Prior to moving to the islands, I of course considered the many challenges that I would be faced with: Would I be able to handle the heat? Would snakes abound? Was I going to be able to find an apartment I’d feel at home in? But never in my wildest dreams did I ever consider that driving would be one of the challenges. Driving (if you can even call it that here), continually amuses, frustrates, and scares the living daylights out of me.
Daydreaming about my upcoming move, I had envisioned myself blissfully gliding along on a scooter, wind in my hair, sun beaming, green-blue water to the left, lush flora to the right with a smile pasted to my face…..and then I landed.
I remember it clearly (okay, fine – I’d been travelling for two days so maybe not that clearly): I was picked up at the airport in a 16 passenger van that was so crammed with random bits and pieces of detritus, there was room for little more than me and my suitcases. Away we went down what seemed like a decently-paved road; it even had a dividing line in the middle and although we were driving on the left (when I’m accustomed to the right), I thought that I could easily handle this. Little did I know, this was and is likely the best paved road on all of Tortola. While this road is flat, barely winding, and relatively wide, the rest of the island is a maze of narrow, dizzying roads that traipse up and down steep mountains with jaw-dropping cliffs mere feet from your wheels.
Beyond the physical roads, there are many daily occurrences that you must get used to: roaming chickens, goats, dogs and cats; scattered debris, both man-made and natural; the imminent stopping of the vehicle in front of you that will undoubtedly pick up every hitchhiker along the way with absolutely no signal or working brake lights; and, my personal favourite, the vehicles that like to play chicken with every other vehicle on the two-lane roads because they are abnormally huge and have the gall to honk at you as if you are in their way. I’ve come to feel like a rally car driver, always ready to adjust the wheel on instinct without even slowing.
I also never anticipated that driving on a tropical island would require skills in herding livestock.
Believe it or not, this isn’t the first cow I have had to move out of the way and it certainly wasn’t the last. And for those wondering, yes, that is an actual road! Beyond the cows, you must stay alert for horses. It never fails that when your eyes aren’t quite in the focusing mood, you will no doubt fly around a blind corner and come face to face with the island’s rogue white horse, whom I’m convinced every driver here encounters eventually as if some seemingly odd right of passage.
Enormous cement trucks that don’t fit on the road by themselves, let alone allow others to pass, make for even scarier obstacles that force you to duck into the nearest alcove and hope you still have a mirror left when it’s all over!
Then there are the one-off experiences that you have to shake you head at and just hope they never happen again. The most humorous ones of recent include: the guy that slammed on his brakes with no notice to pick up the $1 tennis ball last week; the guy riding in the back of a pick-up truck holding the precariously perched fridge from falling off; and the guy holding the umbrella through the obviously broken sunroof to avoid the rainfall. I could go on, but I imagine you get the idea. People doing strange, inexplicable things seems to be the norm around here.
Ask anyone on this island the strangest thing they’ve seen and it never fails, they all have their own wild story. I hear things I hope to avoid – stories of waking up with gravel in your mouth because the car you’ve been sleeping in was flipped over or stories of somehow totaling 7 cars after only being here a year. I consider myself lucky to have only experienced one complete brake failure while barreling down a steep hill one Friday night. Thankfully, no one was hurt, which is why I don’t consider it so bad. Of course, I only came to this conclusion after I started breathing again. And a few cocktails didn’t hurt either.
However, being a somewhat optimist, I am always looking for the silver lining. And yes, amongst all this crazy driving there is in fact a silver lining. I’m pleased to report that parking here couldn’t be any easier. Rules? What rules? Can’t find a spot you say? Just double park behind those 4 vehicles – they didn’t have anywhere to go anyway! Or, when all else fails, hop the sidewalk. Everyone knows that town square was never really intended for pedestrians…