The worst time to be driving in Grenada is around 5:00 PM on a Friday. People are hurrying to get home to start their weekend, they have just gotten paid and are in a party mood, plus all the large construction vehicles are barreling through town and taking up more than their share of road. These large trucks are filled with workers just barely hanging on and spilling over all the sides. It feels like a recipe for disaster.
I think the worst specific place to be at 5:00 on a Friday evening is at the Sugarmill roundabout – a 2 lane roundabout that connects the arteries that lead to the Airport and the University, the main road into and out of Saint George’s (Grenada’s Capital and largest city), the main road to the Southeastern side of the country where the most people live and a major side road to one of the largest and oldest tourist areas.
And then there is me, …. trying to navigate through the madness …. I didn’t plan this …. I tried NOT to be here on this day, at this time, but the inevitable business delays that happen conspired to have me be exactly here – at exactly this time.
Imagine this scene – the roundabout, which is England’s answer to managing traffic without using a traffic light, is 2 lanes wide with four feeder roads converging. Everyone (hopefully) is driving on the “wrong” side of the road, going around the “wrong” way – clockwise. In addition to what feels like all of the country’s traffic trying to funnel through this insane intersection, add the following to the congestion – a major bank, one of the largest gas stations on the island, a supermarket, lots of small shops including the popular Fish and Chips take out plus multiple street vendors on the sides selling barbecued chicken, roasted corn, soups, drinks and anything else they think people with fresh money in their pockets may want. This is also a major bus interchange with buses only sometimes stopping in their designated places. Other times, they just stop in the road, blocking traffic. Of course, this means there are a large number of people walking or running to catch a bus home. There is a cross walk right at the roundabout – but only across one road. On the other sides, people just make a run for it.
And then, in someone’s wisdom, there is always someone learning how to drive. The learner is always boldly identified with a large red L hanging off the back of their car. They are clearly terrified and completely unpredictable – either jutting out into the traffic at the worst possible moment or squandering their chance by sharply braking for no apparent reason, distracted at something happening on the other side and missing a golden opportunity to head into this complicated dance of vehicles. Logically, this makes sense, they will have to drive through this mess as an independent driver so they should get experience, but it makes everyone an emotional wreck.
Oh, and did I mention the goats? Some man is taking his goats’ home for the evening and of course has to pass directly through the center of the roundabout. He has the 7 adults tethered on individual ropes and is weaving them through the congested cars. OK, that’s not too bad but he also has an uncountable number of baby goats as well. Baby goats are rarely tethered since they will not stray far from their parents. They are like the terrified learners and they dart and lurch unpredictably between all these cars, trucks and people. Miraculously none get squashed and if you have the ability to step back and watch the scene as an observer, it is quite funny and amazing. However, I don’t really have that luxury as I’m in the middle of this mess trying to navigate through it without killing myself or anyone else. I finally shoot through the other side and feel like I’ve been expelled from a white water river current. Now I just have to get through the valley and past the major marina construction site and then I’ll only have to contend with everyone racing home in one of two directions. Piece of cake.
Driving is on the left and my steering wheel is on the right. Most major roads are just barely 2 car widths wide (the others are smaller), there is no room for parking and no sidewalks so everyone walks in the street and people park anywhere they can. This necessitates a complex dance of cars moving in opposite directions, continually stopping and swerving around human, animal and vehicular obstacles. Many people run small shops along the road, sometimes out of the front of their houses, and on Friday night everyone is cooking and trying to pry a few dollars out of the hands of people passing by.
The Jamaican Jerk Chicken man is no exception and is well-known for his fabulous barbecue so people are pulling over, lining up, and now the road is barely one lane wide with traffic backed up in both directions. If someone is slow to start up, everyone in the opposite direction guns their engines and starts a short convoy, nose to tail, trying to weave through the congestion. Inevitably, a person or animal bolts out into traffic, cars stop, and then the folks waiting impatiently in the other direction careen through the small gap that has opened up. This can happen five or six times in a short distance. And if someone has called in a dinner order, they may stop right in the active road while someone runs their order out to the waiting car. I’m sure the Jamaican Jerk man has somehow planned this – you have to stop, you get a brief moment to catch your breath and then smell his wonderful chicken. Hmmmm, is there room to pull over and stop?
After maneuvering through this portion of the road, I get prepared for trucks. Really big trucks, road hog trucks who know they own the road and take advantage of it. I’m talking about full size cement mixers and huge construction trucks that make you wonder how they navigate the road at all, let alone when someone else is on the road – and with cars parked on both sides of the road, never directly across from each other because the road isn’t wide enough – but, of course, never all on one side because then where would the fun be?
The best you can hope for is to see one of these monsters on a straightway. Yes, this means they will coming directly at you – fast and partially on your side – but at least you see them and can choose where you’re going to run yourself off the road so you can live for another day. Next best thing is they might have a lead vehicle that is waving a large red flag letting you know a huge truck is following right behind or the big truck has the courtesy to be beeping as they round the curve – both clear signs to get out of the way, now, however you can. Worst case is that the truck is by itself, the driver wants to get home, he is driving like a wild man and you round a curve with him coming right at your windshield, on your side of the road because these trucks don’t corner well and you pray as you swerve out of the way, hoping not to hit anyone or anything during your evasive driving tactics. After passing, you don’t even have time to take a breath before the next obstacle presents itself. It’s kind of like a fast paced video game except you don’t get a second life. Drinks, anyone?
It astonishes me that I now feel “comfortable” driving in this madness. Comfortable is not the right word really. I’m always super alert, cautious, while trying to drive fast at the same time so people don’t pass me (by swerving into the other lane and essentially playing chicken). Will they get by before the next curve? Even with me braking to give them more room, will they pass before the car barreling towards us hits them and/or me? You know, the one with the bus hugging its back bumper, trying to decide if he can pull out and pass at the same time. I think I’m now at the point where I’m an “average” driver – definitely no longer the slowest, absolutely not the fastest, but holding my own.
When we first came to Grenada about 25 years ago, Michel drove and I was the navigator. My job was to remind him to keep to the left side of the road and point out which way to drive around the roundabouts, as well as read the map and try to interpret the squiggly lines to determine which road was the “main” road and which road was the “secondary” road when everything looks like a secondary road. After time, you kind of memorize the paths through and in your mind you see yourself going left around the roundabout before you get there. It’s also helpful that other vehicles are driving in the correct direction and you go with the flow.
After a few trips, it made sense for me to start driving. We started in a remote area with no traffic – a perfect place to begin to think about shifting with my left hand (no automatic jeeps in those days), signaling using my right hand (your automatic reaction is to signal by depressing the left lever and thus turning on the windshield wipers – again) and, most important, staying left. We approached a small roundabout – no cars anywhere – and I made it to the correct road on the other side. Michael smiled and said “Good job. Next time drive around the other way.” Yikes, with no context from other cars, I drove right, instead of left, around the roundabout. It could only get better, right?
(Next up, Driving in Grenada – Part 2.)
Note: Special thanks to Michael for being willing to stand in the roundabout early one morning to take photos and then trying to capture more road pictures by shooting through the front windshield while I was driving. I’d never ask him to do it on a Friday evening unless I was psyched to collect insurance money. This was definitely above and beyond the call of duty!