Keep Left—No, Your Other LeftOpinion
There are a lot of things you notice when you visit the U.S. Virgin Islands. I mean besides the iguanas, and the coconuts, and the fact that there’s water all around, and you can’t see Texas from anywhere on the islands, and the weather that ranges from warm and pleasant to warmer and pleasant. Besides all that, as soon as you hop into your rental car and head out to tour the islands, you notice right away that everyone is honking at you, and swerving off the road, and leaning out their car windows and screaming at you.
There’s a good reason for the locals to act this way, and it stems from the fact that you’re an idiot. See, in the USVI, they drive on the wrong side of the road. Not only that, but they expect visitors to also drive on the wrong side of the road, and they get downright testy when you don’t comply with their strange driving habits. Go figure.
Riding in a taxi from the airport to our hotel was, in itself, a death-defying adventure. The taxis are all huge vans, probably because there are usually a lot of tourons trying to get from one place to another on the islands, and the drivers try to pack as many people as possible in their vehicles, and vans hold more people than Yugos. But this causes another problem because of the roads.
The USVI are not islands that gently slope up from the sea in a gradual, calm manner. They jut out of the water like the tops of mountains they are, and the roads all seem to have been built without any heavy equipment, so instead of smoothing and rounding and flattening the right-of-ways, they just put the roads wherever they could manage. Consequently, there’s seldom a patch of road that runs straight and level for more than three or four feet in a row.
So driving on the islands is a constant battle with turns and hills and such, with switchbacks and blind corners and sudden stops for potholes, or goats, or donkeys, which run wild on the islands and often wander onto the roads. The taxi drivers compensate for these hazardous conditions by driving 87 miles per hour and honking cheerfully at one another.
The locals, taxi drivers and civilians alike, communicate with one another via an intricate honking system, which I’m trying hard to decipher—and failing. One driver will honk twice, and another driver will honk back once, etc. Often, especially at intersections with vague directional instructions, it seems as if the cars themselves are having a conversation completely independent of their drivers. And sometimes the honks are intended for pedestrians. And they all understand it.
But you can’t get around by walking on the islands, because you’d get lost in no time. Plus, the iguanas would probably eat you. So there are only a few choices when you want to leave your hotel and visit one of the small towns, so you can buy your Jolly Roger caps and T-shirts, which are popular because of the strong influence of the old pirates here. Most of them have traded in their schooners for vans.
One of the ways to get around is the Water Taxi, which is a limited affair. These generally run around in the bay they’re based in, and just haul people from their hotels to the other side of the bay. They’re fun, but they don’t get you very far.
Then you have your regular taxis, the vans, described earlier. The taxi drivers are the only people on the islands in a rush, since they charge by the trip, and they want to get as many trips in as possible. Pretty much anywhere you go on a given island costs ten bucks a head, plus tip. Don’t forget the tip. If you fail to tip your taxi driver, you’re liable to end up walking the running board. They don’t use planks anymore.
The only other option is the rental car. After seeing how people drive on the islands, my wife was slightly reluctant to get into a rental vehicle with me driving, as evidenced by the paint under her fingernails when I finally got her into the Jeep we rented. But we wanted to find some sea turtles to swim with, and our best bet was to rent a Jeep and visit some of the bays on St. John with our rented masks, snorkels, and flippers.
I was slightly apprehensive about driving down here, myself, but since I have quite a bit of experience driving on the wrong side of the road at home, the transition hasn’t been all that difficult. I just stay on the left, reminded periodically by signs that say, ‘Keep Left,’ and the cheerful honking and shouting of the locals. The only times I have any trouble are when I encounter intersections, or stop signs, or donkeys, or other vehicles, or iguanas, or air.
But I don’t have to worry about signs much, since there aren’t many down here. You’re just supposed to know where you’re going, I guess. And we don’t. So we’ve been driving around for a long time now, snorkeling in bays, avoiding donkeys and goats, and trying to find our way back to the Jeep rental place. We’re lost, but we’re making good time.
And I have to admit, if you’re going to get lost, St. John Island is about as good a place as any. I just wish these people would quit honking and yelling. Vacations are supposed to be relaxing . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who may never find his way back from the islands. And he’s OK with that. Write to him at [email protected].