A few months ago I’m visiting my radio broadcaster friend Vic Fernandes in Barbados. We’re in town one day in Vic’s car, and I notice him stopping occasionally to let somebody standing at the side of the road to cross. No crosswalk, no junction, no hand signal…person just standing there, but Vic stops and traffic going the other way stops, too. The pedestrian calmly steps off the curb, passes between the two stopped cars, and steps up on the other side. The first couple of times he does this I assume it’s someone he knows or recognizes, but after the fifth or sixth time it’s obvious that Fernandes, as popular as he is in the island, can’t possibly know all these people; something else is going on here. After several stops it hit me: in Barbados, this is standard driver courtesy to roadside pedestrians, often in the middle of the block. I mention this to Vic and he confirms, indeed, he doesn’t know the people. I remember saying to him at the time, “No way that would happen in GT; if you stand there waiting for a break, sunset could come and find you still there.” Furthermore, even persons standing at our very visible crosswalk markings in town would know better than to just step out and go; you wait until some considerate motorist finally brakes to let you cross, and even then some drivers will honk and drive around your car before the pedestrian can move.
It would be interesting for a perceptive social scientist to do a study of driving in Guyana to determine what has brought us to these behaviours we display once we get in a vehicle. I have driven in over a dozen different countries, and Guyanese driving habits are easily the worst I’ve seen. (I’ve heard Venezuela and India are worse, but I haven’t been there.) I have mentioned this subject before, but it is in my mind again as I’m about to play some of my songs at the annual Tourism and Hospitality Association dinner (THAG) and it occurs to me what a perilous adventure visitors to Guyana would be undertaking to rent a car and drive themselves around the country. My daughter Luana from Toronto was here a few years back, and is a very accomplished driver; she would regularly freak out at some roadway craziness she observed. “Oh my God, Dad” was a frequent response. Like her, visitors attempting to drive here need an education course.
They don’t know, for instance, our casual, even indifferent approach, when the traffic light turns to red. Instead of the conventional ‘stop’ our approach is often one of ‘speed up and see if you can get through quick’. Tourists don’t know that. They learn very quickly, after a few close shaves, or people here warn them of the difference, but coming as visitors they are unaware.
And the indifference to ‘stopping’ also applies, away from the lights, in the less busy intersections in the city where traffic from one side is supposed to give way to crossing traffic. In the first place, the supposedly obligatory ‘stop’ sign is often permanently absent, and even when it is in place folks will calmly drive through it, so visitors have to look to be sure they’ve been given the right of way and should not benignly assume they have it. To be fair to them, visitors don’t know these finer points.
They have to be told, for instance, that the narrow shoulder on the edge of many of our major arteries, often marked with a white line, is somehow seen locally as a perfect opportunity to pass the long stretch of vehicles in a single line ahead of you. Motor-cyclists use it as a matter of rote, but so, too, do taxi drivers and the mini-bus brigade, as well as the ordinary driver in a car alone who is simply in a hurry. Policemen in Guyana refer to this practice as “undertaking” and given the propensity for accidents in it one would suspect that the policemen are also inferring that a trip to the graveyard may be involved for such drivers.
Tourists who plan to drive here should know that an arm coming out of the window of the vehicle ahead of you, with a gesticulating motion of the hand, is not someone waving at a friend. That signal, a standard with mini-bus drivers, is actually telling you, “Look! I am coming into that lane you’re driving in, almost immediately, so unless you want to be involved in a crash, just brake and let me in, and we can all go on our way.” Don’t waste your time blowing your horn and shouting “against the law” or “Oh my God” like my daughter. The response will likely be, “Dis is my livin’, and I man in a hurry;” or even a few choice expletives concerning various parts of the anatomy. As the experience is frequently repeated, visitors learn fast. Luana did.
A visitor must quickly realise that speed limits are regularly exceeded, in both the countryside and the town, so that you have to adjust your driving methods, when overtaking; don’t assume that the vehicle way down the road, travelling towards you in the incoming lane is doing the legal limit so you have room to overtake; you will often have to scramble back in line to avoid a head-on.
Given the obvious perils to life and limb and property that flow from these behaviours, the obvious question is why are they allowed to continue? As someone interested in cultural practices, however, the more interesting question for me is the progression over time that has taken us to the stage where we indulge these practices so mindlessly. As my friend Vic Fernandes said to me about the pedestrians, “It only takes a few seconds to stop. Why don’t they do it?” Vic Fernandes asked me that question going on four years now; I still haven’t arrived at a satisfactory answer.
Sometimes I save the point for the end, and here it is: In this tourism-push time in Guyana, after the visitors get the immigration stamp at the airport, somebody has to say to them, “If you plan to drive in Guyana, read this.” And give them a copy of this column.