Barbados – broad sandy beaches, mellow sunshine, incredibly friendly people, unintelligible patois, wonderful food, rum in all manner of concoctions – and traffic congestion to rival the Capital Beltway at rush hour.
How is it that this tiny island – all of 21 miles long and only 14 at its widest point (roughly twice the area of Boston) – ranks #6 on the roster of the highest density of roads in the word? Most of them are squeezed into the business and resort districts in the island’s south and west. They’re just wide enough for two vehicles to pass, provided nobody in either of them breathes too deeply. The rest of the island’s equally narrow roads meander to tiny villages via lots of blind curves and little maintenance.
Given all of that, plus gas prices at $7/gallon, I figured people would take advantage of the excellent public transportation system or use motor scooters.
Silly me. Every square meter of roadway anywhere near civilization is jammed with buses, cars, vans, taxis, and trucks. Thank God for the laid-back patience of the Bajans; otherwise, there’d be road rage that would make the Freddie Gray riots in Baltimore look like a tribute to Pope Francis. Bajans who have to be to work at 8 a.m. leave no later than 6:30. This might explain the nation’s high rum consumption.
We wanted to go to the famous Friday Night Fish Fry/Street Party in Oistens. Three miles from our hotel, if that. We were told it would take about an hour to get there. When we were sated, slightly tipsy, and ready to leave, we flagged down a van with a lighted “taxi” sign. “Get in; get in!” the driver yelled. There were other people in the van. What kind of taxi was this? “We’re going to the Time Out Hotel in St. Lawrence Gap. Are you going there?” “Sure. Sure. Get in quick before the cops come.”
That sense of urgency compelled us to clamber aboard without asking more questions. The van took off at surprisingly high speed, given the number of people and vehicles in the road.
It took a moment to realize we were experiencing a part of the Bajan transportation system most tourists don’t. There are official, government-licensed taxis and buses, and then there are the “independent” operators. These are the same white vans as “real” buses, right down to the lighted “taxi” sign on top. But these are Bajan Taxi pirates. They use the same routes as the “official” transport, but with dubious licensing and permission. But, hey, for $1, you can go anywhere the buses go and, given the drivers’ contempt for laws of traffic and nature, it’s far more exciting and faster.
He didn’t quite yell “We’re Off!” but NASCAR drivers are old ladies puttering around parking lots compared to this dude. We weaved around other vehicles stalled in gridlock, swinging into opposing traffic and back like a fighter plane in a dogfight. If we saw someone at a bus stop, we’d come to a shuttering halt long enough for the newest member of our expedition to jump in. That hour-long journey to Oistens was about 10 minutes coming back.
The van skidded to a stop at a bus stop near the hotel, and we hopped out, a little surprised to be alive. The thought of the van careening down the one-lane road to the hotel past the patrons at the street food stalls and Karaoke bars was enough to sober us. But only until we passed the first rum shop. After that ride, we needed something to steady our nerves.
(photo credits: Barbados.org; Barbados Today)