It took me a long time to get used to driving in Grand Cayman. The traffic, the lack of rules, the state of the roads, the chaos — it was a shock after the relative calm of Australia. For the first year that I lived on the island, I would simply get behind the wheel and hope for the best, knowing it was entirely realistic that I could be in an accident that day.
I should have realised the lackadaisical attitude towards road rules when my boyfriend and I applied, at separate times, for our driving licenses. The licensing process was not difficult. A current license from another country is enough to get you behind the wheel, regardless of whether you learnt to drive on the left or right-hand side of the road.
My boyfriend’s application was successful, but he was told that the only woman who knew how to operate the photo machine was out to lunch, so he would have to come back another day to have his license photo taken. A week or so later, the photo woman was indeed at her post when I received my license, but it seemed her talents lay in professional photographing rather than standard license pictures.
“You don’t look very nice in this photo. I’ll take it again,” she said from behind the lens. I posed for image after image until I found one we were both pleased with. As a result, I have one of the most agreeable license photos in driving history, a far cry from the horror of my Australian license. Not that it matters, because it seems licenses are purely ornamental in the Cayman Islands.
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Driving in the Caribbean means massive SUVs and sleek BMWs jostle for space alongside ubiquitous Jeeps — generally accepted as the ultimate island car — and worn-out vehicles spewing black smoke. I have, somewhat reluctantly, driven behind trucks holding precarious loads of bricks or wood (which involves dodging the chunks of brick that spontaneously tumble to the road); cars held together by rope; one car towing another with, of course, a piece of rope; and, most commonly, cars with the indicator on for the entire journey. Although I guess I should be grateful for any driver who chooses to indicate as most consider it a luxury, not a necessity.
This haphazard approach to car safety was, admittedly, a blessing in disguise a few years back. My boyfriend and I were cash poor, so when the pistons on our $800 car broke (not the technical term), we could not afford a new car. Instead, we drove the ailing car until we could afford to replace it. Or, I should say, until it finally decided to call it quits and we resorted to bicycles for transport. The damaged pistons meant the car was now running on two, instead of four cylinders, giving it the soothing sound of a helicopter descending over a jungle. The possessed lawnmower got us around for three months, during which time we were not once pulled over by police or even given a second glance by other drivers. Safe? No. Convenient? Yes.
On a daily basis, taxis stop abruptly in the middle of the road; buses lurch into traffic with no indicator; drivers simply stop in traffic to chat to friends, usually in a car across the road, leaving countless irate drivers to wait while they finish their conversation. I have even been rear-ended while sitting at a traffic light, only to have the person responsible (a shamefaced Jamaican man in a rickety old ute) drive away as fast as his piece of junk would take him. More often than not, the perpetrators of these violations are on the phone. I tut-tut like my mother as I see drivers chatting away on their cell while obliviously almost side-swiping an innocent cyclist (without a helmet, of course). Safe to say, the words “wanker” and “lunatic” are bandied about freely.
The greatest source of frustration, however, is the need of many drivers to give way — to cars pulling out of driveways, to cars turning in an intersection, or even to other cars on a roundabout. Full page advertisements in the local paper educate drivers on the correct way to use a roundabout, without stopping half way round. Much of this willingness to give others the right of way can be attributed to the Caribbean nature. It is the local equivalent of letting someone ahead of you in line, except they just happen to be driving a great hunk of metal. Every driver expects to be let in, even if the traffic is flowing at 40 miles an hour.
Compounding this chaos is the abundance of rental cars on the road, usually commandeered by confused tourists unfamiliar with the concept of driving on the left-hand side of the road. The petrified face of an American vacationer as they careen into oncoming traffic, to the tune of incessant beeping, is a sight I’ve become all too familiar with.
I thought this mayhem was limited to Cayman until I went to Jamaica. During a harrowing drive into the Blue Mountains, my boyfriend and I watched in astonishment as buses overtook trucks on hairpin turns and impatient drivers gave new meaning to the word tailgate. Drivers kept their hands on the horn, letting others on the road know they were about to attempt a particularly risky maneuver, such as overtaking five vehicles in a row. There was no safety rail in sight — simply a stomach-churning plunge into a rocky ravine below. In comparison, Cayman is a model of road safety.
These days, I’ve become accustomed to the roads. The crazy driving and plethora of maniacs is simply another quirk of life in the Caribbean. Or, as expats like to say, it’s just another day in paradise.
India Lloyd is an Australian journalist living in the Cayman Islands.