Deadly Island Car Syndrome

Blink, blink.

My car clicks at me as I drive into the early morning sun. I turn the blinker off. Blink, blink, it insists, clicking back on. Again, I turn it off. Blink, BLINK, it shouts, demanding attention.

I think my car is trying to tell me something. Something existential, something important, something vital to its car essence. Maybe it’s going through a mid-life crisis. Blink, blink, it clicks again, interrupting my thoughts: “turn right”. Sighing, I turn it off. Occasionally it tells me to turn left. With one hand steadying the lever, I ponder what the message is.

It’s rare to find a car on a rock that hasn’t fallen prey to Island Car Syndrome (or ICS) in some form or another. ICS is an ultimately debilitating descent into vehicular defunctness, and varies in its symptoms and auto-epidemiology. Usually, it begins with something innocuous that is at first an amusing quirk. You’re kind of proud of it, laughing at your car’s island-ness over rum and cokes at the bar, trying to one-up other people’s car stories. Over time though, the quirk evolves from ICS to full-blown Island Car, until you begin to suspect that your faithful rock car is ready to kick the bucket. (Or, rather, kick the tire?)

The Islands: Where cars go to die.

The Islands: Where cars go to die.

There are many symptoms, all of which are temporarily treatable. Leave your car in the hands of a resourceful Jamaican and innovative things may happen. Questionable things, surely, but that’s why you never ask too many questions. (Where did this new transmission come from? How much will this cost? How much? Do I get a free car wash for that price?) For example, when I first met my fiancé, his car was a manual drive. It was strange though – the pedals were all wrong and the shifter was incongruently drilled in place between the seats. Apparently the Jeep had undergone open-transmission surgery, which I’m certain was a traumatic event for both car and owner.

It began innocently enough: Phil and his trusty automobile were on their way to a party when a rogue tiki torch escaped from the car. As any islander would do, Phil put the car in reverse to retrieve said piece (as discussed before, we islanders don’t distinguish much between the importance of choosing between forward and reverse – it’s the destination that matters, not the way you get there). Then the car got selective: Phil had to jimmy between “drive”, “1st gear” and “reverse”. Driving 10 revolutions back to go 11 forward, he ultimately wound up driving in reverse to the mechanic.

“Wah gwaan, white boy?” drifted the Jamaican mechanic’s voice across the dusty parking lot, as Phil reversed in. Several weeks, a recycled manual transmission, and many bolts later, the car’s transformation was complete. Ignoring that the pedals occasionally fell off from the bolts loosening, the car had temporarily escaped severe ICS.

*click for image credit

The most rampant form of ICS takes place at rental car agencies. Once the symptoms become too severe, the agency has a mass sale, and locals fight in the streets over the rights to the least quirky car available. It sometimes turns into a game of ICS Russian Roulette, where you don’t find out just how “Island” the car is until you’ve already purchased it.

Symptoms I’ve encountered include, but are not limited to:

1) Random Reverse

This is a symptom that occurs suddenly, often with little warning and at times when you need it most. Either the car is stuck in reverse (with a difficult first, second, and third gear), or the car believes reverse is for amateurs, and it will test your imaginative parking skills.

2) Wild Windshield Wipers

Often a slower symptom, malfunctioning windshield wipers exhibit a Tourette’s Syndrome style death, with sudden, energetic demonstrations on perfectly sunny days. It goes without saying that such energy is never shown while it’s actually raining, and I am often forced to drive with my head out the window during rainstorms, squinting into the raindrops while my contacts joyfully swim across my eyeballs.

3) Flaky Brakes

Given that we have a 140ft bluff, with a steep road across it, I live in perpetual fear of this symptom. Fortunately, there’s lush foliage at the base of the road, which I suspect someone planted intentionally. Usually, I go out of my way to use the other, flatter, cross-over road, even if it makes the drive 2 minutes longer.

This is the Samurai, pre-paint job. It ended up in the hedge while we were sleeping. We got LOTS of phone calls asking if we were ok...haha...

This is the Samurai, pre-paint job. It ended up in the hedge while we were sleeping. We got LOTS of phone calls asking if we were ok…haha…

4) Volatile Radiator

It goes without saying that most islands are hot, with temperatures varying between broiling and searing. Now, I’m no mechanic, but I sense that smoke pouring from every crevice of a rust-coated hood isn’t a good thing. And, of course, it always happens far from home. Which is why, if you ever rent an island car, you should immediately stock it with a gallon water jug and a rag (assuming such items haven’t come standard with the rental).

5) Rust-to-the-Bone

There’s a reason you see so many self-painted cars on islands. It’s not only due to island joviality (of which there’s plenty), but also because your car won’t pass inspection if it’s rusted through, Fred Flintstone style. So we paint our island cars to hide the fact that the parts are glued together with spray-paint, duct tape, zip ties, chewing gum, etc.

6) MIA Door Handles

These are underrated anyway. Windows double perfectly well, and so long as at least one door handle still works, everyone accepts that worming, squeezing, and gymnastically stretching your way into a seat is sometimes necessary.

*click for image credit

7) Seat Belt Shortage

They’ve recently cracked down on seat belt usage on my rock, creating a sudden black market for retractor/adjustor components to fill the gaps.

8) “The Shakes”

The speed limit here is 40. Whether that indicates kilometers or miles, I still haven’t bothered clarifying, because our car can’t reach either. Maybe it’s unique to our car, a new ICS symptom perhaps, but an unsettling shaking possesses the car above 33mph. And I don’t mean a gentle, the suspension-is-out-of-whack kind of shaking, but a bone-rattling, teeth-clenching convulsion that brings the extra flub on your arms to unwelcome life and threatens to dislocate your shoulder if you hold on too tight.

–   –   –

My car has gone through many hands, all of which treated ICS symptoms with varying degrees of nonchalance. Originally it belonged to a police officer, then to a divemaster who plugged the oil cap with a rag after losing said cap, then to an EMT who used it for night time mischief, then to the EMT’s wife who would drive to the beach and dance under the stars, then finally to myself and Phil. It has been driven through hedges and signs, seen multiple different backseats mysteriously appear and subsequently rot, had the radiator replaced twice, been fitted with various side mirrors scavenged from other cars, it has been stolen borrowed and left for dead on the bluff, it’s had the hood zip-tied in place against high winds, lost both head rests, and, most recently, been painted as the island Mystery Machine for Halloween. It has experienced the entire above list several times over, with many unlisted additions, and is somehow still going. (For those of you interested, it’s a Suzuki Samurai.)

The Samurai's Halloween costume

The Samurai’s Halloween costume

Which is why I’m listening to the most recent symptom: the blinker.

Is our dear car telling us it’s had enough? That it longs to turn right off the road, be driven into the sea, and become an artificial reef? Perhaps it longs for the big parking lot in the sky? I hesitate. It has had a rough island life.

But then the shaking settles in and jolts me out of my reverie. As chickens scatter, clucking in disapproval, I’m forced to slow down to stop the sudden earthquake and resulting storm of blinking. As I slow, there’s the rising sun glinting off the calm seas, and a breeze ruffling my hair, smelling of salt and pine. Our car may be rife with ICS, but it forces us to slow down and appreciate the island around us.

Sometimes it forces us to walk, too, but that’s ok – there’s always a gallon jug of water in the backseat.

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Roxane Boonstra

About Roxane Boonstra

Approaching three years on the Sister Islands of the Cayman Islands (nearly two on Little Cayman and one on Cayman Brac), Roxane is rapidly approaching the point of no return to reality. While thankful to not be on Grand Cayman, where cruise ships spill out tidal waves of tourists and KFC’s get held up by machete-wielding locals demanding buckets of chicken, she has found that the Sister Islands function on a completely different level of quirky. Although she has a Master’s degree in marine biology (despite Murphy’s Law of power outages), she spends her working time doing SCUBA instruction or divemastering, chasing people and fish with her cameras, killing and cooking lionfish, and filling in as “dive shop girl”. When not working, she is likely still diving and chasing fish with cameras or spears, but, for good measure, has a few other hobbies such as: coming up with sarcastic answers to dumb tourist questions, creatively cursing her persistently failing internet service, denying that her red hair is getting blonder, desperately coveting her dwindling stash of chocolate croissants, and gathering inspiration from her longtime boyfriend, who is fond of delightfully hare-brained concepts like strapping SCUBA tanks to a tricycle to propel himself underwater (it failed, but bandaids were on hand, just in case).

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6 thoughts on “Deadly Island Car Syndrome

  1. Loved your Samurai story. Reminds us of our island life, we had two of them plus a trooper. We called the trooper Casper and the Samurai’s spare tire and Suzi-Q. Hope you pack a roll of duct tape and a can of insta flat.

  2. I can totally relate to the Wild Windshield Wipers and MIA door handles. My car has lost two door handles since I bought it last summer.

  3. I absolutely loved reading the island car story written with humor and wit! It makes me think of the island cars we come across on the rock we visit, STJ. Thanks for enlightening my gloomy and chilly Pennsylvania morning!

  4. Brilliant!! You SO nailed it with the wind shield wipers and Tourette’s Syndrome! Nodded so much in utter empathy during the entire read, I might have bruised my brain! Bring on the wine! Thanks for the laughs!

  5. Hilarious and surprisingly evocative. Reminds me of the time when I was growing up in the Bahamas during the 80’s and the door of our particular ICS-afflicted truck opened while I was just barely leaning on it as my mom was driving (of course slowly, is there any other way on a bumpy limestone road?) and I fell out. I was 3 years old, not like I had much weight on me. I got dragged through a prickle patch for a bit, but came away mostly unscathed. Thanks non-existent child safety belt laws!
    Ah, good memories. It’s always best just to smile, shake your head and bust out the duct tape for those useless door handles or anything else that may crop up! Great outlook, Roxanne!

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