Visitors must read this

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.


The heyday is gone but the sweetness lives

Calypso achieved popularity with the arrival of calypso tents in Port-of-Spain, particularly from the first commercial recordings in the 1930s, and from the spread of the tents after World War Two ended in 1945.

By ,

Very important voices

  In the bewildering variety of things that come over the electronic transom we now have on the internet, there occasionally comes a gem that stops you in your tracks; even more rare is the gem that gives you goose bumps. 

By ,

Build better or suffer

This week, in the aftermath of the Category 5 hurricanes ripping up the Caribbean, some gripping videos and still photos are making the rounds, and a standout in the lot is a BBC documentary on Hurricane Irma titled ‘Apocalypse and the Aftermath’.

By ,

Effective communication strategy

As anyone who has seen me perform knows, I frequently go off in some good-natured commentary on various things cultural, and one of them is the effectiveness of our dialect, so that a reaction from Bernard Fernandes, a diaspora Guyanese, lauding a point about dialect I recently made, leads me to shout, as I have before, for the value of our dialect and to consequently object when it is attacked. 

By ,

Brace yourself wherever you jump

This past week I found myself once again being asked to explain to someone in the diaspora why I chose to remain in Guyana. 

By ,

Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly.

We built using new technology. This makes our website faster, more feature rich and easier to use for 95% of our readers.
Unfortunately, your browser does not support some of these technologies. Click the button below and choose a modern browser to receive our intended user experience.

Update my browser now