By Anthony Deyal
Two wrongs don’t make a right but three left-turns do, even if you don’t signal your intentions with your outstretched right hand, the prescribed and only legal way in Trinidad and Tobago as well as Barbados. Officially, “indicators” or exterior signal lights which are on every vehicle are not accepted by the government as substitutes.
From my experience, the only country in the Caribbean where people generally obey driving laws is Barbados and, even there, things have started heading in the wrong direction. Increasingly, the roads are getting more like Bushy Park, the country’s racetrack, than the sedate and careful highways and by-ways that I so enjoyed in my time there, especially when I drove a Mini-Moke.
Barbadians never considered the little vehicle without doors, windows or anything except an engine and rudimentary steering, a “car”. They will not take a ride in one even if rain is falling “bucket a drop”, a rare enough phenomenon in that country, unless there is cricket at Kensington Oval. When I arrived in Barbados for an indefinite period as a PAHO consultant, I needed transport and for a thousand dollars bought myself a “used” Moke.
The insurance cost fifteen-hundred dollars so I joked to Trinidadian Gerry Hadeed, whose company Beacon owns the insurance company, “You want me to sell the car to pay for the insurance?” My greatest fear in driving a car way ahead of its time was also its greatest attribute. It had a doorless entry instead of a mere keyless one. The dogs on the street where I lived, huge, aggressive creatures that were literally a “cross” breed, had the same ambition that Sparrow’s Congo Man had towards “white meat”. They wanted to “eat me raw”. My predicament was not just getting badly bitten but explaining the circumstances to the hospital, police and insurance company. “A dog jump in my car and bite me.” Finally, when you tell them your car is a Moke, the response would automatically be, “I thought you said a car? A Moke is not a car.”
One thing I knew for certain is that in Trinidad or Jamaica me and my Moke would not have lasted even two days on the roads, or remain unmolested with the spare and battery intact while parked outside the house or at the airport for long periods. Nobody ever tried to bounce me down or run me off the road for sport as the drivers in these two countries do to people on motorbikes or with small vehicles. At no time did anyone rip off my watch, snatch my chain, grab my cell phone or jump into my car, kick me out and drive away with it.
In Jamaica, my friend stopped momentarily at a traffic light, the window glass on the driver’s side half-up and had her watch torn off in a split second. In Guyana it happened to my wife’s mother and a gold chain she wore. It is why, in addition to the climate-change heat that demands air-conditioning, most Caribbean people consider it foolhardy to leave windows down.
Yet, if you have to take a driving test in Trinidad and Tobago or Barbados in 2021 the law is the same as it was when my Grandfather bought a Ford car in 1947. You have to use hand signals when you’re turning otherwise you would fail- unless you have the wherewithal to pay for the pleasure or privilege of driving. It is not unusual in the entire Caribbean to see recently arrived immigrants, especially people of Chinese descent, driving legally. Most of them cannot speak or read English even though the process for acquiring the licence includes a written test in the English language.
But that, as serious as it is, takes second or even third place to two other issues. The first is that looking at the very sparing use of indicators in the Caribbean, even though every car comes with a set, you would believe that if you want to actually use them you have to pay extra. I almost didn’t write this because finance ministers in the region are now desperate and they will clutch at a clutch, far less an indicator, in a flash.
Secondly, it does not make sense to enforce the law and demand people use hand-signals, but it makes even less sense to keep the law on the books and not change it. The use of indicators should be mandatory. The problem is deeper than making and not enforcing laws or keeping the colonial rules in place. You cannot change anything in a country like Trinidad if, when you go to the licensing office, there is a “medical practice” across the street with no doctor present and for a hundred dollars someone gives you a certificate verifying that you are in good health. In addition, your driving instructor can arrange for you to get a licence if you pay a licensing officer through him and your nose.
There are many things I don’t understand about Caribbean people and their vehicles. One that irks me is when I’m driving behind someone with a huge SUV or pick-up truck and the vehicle, despite huge twenty-inch wheels, comes to less than a snail’s pace to go over a very low hump or a tiny crack in the road.
Another humbug is people with new cars who drive in the centre of the road because they don’t want their tires or undercarriage to get dirty. In Trinidad, there are people who drive very slowly towards the traffic light and, as it turns yellow, accelerate like jet planes and don’t always make it before the red but continue regardless. Then comes the event for which, I believe, Trinis hold all the global records. They are slowest off a traffic light. I can understand that it is necessary at times to avoid the people who are breaking the red also destroying you and your car. But this really is not what keeps people from moving off. Despite the law against the use of cell-phones, it is the major cause of the delay.
It is like the story of the man who was driving his car when the police stopped him, knocked on his window and the man responded, “One minute. I’m on the phone.” In the Caribbean generally, the police don’t have time for that – they’re too busy not attending court.
What are jokes in other countries might not be jokes here in the Caribbean. My friend Selwyn snores so loudly that it scares everyone in the car he’s driving. There are few of us who have not travelled in a car with the driver drunk, falling- or fast-asleep. “I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.” Ditto. My wife had her driver’s test the other day. She got eight out of ten.
The other two guys jumped. The same thing could be said by a spouse about any Caribbean husband. Two that are different now from the good old days are, “Who earns a living driving their customers away? A taxi driver!” In Trinidad, where people with “private” cars are allowed equivalent rights as licenced taxis, this is now a frequent occurrence where the passengers, especially female, are lucky to return or remain alive. Too many are driven away and are never seen again. In fact, when the driver starts to go the unasked extra mile – jump out of the car and run as fast as you can, screaming for help.
*Tony Deyal was last seen whispering the joke about the man who boasted, “This Christmas I got a brand-new Benz for my wife. It was the best trade I ever had!”