To the uninitiated, route taxis (and their larger cousin coaster busses) are cars that run a specified route and pick up single passengers who pay a low rate to share with others going along the same route. This mode of transportation became synonymous with my travels across the country and in my view emblematic of much more than a mode of transport. I came to this self-realization when asked by some colleagues near the end of my tenure what my favorite part of living in Jamaica was, and one of my answers was route taxis.
The first reason for this was the freedom they represented. Though they do run a specific route, route taxis will pick one up from almost anywhere. They do not run any set schedule, can be very flexible and go almost everywhere on the island. When I compare this to trying intercity travel on an overpriced Greyhound bus with strict schedules that reach a fraction of places in Canada, it feels stifling. More than that, it represents an easiness that permeates life in Jamaica. A clear example of this happened when traveling in the south part of Jamaica. Despite being one of the safest areas on the island, there had been a spate of murders recently in that area and I was staying far off the main road with no street lights. The route taxi I was taking was supposed to follow the main road and there were many other passengers in the car. The driver however stated that he wanted to ensure that we were safe and drove right to the hotel entrance. I appreciated not only this kindness but also the flexibility and liberating feeling of knowing that almost no matter what happened I would always find a way to get to where I needed to go. This is clearly about more than route taxis but also a well-known Jamaican ability to “go with the flow”. Interestingly, this of course shows my personal perspective including as a Canadian. I talked to some Jamaicans who in fact were shocked that I liked route taxis and made a point of mentioning that their favorite part of travelling to Canada was the formalization of transportation systems.
I should now here note that Jamaicans have an uncanny ability to fill vehicles to limits I had never thought possible. I had been under the illusion for example that cars had a standard capacity of three people in the back and two in the front. It does not take long to be disabused of this notion when living in Jamaica. Cars can have at least three in the front and four to five in the back. The reader is probably unsure why I would be writing this in my piece on why I loved route taxis. I believe however that this is a good demonstration of commendable Jamaican entrepreneurship on the side of route taxi drivers who will do whatever it takes to fill their taxis to the brim. In addition, on the side of the passengers who do not generally complain about a bit of discomfort, again, I viewed the aforementioned Jamaican easy-going attitude. It would prudent to mention that of course some of this is due to adversity, taxi drivers for example are just trying to make ends meet and thus are doing whatever it takes to make every last dollar. Still I saw some admirable qualities that embodied part of why I loved Jamaica in my cramped route taxi ride. And for what it is worth, I found it almost comfortable when I was squished in the back and bizarre when I had a whole seat to myself.
In sum, route taxis where more than a means of transportation for me. In my mind, they were a microcosm of so much of what I loved about Jamaica. Maybe I wrote a lot of my own interpretations into a simple route taxi, but regardless I still catch myself reminiscing about them while being relegated to taking the subway.
James Thiébault was a Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist with Eve for Life in Kingston, Jamaica.