I’ve been on the Island for just over a month now, and one of the first things I set out to master was driving. Perhaps you already know that it is customary to drive on the left side of the road in the U.S. Virgin Islands. You may see a sign posted, much like the one in this photograph, and there is a great little shop named Keep Left over in Red Hook.
I don’t know if it’s true, but I have been told that when ownership of the Islands transferred to the United States, the local taxi drivers lobbied to maintain this custom. Why would they care?…because it discourages tourists from renting cars, of course!
As it turns out, learning to “keep left” is the easy part of driving around on this Island. The cars are the same familiar left-hand drive type we’re accustomed to driving on the mainland, just driven on the opposite side of the road. I got used to it very quickly, so I’m sure you could, too.
It is the rest of the driving experience that is quite different and….shall we say….invigorating?!!!
To give you an idea of the experience, let’s play a little game.
Begin by imagining yourself driving on a narrow, steeply-graded, winding road. There are no stop-lights or stop signs on this particular road. At all times, you are either driving up or down these very steep hills. You will soon notice that this makes the hairpin curves very interesting. (Especially those that bend to your left and around which you have little visibility from your seat on the left side of the car.) You feel like you are on a roller coaster ride.
Now imagine the road you are on is also an obstacle course. The potential obstacles are many and appear suddenly and randomly. These may include a gauntlet of any combination of the following:
Wild chickens, wild goats, feral cats, sleeping dogs, reclining dogs, pooping dogs, dogs chasing tires, cows, iguanas, stopped tour buses, work vehicles, large kitchen appliances, public works crews, hitchhikers, enormous potholes, road construction, barricades, fallen rocks, bags of trash (or other unidentifiable debris), pedestrians (both sober and inebriated), randomly parked cars, school children, cars entering the road from blind drives, open car doors, stopped cars, the car you are following suddenly reversing direction, encroaching jungle vegetation (including potential windshield-smashing dangling limbs and vines), washed out roads, torrential downpours, and road closures due to collisions. And these are just the hazards I’ve encountered in my first 30 days.
Now imagine that all of the traffic or right-of-way rules you’ve ever known, whether you followed them or not, have been disregarded. (Completely forget everything you know about four-way stops.) Red lights don’t necessarily mean stop. Green light? Proceed with caution because the cross traffic may also have a green light. Headlights on after dark? Not necessarily. You quickly sense that if there are any right-of-way rules, they have been rewritten, and you have no idea where the handbook is hidden. The only rules you do know for sure are:
- It is legal to drink alcohol while driving.
- It is illegal to drive shirtless; and if you do, you are likely to be pulled over. (This applies to men as well as women.)
Yep…that’s all of them!
Oh, I should tell you the name of the game we are playing! Remember “Chicken?” Yes, that’s the one….two cars drive towards each other on a collision course: one must swerve, or both may die in the inevitable crash, but to swerve before the other driver will earn you the name “Chicken.”
Now imagine that you are one player in a multi-player game of “Chicken” (maybe we should call it “Island Chicken”) and it is being played on this narrow, winding, mountainside obstacle course.
Finally, you have reached your destination. You breathe deeply while asking yourself “Why are they trying to kill me?” Congratulations….you have won the game!!! You feel happy to be alive…AND you still have both headlights and side mirrors! This is cause for a moment of silence, followed by a refreshing (adult) beverage.
Cheers! You have just experienced driving Island-style, and are now an honorary Islander!
Here’s a bonus quiz:
What does a tap on the horn mean to St. Thomians?
- I am yielding to let you in.
- May I cut in?
- Get out of my way!
- Watch out!
- <Insert your own made-up meaning here>
- All of the above.