Off Road in the Caribbean

Off Road in the Caribbean

There’s an island off the coast of Honduras, more Carib than Latin, where a lady called Jenny sells cinnamon rolls and men play dominoes at sunset. The air smells buttery-sweet like summer and island politics is dominated by two transvestites, who believe in exactly the same things as each other but loathe each other and so disagree completely with everything each other says. There’s this one old dude called Boozy who materialises in your backyard every few days looking for his bottle of rum. The day is silent apart from cicadas, the afternoon is heavy, and in the night at least 20 sun-sleepy bodies flop out of hammocks, shake the dust out of their wings and flitter down to the local bar, looking for love but not looking particularly hard.

There are two roads on the island. The main one runs along the coast and the other runs perpendicularly inland. Doña María occupies her mystery taco stand at the crossroads like there’s treasure buried beneath it. No one has ever crossed the crossroads without Doña María staring at them through the grease spray from her sizzling mystery meat. Rumours circulate that Doña María was born at her taco stand and has never left it. These rumours are unsubstantiated, as no one has ever bothered to check before noon. The toilet habits of Doña María are just as mysterious, but much more disturbing. Doña María’s mystery tacos will soon drive me to vegetarianism.

Diagonally across from Doña María is the island doctor, a notorious drinker in whom has truly dissolved the line between western medicine and voodoo witchdoctory. He can diagnose STIs from the contents of your dreams whilst insisting on holding your testicles in his hand and making you cough to treat an ear infection. The locals treat him like The Oracle and tolerate his penchant for automatic weapons and his award-winning collection of over 100 human foetuses: the inevitable, eccentric trade-off for his propitious knack of ordering in measles vaccines one week before an outbreak, or staggering onto someone’s balcony in a puff of cocaine, wearing two pairs of sunglasses and carrying one of the transvestites’ corgis, just seconds after the baby stops breathing.

On the door of the doctor’s office are his visiting hours, which are not, as you might expect, the hours he visits people in their houses, but rather the hours he estimates he will be leaving the bar across the road to visit his office. He’s at this bar as our story begins, shirtless and trying to locate his pet python. I am just leaving.

It’s a night which could be any other night, except tequila’s half-price so it must be Tuesday. I’ve indulged and it’s late now and cool enough to sleep. I deem myself too fatigued for the 10-minute saunter home, and decide to borrow my housemate’s scooter. He expresses no opposition to this plan since I don’t consult him about it, and I don’t have to either, because he lost his scooter key weeks ago and now uses a chopstick to start the ignition. I twist the chopstick and fumble about for the kickstand with my thong.

The road’s straight but it does a good job of pretending not to be. My Aunt Berty’s favourite maxim is, “If you’re over the limit, drive under the limit.” I pay dutiful attention to Bert, and restrict myself to single-digit speeds.

I’m held-up outside the Italian restaurant behind a gaggle of Brits waddling back to their hostel, who at first I think are wearing high-vis vests but turn out just to be sunburnt. I linger briefly, then indicate the wrong way and overtake them. They eat my dust for over 10 seconds, which is how long it takes me to pull more than a few metres ahead of them.

I cross the crossroads and nod to sweaty Doña María at her grill. I drive in a perfect straight line down the centre of the road past the general store and cross to the wrong side outside the Mormon mission to avoid any too-enthusiastic advances from the tie-and-Hush-Puppies crowd. There’s a new consignment from Baltimore this week, and their comb-overs are already puffing in the humidity.

The sleep deprivation will soon show on their faces, their eyes bloodshot, diarrhoea, malaria, never-ending heat, mirages above the road, chattering locals, drug-crazed foreigners, rabid dogs, the doctor’s treatment somehow scarier than the original rabies. It’s hot, hot, hot, and I’m afraid that one of our punctual young men will undo his top button before this nightmare is done.

I pull off the road and put my hazard lights on metres in advance of my house. I squeeze the brake. It thinks it’s real clever. The back wheel spins and kicks in the sand and a puff of dust goes up. I yip. The scooter jumps and shoots off down the road. Things sway and fall in my vision, I hit a rock, a bump, a fence, a step, a balcony, I stumble sideways off the scooter, knock a wooden door open with my right shoulder and tumble in behind it.

I’m in a little wooden room with peeling lime green wallpaper. A couple of light bulbs hang from the roof. A black woman sits on a faded floral couch which sags in the middle beneath her weight. She’s a big woman and very beautiful, with wide eyes, a walk where she THROWS her shoulders back and MARCHES with her chest THRUST out, and a laugh that carries across the island and fills the silent lunchtimes.

She’s wearing an old silk dressing gown loosely across her body, her cleavage is showing and a towel is wrapped up around her hair. She’s holding the fingers of her right hand up to the fan to dry a new red manicure. There’s an American soap opera on the old faux-wood box-shaped TV set. She may or may not be smoking.

I loll about in the doorway, both eyes facing in different directions and neither of those directions at her.

“Christina,” I say. “Christina, I’m sorry.”

Christina blinks at me a few times, still holding her fingers up to the fan.

“I’m so sorry, Christina. I didn’t mean to do that.”

“I sure hope you didn’t, honey.”

“I’ll find my own way home, Christina.”

“Yes, honey, I’m sure you can manage that.”

I curtsy to Christina and back out the front door. I unpeel the scooter from the balcony and stand it up. The chopstick is missing, but never mind! I can walk from here. I roll the scooter out the gate and drag it through the sand to my house. I search for the kickstand with my thong; it eludes me, so I drop the scooter against the side of the house. I walk inside, double-check I’m in the right house this time, turn all the fans on and nose-dive into bed.

Cover by QsySue