During my first visit to the Bahamas, long before living here was even a glimmer in my eye, I spent 2 weeks in Nassau while waiting for a new propeller for my sailboat to arrive from the USA after ours had the misfortune of falling off. I spent week-one exploring the more industrial downtown port area of Nassau by foot, and then got antsy and decided to rent a car and explore of the island. I’ve always found that renting a car in a foreign country is both exhilarating and informative, being one of the best ways to see the country from a less-touristy perspective. I’ve rented cars in Scotland, Thailand, Chile and Costa Rica and I’ve even driven my own car south-of-the-border to Mexico. Some folks swear by buses, jitneys and tuk tuks, crammed in-between sweaty locals, but I prefer having my hands on the wheel with the soundtrack of a local radio station serenading me.
From the moment I pulled out onto the road, I absolutely loved driving in Nassau...like freakishly loved it. There seemed to be this constant subliminal conversation going on between all of the drivers; horns beeping, hands waving, cars zigging and zagging every which way in complete organized chaos, and I desperately wanted to decode this foreign language.
The first thing to note about driving in the Bahamas is that it's one of the many countries in the world that drives on the left side of the road, stemming from the British Colonial days, and that in itself was a novelty coming from the predominantly right-sided Americas. Typically when you drive on the left side of the road, the car steering is on the right (by law, I suppose), closest to the center lane. However in the Bahamas, we have a multitude of import options and cars are brought in from both the USA and Japan, so we have left hand and right hand drives. My husband and I have 2 vehicles, each with steering on different sides. Something that I had no idea was a “thing” until I moved here is the windshield/blinker switch-a-roo. Did you know that the blinker lever is always on the window side of the steering wheel? Well it is, and you quickly realize this when you switch sides of the car on a regular basis. I don't know how many times I go to signal and am startled that I'm giving my windows a squeegee instead. And since my washer fluid mechanism is faulty, I end up just smearing salt spray across my windscreen.
Japanese vehicles typically come to us straight from Japanese auction companies. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would order a used car online, sight unseen. I’ve always found my potential vehicle interest in Auto Trader, then I'd go and visit the car, give it the good tire kick and a test drive prior to humming and hawing about the final purchase and perhaps whittling the price down due to some undisclosed flaw. But the Japanese online auction is the way of the islands. From what I understand, Japan has higher registration fees for cars over something like 5 years old, so everyone just trades them in for new ones every few years. Meaning, there’s a surplus of not-so-old cars in Japan that are looking to retire to the tropics and rust their remaining days away. You can go online and punch in your criteria (no Ford's or Mercedes I'm afraid, but a plethora of Nissan, Honda, Suzuki, Daihatsu and Hyundai). Most of them are equipped with GPS's that are impossible to do anything with since they are in Japanese, but there's a friendly lady who greets you each time you turn on your car saying something like "Cardamom, donya si tada natsu". They also all come with Japanese radio frequencies that go from 70FM to 89.9FM, so I don't get any of the 90FM to109.9FM stations. If you like gospel or classical music you'll manage to deal with the 80's frequencies. Lastly, the cars all come in kilometers and the speed signs are in MPH, so it's always a guess as to how fast I am traveling at any given moment.
While car shopping recently, I immediately decided there were two types of cars I wouldn't buy, the Toyota Isis and the Toyota Rectus. Who comes up with these names? I picture the Japanese marketing teams sitting around saying...."Yes, we shall call this car...Isis, Westerners would like this name very much." I gave my husband the go-ahead to order whatever car he wanted, since he kept nixing my choices. He later informed me he ordered the Rectus. Does it not sound a bit odd to say...hey baby, can I go for a ride in your Rectus?
Back to the road. For me, one of the first steps into becoming a local was obtaining a Bahamian drivers license. Now, we all have stories about trying to deal with government agencies, so I don't need to bore you with the details about how I got sent home to change clothes because I was wearing shorts (conservative ones I might add) instead of pants when I went to the Road Traffic office. After I went home to change, I was able to easily pass my brief verbal test which consisted of describing what certain road signs meant, and I had my shiny laminated license in-hand in a matter of hours.
Next was to actually learn the rules of the road through first-hand experience, since they didn't give me any sort of handbook in my brief meeting with Road Traffic. I knew there were a few legal differences, such as no free left turn (like the US free right turn), but there were also some unspoken ones which I have slowly picked up on over the years.
#1 Giving Way - When you pull up to an intersection, there will most likely be something that is obstructing your view of oncoming traffic such as a building or a bush, so unless you have a vehicle with a short hood, you will have to stick your nose out into traffic in order to see the oncoming traffic. Even if there isn't something obstructing the view, you will find people sticking their nose into the intersection out of sheer habit. If you are the oncoming person, you will have to slow down and drive into the other lane to go around them, or simply stop and let them out.
One thing that I haven't gotten used to is the person who should have the right of way, more often than not, will abruptly stop in the middle of the road to let someone turn left or right. It's nice, I suppose, but I always get hung up on it. I am waiting for them to pass before I turn, but they slow down. Are they turning? What are they doing? I hesitate, they begin to speed up because I'm not taking the turn, but it's too late, I'm already turning, brakes slam, confusion ensues, but it's my fault. Even though what they are doing is not "the law" it's "the etiquette". I should have just taken the opening and turned, because now a long line of cars has built up and everyone is glaring at me because I'm the one holding up traffic.
#2 Honking – Honking here is not like honking elsewhere. The horn is used mainly as a thanking or hailing mechanism, which I find refreshing from the angry sounds of a long blast of discontent. If someone lets you have right-of-way, the respectful response is to give two light taps of your horn. No wave is necessary, just a simple beep-beep will suffice. I now feel a twang of hurt when I allow someone the right-of-way and there’s no honk of acknowledgement. A few tips - be wary not to make the beep-beeps too long, or it will sound aggressive. One beep means you’re just saying hi to someone you know on the side of the road, but it’s also a warning that you’re approaching an intersection at a reasonable speed, so you're politely asking the other driver to please don’t pull out and risk getting smashed into. Keep an ear out for the difference between the two, they are slight. If you truly are angry that someone did something stupid, a long, looong blast of the horn is typically displayed, like so long that you think someone must have crashed and their unconscious body weight has slumped directly onto the horn.
I once met someone who’s horn was broken. I was aghast and exclaimed “how do you drive in Nassau with no horn?” He hung his head in sorrow “it’s very difficult”.
#3 Navigating puddles – When it rains in Nassau one realizes how little thought was put into designing and implementing an engineered water run-off system, therefore, water puddles up like an ongoing chain of lakes and drivers are overly-paranoid that they will be sucked under like quicksand if they drive through it. To be fair, there are numerous unsuspecting potholes and unless you know the road on a dry day, you should proceed with caution, because you may experience a serious jolt. But I’ve literally been run off the road numerous times by someone trying to avoid a puddle. And I don’t mean some little Nissan sedan that’s worried about bogging out, these could be Jeeps, pickups or 4x4’s that are more than equipped at handling a bit of standing water and/or a hidden pothole.
#4 Roundabouts - *sigh* I don't even know where to start with roundabouts. My only shred of advice would be to navigate them with your best defensive driving skills. It's chaos and I don't think anyone is really taught how to use them. In fact, I actually know several people who have "bought" their driver's licenses. Meaning, they skip drivers-ed all together and get their friend at Road Traffic to sign off that they are legit to drive on the roads.
#5 Power Outages - When the power goes out, the traffic lights go out, and any emergency back-up etiquette on navigation goes out the window. I was taught that if a traffic light had malfunctioned, treat it as a stop sign. Evidently they didn't learn that here (see #4). You will see cars at major intersections forcing their way through until it's complete gridlock and what would normally take you 15 minutes to drive somewhere will take you 1 1/2 hours.
#6 Blinkers - People do not believe in turn signals here. I have gotten frustrated on numerous occasions, but alas, there's nothing you can do about it. Just leave plenty of distance and be ready for persons stopping in the middle of the road for seemingly no apparent reason while they are getting ready to turn.
#7 Drinking & Driving - Go into any liquor store, pick out a bottle of beer, bring it to the cashier and they will put it in a mini-paper bag just big enough to hide the fact that it's holding a beer bottle, and they will proceed to ask you if you would like them to open it for you. I don't know of anyone who has gotten a DUI, although drinking and driving is technically against the law of course.
And finally a word on accidents. When someone gets into a fender bender, the vehicles stop exactly where the scene of the crime happened, which is typically right in the middle of the road. They will wait there until the police arrive, stopping traffic for miles. My best advice for driving in an unfamiliar country and avoiding accidents, is to simply slow down and leave plenty of room between yourself and other cars. Plus there's usually some nice scenery to admire along the way, so what's your hurry?