Monday, February 8, 2010

A Roundabout Full of Ducks

“Tourists aren’t people, honey. Tourists are tourists!”
Angela Lansbury in Blue Hawaii

We called them Ducks. Why? Because they flocked together in great groups and there was always one Lead Bird, whatever that bird did, all the other birds did too. There was nothing dignified about them, its terrible really, they were fishes out of water, ducks waddling on land -- they were Tourists on Motorbikes. A Duck and his wife could be spotted a good hundred yards away -- sometimes they rode on one bike, sometimes they rode on two. There was the tell tale wobble of the bike, an ungainly and soft swaying, like a child riding his two-wheeler, the training wheels gone for the first time. There’s that anticipation of a fall, but the fall doesn’t come, just a quick sway back UP and then the equilibrium is once again foiled to the opposite side of gravity and then another sway back UP and gravity pulls again from this side. And there you are on your motorbike or in your mini car following and you find yourself gently reeling sway-sway-Up and sway-sway-UP, but of course, you catch yourself and you laugh to yourself and finally you turn down a side street and hope the Ducks make it to their destination.

Another dead giveaway were the bike helmets or as we called them Salad Bowls. These were not the motorcycle helmets we wore, these were the motorbike rental shack helmets -- all white, all one-size-does-not-fit-all -- sort of a bad cross between an old fashioned polo and pith helmet. Ducks wore them in several odd angles, there was the jaunty-to-one-side style or the daring strangle-the-throat-with-yer-chin-strap-back-off-yer-forehead look. Occasionally these two styles were combined in an alarming one-ear-exposed-go-for-broke fashion. And very rarely you might have the pleasure of seeing the-way-down-over-me-eyes-can’t-take-my-hands-off-the-bike-handlebars-to-fix-it mode and when you saw this, it was best to give the bike operator plenty of room for error.

Room for error was something we didn’t have alot of in Bermuda, and especially not on the roads. The roads were narrow, winding, full of blind corners and frequented by lunatic drivers of every sort. There were the taxi drivers, the kids on motorbikes who thought nothing of riding “up de middle”, that is between you and oncoming traffic, yup, right up de center line! And there were the Leaners, folks who rode their motorbikes in a lopsided, ultra-cool, kinda way. One of my favorite motorbike ridin’ styles was the husband or boyfriend up front and his wife, his girly on the back, sitting not astride of the bike, but sideways, with one high heel jammed over the exhaust pipe and the other leg crossed over that supporting leg, pointed out and she could balance there quite nicely Thank You without even holding on to her man AND she could hold a mirror in one hand and apply lipstick with the other!

But the worst thing on the road was the Damn Pink Bus. The Damn Pink Bus was Bermuda’s full sized transit bus. You would think that the roads being small and all of us on the roads driving our mini cars and our motorbikes would warrant some kind of limit on the size of the bus of the Bermuda transit system, but NO, they got some overseas deal on a fleet of full size pink busses, cause nobody else in the world wants a fleet of pink busses, and so you just had to deal with the Damn Pink Bus. If you ever go to Bermuda, do NOT ride the Damn Pink Bus. They encourage tourists to use the bus, but what they don’t tell them is that the busses are used to transport all of Bermuda’s school children, so twice a day, the busses are filled to capacity with Bermudian kids...and don’t let the navy and plaid uniforms fool you. These kids are wild, wild, wild. Every once in a while I would have the pleasure of seeing a Damn Pink Bus whir by me, with arms and legs and what have you coming out the windows, along with this storm of voices....eeeeeeyah....and as the bus passed, I would see two faces pressed against the glass, two white but sunburned faces, unmistakably the countenances of Tourists, wearing their binoculars around their necks, and their gazes outward were filled with a desperate plea, “Somebody please get us off this bus!” and you knew that inside there was total schoolyard bedlam...books and spits balls flying and those two innocent tourists were traumatized forever.

But the really bad thing about the Damn Pink Bus, the reason I named it the Damn Pink Bus was for the simple fact that they tailgated anything and everything in their path. They tailgated mini cars and they tailgated motorbikes -- there you’d be, minding your own business, tootling down the road at a proper speed and then you would feel this Pink Presence upon your ass and you’d turn and there it was, looming huge with its windshield the size of a store front, rocking softly on its air cushioned shock absorbers, silent like a shark about to strike and you had to find a place to pull over and let ‘er by, cause you were holding her up, she had places to be, sights to see, and she had the Queen’s sense of entitlement to the road and well, she was Pink, so get out of the way!

But the Ducks on motorbikes were so unaware of the dangers of Bermuda’s roads. They had never heard of the young boys, who would ride in gangs of two together and speed by a bike and steal a handbag out of the basket. Some were cagey enough to reach into car windows at high speeds and grab whatever was sitting on the passenger side seat and tear off before the driver even knew what happened...I always drove with my purse on the floor of my car or locked inside the kit of my motorbike. No, the Ducks didn’t know about the boys on bikes, nor did they know about Road Rash until the sway-sway-UP failed and they went sway-sway-Down and bare legs met limestone and coral roads. And there were coral walls that hemmed in the roads and sometimes the sway-sway-UP dragged Bermuda shorted flesh against prickly rock.

And then there were the Roundabouts. Just when the Ducks thought they were getting the hang of which side of the road to drive on...KEEP LEFT HONEY, KEEP LEFT! They came upon the Roundabouts and instead of GOING, which is what a Roundabout is for, GOING and YIELDING and FADING into the swirl of cars and motorbikes, the DUCKS routinely stopped and you could see them working out with their hand gestures and their heads....Right Left...Left Right...oh this is my RIght and this is my Left....Clockwise? Counterclockwise? Hmmmm....oh Yes! NOW GO NOW and they would gun the engine and the front wheel of their wobbly-bike would pop upward slightly and Mrs. Duck would lose hold of her Mr. Duck for just a moment and grab her Salad Bowl for fear that it might come completely off her head and hang just by its tether round her sunburned neck and off they would shoot into the Roundabout and THEN they found once they were in there that they weren’t sure which exit to take so they might have to go around two or three times before they see the sign, YES, there it is, SOUTH SHORE ROAD to HORSE SHOE BAY and they would lean and once they were safely out of the mixing bowl you know Mrs. Duck squeezed Mr. Duck and said something like, “Oh wasn’t that exciting! I think we handled that beautifully!” and she would think secretly to herself That is why I married THIS man! And then they headed on to the beach and promptly forgot all about it, so that when they returned to the Roundabout again, on their way back into town for the evening, they went through the whole process again!

So, I think I mentioned the Lead Bird effect. I used to guess that the Lead Bird was self-elected, sometimes by choice...usually the Lead Bird was male and seemed to be larger than the other males. I figured he became Lead Bird of this flock of ducks because of one of two things. Either he was the first one out of the rental bike shack parking lot and all the others followed, or he had some sort of Experience...perhaps he had been to Bermuda once before, but it was so long ago that his Experience was useless or he had been to some other foreign country where they drive on the opposite side of the road from where they drive at home. But the important thing to note here, is that once the Lead Bird was elected, all the Ducks would follow his lead...they would do as he did in all circumstances on the road.

For instance, once, my husband and I were riding our motorbike on the South Shore Road. We had just spent the afternoon watching cricket. We rarely rode the bike together, we usually took the mini car, but that day, we took the bike and we were tooling along at a pretty good clip. Suddenly, a Lead Duck passed us, and it was on a blind corner, and he was followed very quickly by another Duck and another Duck and another, until I turned and looked and realized we had about 15 Ducks readying to pass us, with no regard to the blind corner, simply because the Lead Duck had passed us, so they all did what he did. And then we became unsure if they actually knew which side of the road they should be driving on and it became clear that they were driving on both sides of the road, because when uncertain, why not try both sides and see which side goes the best for you? Py and I decided to pull over and let the Ducks go by, because there was no telling them KEEP LEFT, they were listening to the Lead Bird.

The biggest Roundabout in Bermuda resides at The Foot of the Lane -- its the Roundabout the gets you in and out of Hamilton. And it is ALWAYS busy. The center of the Roundabout was inhabited by a lovely manicured lawn and garden of Pink Bermudianas, and Hibiscus and low palms and one of Bermuda’s oddballs, the island and perhaps the world’s friendliest man, a man named Johnny Barnes, who would wave to everyone who drove past him. He would set up shop early in the morning and wave and wave and smile and smile and everyone would wave back and toot their little horns and throw him kisses and he would throw kisses back. He was sweet really, although I truly believed he had been left in the sun a bit too long as a young boy. But you’re getting the picture, the Roundabout at the Foot of the Lane was a busy place and it was the first Roundabout that the Ducks, who had just come off of Cruise Ships docked in Hamilton, would have to negotiate.

One day, I was caught in a traffic jam leaving Hamilton. I was at the top of the hill that led down into the mouth of the double-lane Roundabout that would eventually lead to my home back in rural Flatts. From the top of this hill I could look down on the sunny Roundabout that was packed with mini cars and bikes and trucks all trying to get somewhere on the island. As we inched down the hill toward the Roundabout, a Duck appeared, he was in fact a Lead Bird, and he was the worst kind of Lead Bird, he was clever! He began working his way between cars and taxis and on down the hill. As I sat there more Ducks appeared and as expected they followed Clever Lead Bird through the maze of cars down the hill and I thought to myself, “Wow, that’s awfully advanced of those Ducks, to be going down the middle!” I glanced at the taxi driver in the car next to me and he smiled a crooked smile as if to say, “Look at dose Ducks!”

As Clever Lead Bird and his followers approached the bottom of the hill and the ever so important entrance into the Roundabout, traffic began to flow again and this onslaught of moving vehicles took Clever Lead Bird by surprise and he did the most unexpected thing, but now that I think of it, perhaps it was actually the most expected thing, instead of hesitating at the gape of the Roundabout, he went full speed ahead to the RIGHT and all the Ducks followed suit and from my vantage it looked like the pouring of heavy cream into chocolate in the bowl of a mixer as it spun and so the cream was going in one direction and the chocolate was going in the other. From that moment on Chaos reigned. Horns began blowing and cars and taxis and trucks began swerving this way and that way and the Ducks on their bikes broke out of formation and went into full panic. There were bikes on the grassy center, there were bikes off to the side, there were bikes turned sideways. And all of us up on the hill sat in our cars and our taxis and our trucks and we just started laughing because there was nothing else to do. It was better than any Keystone Cop movie scene. If only Johnny Barnes wasn’t gone to lunch, he could have waved the Ducks all into line and put them right, but they kept following Clever Lead Bird who continued to drive round and round the Roundabout trying to find his way out of this mess he made, such that now he was no longer Lead Bird, but he was eating his tail, catching up with the Ducks who he led into this battle of WHICH WAY and you could see from all the way up on the hill that mutiny was bountiful.

Finally, by some law of physics, some rule of chaos thumb, the Ducks fell into line and with a mortified order they managed to exit on to the South Shore Road and flee without injury. And all of us on the hill proceeded on, smiling from ear to ear, carrying a good story home.

And this is why I tell anyone I meet who tells me they are going to Bermuda for vacation: Whatever you do, I don’t care what you do while you are there, really I don’t, but please, just do one thing for me -- take a cab!

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