traffic lights and an intersection to be. You’re boggled by the anomaly, yet you throw caution to the wind: you speed up when you should slow down. And you discover a refreshingly simple way to learn a few cuss words in Jamaican patois.
You might also feel an urge to go head to head with road demons and their high-speed antics, racing side-by-side, mindlessly overtaking the snake of cars behind you. You could fancy yourself to be just as cold-blooded and ruthless knowing full well there are only two lanes – and there’s oncoming traffic bearing down. This kind of tricky manoeuvre usually prompts you, if you wear a St. Christopher’s medal, to snatch and kiss it. Since the once-paved and the unpaved are Jamaica’s two main classes of road, if you swerve or brake like that, you don’t inherit the Jamaican roadway – you only inherit its dirt!
Once your heart stops hammering you begin to suspect that your road is drastically narrowing with each passing mile. There is no longer room for two cars abreast, but you must prove you left timidity at home. In a flash you turn reckless and daring, then-oops! You become just another innocent fooled again. In the glare of the scorching tropical sun the shadows of roadside foliage are indistinguishable from those rascally and ubiquitous holes in the ground. So, you’re ambushed by a pothole.
Are you surprised to become so quickly exhilarated? Want to learn even more ways your driving expedition might take on a lifetime’s worth of thrills? Well, you could try getting detoured by highway construction, or, perhaps, forging ahead down unmarked, dusty trails that fork off into no man’s land. If you are made of the stuff that mountain goats envy, try edging recklessly along craggy roads that border precipices or playing chicken with that demon truck driver who never gives way on that scary narrow roadway that twists and bends all over the place. Remember, though, that if your driving arm gets tired, and your pedal foot feels the need to take a break, there are other ways to get thrills on the road besides trading in your car for an ass. Another kind of motoring stimulus you shouldn’t miss comes in the form of the Jamaican taxi. And since you’re intrepid, you won’t mind squeezing yourself into one. You’ll enjoy an even more exhilarating ride.
The first thing you notice about the red-plated vehicles is the sardine-packed way Jamaican passengers prefer to travel. You take a head count and then you scratch your head. That car was built to take five persons, yet, your tally adds up to eight torsosn – plus, you’re quite intrigued by the driver’s three hands. You like music, don’t you? You’ve been known to bop along to your tapes while you cruise your native motorways. Well, this could be your chance to enjoy a revival of that old dance move called The Bump. That unobtrusive taxi you single out might just be the one equipped with mighty sound subwoofers – so you and your fellow sardines can knock hip bones to a raucous beat. And, rambunctious spirit that you are, you could be lucky enough to get a driver who concentrates better on his driving with the volume of the music turned up loud. Just imagine how envious everyone back home will be when you return with your souvenir burst eardrum!
If you decide against the route taxi and think you might prefer a larger, sturdier vehicle, a minibus, like the ones you often see stopping casually on a blind bend, is another option. It’s probably a better mode of public transportation if you’re a real thrill-seeker, anyway, since it’s bigger than the car you’ve decided against, which means – whoopee! – there’s even more space for more sardines to pack themselves into.
If you feel goaded enough by now, then you won’t be perplexed to note that the minibus you hail boasts a cryptic slogan emblazoned across the windshield. A warier soul might decipher a premonition but you simply assume your driver has a warped sense of humour. Since your life is given to reckless abandon you merely anticipate an unforgettable ride and, once you squish yourself comfortably into your neighbour’s lap, you lose all awareness of the wickedness of the roads.
While scenery flashes by out of the corner of your eye, your ears attune themselves to the constant horn honking you must endure once your minibus meets up with a probable passenger. Then, continuous toot-toots and harmonious honk-honks get your head throbbing and bobbing from left to right to see who’s trying to overtake or who’s cruising by and just saying hello or who’s trying to catch your driver’s eye to give him the one-fingered salute of respect.
More thrills arise when you yell, “One stop!” Rascal that you are, you have no intention of getting off, you only voice it so you can see how expertly your driver cuts off two cars and a truck just to get you safely off the road and deposit you onto the nonexistent shoulder. What truly awes you, though, is the way your driver demonstrates his driving skill by keeping two fingers of one hand on the steering wheel, and the entirety of the other hand, plus its adjoining arm, gesticulating outside the vehicle. More often than not, the exterior hand is clutching a wad of bills. You realize, in due course, that this is the driver’s way of keeping your fare safe. It’s simply not easy to snatch money out of a hand that has just been amputated by an overtaking SUV.
Be prepared to giggle uncontrollably as your driver plows audaciously through potholes while you unexpectedly bounce your noggin off the roof of the vehicle. No, your spine won’t turn to jelly when the minibus swerves far left to avoid an overtaking truck. Because your driver is prudent enough to take such evasive action, you can unperturbedly gaze out the window and marvel at the law of physics that keeps your minibus from launching from that switchback your driver corners masterfully on just two wheels. His prowess saves you a shortcut through overgrown roadside grasses into the depths of a bauxite mining crater.
Yes, you’ll agree that no pathetic amusement park ride could ever rival the scope of sheer rugged excitement that motoring in the island of Jamaica warrants. So, thrill-seekers, I challenge you to come and tackle some of these heart-thrilling highways and byways yourself. And, if you’d rather not sit in the driver’s seat – no problem! You can always pay a route taxi or minibus driver for the privilege of taking good care of your life while you careen round the bends on any of Jamaica’s spine-tingling roads.