Monday, March 16, 2009

On the bus - Caribbean style!

Riding the buses in the Caribbean has always been a good exposure to local West Indian life. Of course, most West Indians avoid them like the plague, calling them hot, crowded and noisy (they’d prefer to be in an air-conditioned car, mostly), but for a traveller they are always an adventure, a source of local gossip and an intravenous plug into the current musical hits.

Expect a lively ride… You’ll see them coming, bobbing and weaving in the traffic, squeezing through any gap in which they can fit – and a few they can’t! Out on the open road they perform all the same manoeuvres at high speed, running the central line in second gear as they prepare to floor the accelerator to get another rung up the traffic – it’s another reason that West Indians avoid them if they can.

But they are also fun. Things happen to you when you are out and about in the Caribbean. In Jamaica, sitting passengers are simply given things to hold for ‘standees’ – schoolbooks, shopping, anything goes, they drop it on your lap. Once, as a man in my late thirties, I was sitting quietly, to find myself handed a baby. Both he and his mother just smiled sweetly at me while I wondered what exactly I was supposed to do.

There is a magical quality to West Indian buses. You must understand that in terms of a departure schedule, well there is none, usually. Departure times are a near-mystical calculation – a carefully weighed balance in the driver’s mind, of how many passengers are sitting in his (usually his) bus at a given moment, against how many he thinks he can pick up on the way. Oh, then the decision is filtered through his boredom threshold, and whether there is someone, usually a slim 20 year old, whom he can impress with his driving as he roars off.

But most of all, Caribbean buses are like mobile discotheques. You can sometimes hear them coming before you can see them, with a thump, thump, thump that echoes down the valley. Inside they are incredibly loud, and the chassis reverberates to the latest tunes. Sometimes you get the idea that the stereo is worth more than the bus itself.

Actually it got out of hand recently in a number of islands. In Trinidad – those contrary Trinis don’t have mini-buses by the way, they have maxi-taxis - there were stories of school-children skipping food so that they could spend their lunch money on a bus-ride. Anyway, the rude-boys were having it too good and so the moral majority came out fighting. They got the banned music in the buses in several islands.

And so it was that I stepped onto a ZR van once, which was running along the south coast of Barbados. Tinted windows, oversize wheels and the shift and tick of cymbals and a bass thrum that threatened. The driver – hair shaved into a Nike tick, gold teeth with Nike tick, dark glasses on a cloudy day - his sidekick, a conductor of sorts - communicating in a sign language, all pointing – it was all a bit intimidating, really, not to say confusing.

Driver was doing all the wrong things. He was stopping in the middle of the road to pick up and let down, honking at old folk not travelling at the mandatory speed (very fast). But then, blow me down, if he didn’t veer off the road - on two wheels, I think - and grind his way through the backstreets of Inch Marlow. Suddenly he screeched to a halt at a small house – all to let down a lady so that she didn’t have to carry her shopping all the way from the main road. Bless.

Here is our guide to Caribbean local transport.

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