All human experience is circular, with the extremes far closer to one another than the midpoints: you laugh until you cry; at the darkest moment of despair, hope glimmers; even the American singer John Mellencamp, probably the least likely Mensa candidate in show business, could discern and declare that something can “hurt so good”. In Barbados, that circularity of experience is driven home on the island’s roadways: Bajans can drive so very properly, so extremely sedately, it can send you hopping mad.
For example, everywhere else in the world outside of Barbados, most drivers will note the speed limit and drive five or ten kilometres per hour faster. In the USA, most cars will be doing 60 mph in every 55-mph zone. In Barbados, most people will reduce their speed by the same fraction; Bajans would rather err on the side of lawfulness. From the earliest moments of arrival, on Barbados’s major highway, the ABC highway, which begins at the airport, visitors are likely to be caught in at least one line of slow-moving cars before reaching their hotel; I’ve counted 18 vehicles in one procession, all driving contentedly at whatever speed the octogenarian at the head of queue feels like going – on a highway.
Which is not to say that Bajans aren’t capable of speeding; they are, they do, a lot! Just hardly ever on the highway. The highway is for displaying conformity to the LCV: the lowest common velocity. Individuality and the exceedingly fast driving that goes with it are reserved for the (often barely single-lane-and-a-bicycle wide) back and country roads.
Give a Bajan an open country road and he vanishes in a cloud of dust.
But that doesn’t mean he will ever overtake. The fastest-moving car in Barbados will happily decelerate from 140kph to 40kph or less the moment he encounters a vehicle ahead of him moving at a slower pace. In the harvesting season, you will often find a trail of vehicles longer than an American freight train, all toddling along peacefully behind a tractor – or even a donkey cart – pulling a load of sugar canes.
The Bajan instinct for decorum is dangerously deep-seated. If a bus stops at a bus stop, as is their wont, it is normal for the cars behind the bus to also come to a complete halt and wait patiently, seven or eight or nine cars in a row, while the bus offloads passengers and takes on new ones. A banker friend told me that his cellphone once rang while he was driving. Wishing to do the proper thing, he pulled off the road before answering the phone. He’d been talking for a few moments before he glanced into his rearview mirror – to see that the five or six cars driving right behind him had dutifully pulled off the road and were parked behind him, waiting. He finished his call and drove off; and the cars behind him then followed, as if choreographed.
People arriving from places where they drive on what we in the Caribbean think of as “the wrong side” of the road have to make a major mental switch and do the opposite of what instinct tells them, if they’re not to crash headlong into cars coming the other way; they should let that instinct wash over them completely. It’s the only safe way to get it right in Bim, and remember to drive slowly on the wide highways and speed as fast as possible on narrow back roads.
Please note, however, that the big blue-and-yellow Barbados Transport Board buses, the bright yellow PSV (Public Service Vehicle) private buses and the hundreds of private ZR public transport minivans are, to a man, exceptions that prove the rule. All of these vehicles are capable of overtaking one another, or you, at 200kph. In the parking lot. In reverse.