10 Tips for Driving the Bahamian Way

With one main road and nary a stoplight for 110 miles, driving on Eleuthera can feel like taking a leisurely Sunday outing through the countryside.

Or it can be amusing, befuddling, comical, confusing, frustrating, and even dangerous. All at once.

Having lived on this rock for many years, we’ve experienced all of the above. It’s our guess  that it’s like that on most rocks – is it this way on yours?

If you find yourself driving on ours, keep these 10 tips in mind:

1) LEFT IS RIGHT

This is the easy one. The Bahamas was a British colony until 1973, and it retains many British customs (like spelling harbour with a “u”) and driving on the left side of the road.

Driving on the left is fairly easy to get used to, but first-time tourists somehow still barrel out of the airport on the right side of the road, despite the DRIVE LEFT sticker screaming at their eyeballs from the windshield. Sometimes the results have been tragic.

Islanders have both right-hand and left-hand-drive cars (mainly American or Japanese), so if you’re behind a car that seems to have no driver, don’t panic. The driver is sitting on the other side.

Having a left-hand-drive car and driving on the left side of the road can be tough if you’re alone and want to pass a vehicle because you can’t see what’s coming in your direction. A cement mixer on the highway can create a back-up that rivals Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – and moves about as fast.

2) PICK UP HITCHHIKERS

A lot of Bahamians don’t own cars, so they rely on hitchhiking to get to work, or to the grocery, or the bank.

Picking up hitchhikers is safe here. Well, except for that incident not long ago when a woman hitchhiker stabbed the lady preacher who had kindly offered her a ride. (The police said the assailant “had issues.”)

Even when I’m alone, I pick up hitchhikers. If I’m driving the pickup, the rider will hop into the truck bed and thump on the roof when it’s time to drop him off.

Once I picked up a young man with long dreads who spoke no English. I tried to tell him that I had to stop at the gas station before getting to his destination. At the gas station, he hopped out anyway. When I came back outside from paying for my fill-up, the police were hustling him into a cruiser. Turns out the polite young man I’d picked up apparently had been on the run from the law.

Sometimes I can be too generous. Early one morning I picked up two women in the nearby settlement. They were going the same place I was – the Cancer Society thrift shop, which opened at 7:30am one Saturday a month. (When the nearest Target is 256 miles and an ocean away, you shop where you can!) I checked out and told the women I’d wait for them in the car. I waited about 30 long, hot minutes, then went in to look for them. They said they’d be out soon. After another 30 minutes – and a strong urge to just drive away – out came the two women, plus five of their friends and two children. They all piled into my SUV, some crammed in the cargo hold. At least six of them wanted to be dropped off at different locations. I put my foot down at that. “Do you see taxi written on my door? I’m dropping y’all off at one place — you decide where.”  I mean, really, I did have to get home sometime the same day.

eleuthera driving

My husband Dave has his own hitchhiker stories.

One dark winter morning he was driving to the airport to catch a 7am flight. He stopped to pick up a Bahamian hitchhiker who needed a ride into Governor’s Harbour.

“How’s the missus?” the rider asked.

Dave was a bit surprised. Did he know this guy?

“God Bless you,” the man continued. “It’s so kind of you. I can’t believe you stopped to pick me up.”

Dave said the guy was practically weeping. He couldn’t figure out why, as hitching a ride is an every day event here. Then it dawned on him. The guy had just been released after five years in Fox Hill prison in Nassau, having been convicted of breaking into several homes. Including OURS!

“Oh, well,” Dave thought. “Guy paid his dues, no point holding a grudge.”

3) HAVE ONE, OR TWO, FOR THE ROAD

It’s illegal to drive while drunk here, but not illegal to drive while drinking. Got that? Sort of like it being acceptable to take one sugar packet from the restaurant table, but definitely out of bounds to empty the whole container into your purse.

Before heading out, Dave will pick up his keys and a Kalik. His appetite for a breakfast beer is so well known that when he pulls into the parking lot of one local shop, the clerk will pop a cold one and hand it to him as he walks in the door.

Years ago, when we were exploring the rural south end of the island on a blazing hot Sunday, Dave wanted a cold one. Badly. We had driven miles without seeing a bar or restaurant. Finally we stopped at a house in the middle of nowhere and Dave asked the boy playing in the front yard where he could get a beer. The boy went inside to ask his daddy – or so we thought. Instead, he came bouncing back out the door with a frosty Kalik and handed it to Dave through the driver’s window. Dave gratefully duked the kid a couple of bucks, even though the boy hadn’t asked for a thing. (Always tip your bartender.)

kalik beer

4) WARNING LIGHTS? FORGET ‘EM

Cars are hard to come by, even if you can afford one. The island has no dealerships, and  the duty and taxes for importing a car can be close to 90 percent, so a $20,000 car bought in the States can cost up to $40,000 by the time you pick it up from Customs. Small repair shops are scattered around, but it can take weeks, even months, for a car to be fixed. Importing parts from the States can be time-consuming and costly.

As a result, many cars on the island are old and in such poor shape that they’d never pass inspection in the States. In fact, two of our three vehicles have had orange “maintenance needed” lights blinking at us for years. We just put duct tape over them.

5) STOP FOR FOUR-LEGGED TRAFFIC

When we visited Grand Turk, donkeys were meandering down the main street. On Scotland’s one-track roads, we often had to stop for flocks of sheep. Here it’s more likely to be chickens, goats, cows, and an occasional horse.

Just be patient. Eventually they’ll get to the other side. Well, except for the dogs that like to sleep in the middle of the road in the afternoon sun. We honk at them. Sometimes two or three times. Often they just look at us and go back to sleep. We end up navigating around them.

road goats eleuthera

6) WAVE TO ALL

Another easy one. When we first moved here, an approaching driver would wave at us and we’d say, “Who was that? Do we know him?”

Not necessarily. Everyone waves to everyone else. You always wave for fear that you’ll slight someone. That’s just the way it is. And it’s pretty nice.

7) EARN YOUR STRIPES

Cars on the island age quickly (see #4). The strong sun fades paint. Sand and salt water rust the undercarriages. Convertible tops rot before your very eyes. Even when we brought in new cars from the States, they quickly got scratches running down both sides. It almost looked as if someone had keyed them. Not so. They came from our pushing through narrow sandy trails bordered by overgrown shrubs and vines. Getting those scratches is almost a rite of passage here. They’re called, “Eleuthera pin stripes.”

8) SHARE YOUR BED.

Your truck bed, that is. Just as it’s legal to drink and drive, it’s also legal for folks to ride in the bed of trucks. (See #2). We lend our pick-up truck to our gardener (who’s on our insurance) to drive to and from church. Often, after a Sunday lunch out, we’ll meet our own truck on the road, the bed filled with young men dressed in crisp black suits and white shirts.

A much stranger sight was a pick-up driver carrying two tourists, clad in bathing suits and sunglasses, lying on lounges in the bed of the truck. That’s one strange way to get a tan. Maybe they just didn’t like sand.

9) YOU’LL GET HOME EVENTUALLY

A 10-minute errand can turn into a perilous day-long adventure. With no warning. Never worry. Good Samaritans are everywhere. They’ll leap out of the woodwork just when you need them. The idea that “we’re all in this together” is deep-rooted on this rock.

Dave blew the engine in our first pick-up one hot day when he’d run into town for a few groceries and a case of beer. Back in 15 minutes, he had told me. Six hours later he stumbled into the yard, on foot, with half a case of beer and a great story.

It seems that down by the dock, just a block from the store, he’d come across a couple of starry-eyed backpacking young ladies who’d arrived on the morning ferry and asked him how to get to Harbour Island. It’s nearly an hour north of us, but he took pity and told them to hop in the back, he’d run them up there. (See #2.)

eleuthera road

I won’t speculate why my otherwise rational husband, on a quick run into Governor’s Harbour, would offer to take two attractive young women out of his way by 50-some miles. Men…

Unfortunately, on the way back, the pickup’s engine fried, leaving Dave 40 miles from home with a case of beer and a sack of onions. And no cell phone. The only alternative at that point is to stand by the side of the road, look sad, and stick out your thumb.

Getting home took him four hours, three rides, and eight  beers – gratuities, he swears, as even Good Samaritans appreciate a cold one on a hot Eleuthera afternoon.

10) BEWARE OF FLYING FIREARMS

We’ve known some strange encounters on our roads – like watching cases of toilet paper drop from the back of a truck returning from the dock on “boat day.” But what happened to some friends was really over the top.

Lloyd and Kim were driving to the airport one sunny morning. All of a sudden, BAM! The windshield of their Jeep shattered, leaving handfuls of glass in their hair, their laps, and all over the seats. Kim was bleeding from a small cut, but nothing serious, thank heavens.

Lloyd pulled off the highway and got out, gingerly shaking glass off him like ice cubes,  wondering what had just happened. Checking the front of the Jeep, he saw it – a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun jammed into the windshield, stuck under the wiper blade. WTF???

A moment later, a motorcycle that had passed just before the Big Bang doubled back and pulled up alongside.

“Wow, I’m sorry,” the biker said, slipping off his helmet. “I’m an off-duty policeman. Apparently my gun slipped out of my pocket, hit the road, and bounced into your car.  I’m really, really sorry.”

A quiet negotiation took place through which Lloyd got a new windshield and everyone kept quiet so the cop could keep his job.

–   –   –

Despite the quirks of driving on our rock, it sure beats the rat race of driving in the Land of Rush Hours, Radar, and Road Rage. Wouldn’t you agree?

Is island driving a similar story on your rock?

james cistern eleuthera

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Kay Tucker Addis

About Kay Tucker Addis

"Why can't you live in Alaska?"

That's what Kay's dermatologist asks her with annoying regularity. But despite removal of at least a dozen skin cancers (and half her bottom lip), Kay and her husband continue to live on Eleuthera, where the Bahamian government promises 300 days of sunshine a year.

Kay loves the tranquility of her island home, even though she rarely has electricity, water, phone, and cable at the same time. Three out of four is a good day indeed. (Maybe she shouldn't even count the phone; sometimes weeks can go by before she makes or receives a call.)

She goes to great lengths to avoid inside chores like cleaning or cooking. So she works in the yard, washes windows, and paints while her husband does the grocery shopping and food prep. The role reversal works nicely, even though it confounds some of their Bahamian friends.

Driving a poppy-red pick-up, sporting work boots, and wielding a machete, Kay often hunts in the bush for native plants. She's a little more careful these days, after having been caught on video camera "tiefing" (uh, stealing) plants from the yard of a home she thought was abandoned.

Gardening is her passion (aside from three grandsons stateside), but for fun she's also been known to watch ants and converse with her pet curly-tailed lizard, who stops by the screened porch every morning for his share of her granola bar.

(And she isn't sun-stupid. Despite residing on a pink sand Atlantic beach, she does appease her doctor by wearing a perpetual coating of SPF 60 sunscreen.)

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10 thoughts on “10 Tips for Driving the Bahamian Way

  1. My “favourite” thing that happens here is when the driver of a car sees someone they just have to talk to right then and there. Car stops conversation starts. It doesn’t matter that because of oncoming traffic you can’t get around the “conversation”. But, like you said, it sure beats rush hour and road rage. Plus, I have learned how to be more patient 🙂

    • Lynda, that’s exactly right. It happens here all the time. If I’d had room for more tips, that would have been one of them. Thanks for adding it for me!

  2. Best Eleuthera driving story goes back to the mid 1980’s when, returning from a funeral after sundown, a legally blind driver of an old Morris Minor drove into the back of s horse and rider knocking both into the ditch. His excuse when all parties were transported to the clinic in
    Lower Bogue “The rider didn’t have any rear reflectors on his horse” Must add that for those of us in New Providence every Bahamian,their. wife, granny, kids and siblings have a car The traffic jams here are horrendous

    • Love that story!! No rear reflectors on the horse!!! We avoid driving in Nassau whenever possible. Once, looking for a parking spot near the US Embassy, I yelled for my husband to follow a white truck into a parking lot. Focused on the truck, he failed to notice the white gate descending onto the hood of our rental car. We managed to ease through without much damage. Then we realized we had no ticket with which to exit. I walked to the entrance and asked the approaching driver if I could walk through in front of him and get a ticket. He said I wasn’t heavy enough to activate the gate. Thus began a circusl of cars going forward and backward in order for me to get a ticket.

  3. All of the above on Long Island, BUT, perhaps you forgot the conversation bit. Just two islands to the South of you, if one meets a friend going “Up South” while going “Down North”, both cars just stop in the middle of the road so the drivers can talk. Cars line up behind both vehicles, no-one honks a horn, knowing that, eventually, one of the drivers will decide to move. It’s all ok, there is nowhere else to go except North or South 🙂

    • It’s exactly the same here. We also go “down north” and “up south,” but I thought that might be too hard for outsiders to understand. Glad Long Island is the same. And yes, we often have to stop behind vehicles stopped in both directions for a conversation. Nobody honks their horn; almost no one has appointments at a certain time. Thanks for your addition!

  4. Our rock is Grand Bahama …. I was behind a pick up truck one day, driving along and it occurred to me that one of his back wheels was at an odd angle to the rest of them. We stopped at a red light, him still in front of me and when the light turned to green, the offending wheel fell off and bounced off down the road. The pick up was completely stuffed now and stayed exactly where it was, with one corner lower than the rest. It still makes me laugh when I think about it 🙂

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