Caribbean Cadence - a travel essay

After a brief discussion with my grandpa this past weekend about the crazy driving cultures of other countries, I thought I'd post this creative non-fiction travel essay I wrote senior year at St. Olaf College. It is based on my experience studying abroad in the Caribbean during interim (January) of my junior year. We visited Barbados, Trinidad, Tobago, and St. Lucia; this piece incorporates aspects of each island, but the overall story-line takes place in Trinidad where the Pan Yards abound.


The sultry Caribbean breeze kissed my moist cheek and lifted the hem of my skirt off my thighs; it beckoned to us: a small group of St. Olaf students looking for adventure in the wild nights of the Eastern Caribbean.  After an hour of waiting for a taxi that was scheduled to come in twenty minutes, a mini-bus rounded the bend, tilting and screaming, and shuddered to a stop alongside our curb of eager high heels.  Saying goodbye to the sweet night air, we climbed inside the square frame and pushed towards the back.  Rows of seats, packed together, greeted us like a crowded smile: some were sunken, others slanted, unfolded to fill the aisle.  We settled in the hull just as the driver jerked us forward – one steel force flying beside the dancing waves.

I was captured in a bubble of darkness.  With my face hard against the window and legs anchored to the floor, I grasped for some control in this barbaric, bucking van.  Straining my neck to look down the alleyway of bouncing heads and swaying necks, I managed to catch a glimpse of the world through the front window.

Still on the outskirts of the city the pavement was dark, except for the occasional wave of yellow from another speeding van.  As we passed a lone lamppost buzzing at the stars, I noticed a soggy KFC bag disintegrating at its feet.  Shadows grazed my peripheral vision, and glowing eyes haunted from an abandoned resort where a sign still read “Happy Hour at 5 p.m.”

For the first few days of the trip I found myself avoiding contact with many of the locals.  It was not that I didn’t appreciate their culture – after all, I was seeking a cultural immersion – but rumors and stories left me unsure as to how I could trust the culture.  One friend had warned me to avoid wearing tank tops as a defense mechanism against prostitute-seeking males.  Although this advice may have been extreme and unnecessary, it settled in my stomach so that whenever a dark staggering figure gazed up the beach with hungering eyes, my insides recoiled.

One of the professors on the trip pointed out the dichotomy between the Caribbean population: extremely helpful and embracing of foreigners, but shady and potentially dangerous.  After attempting public transportation one day alone with a girlfriend, we opted for walking; everyone on the bus, including the driver, possessed unusually dilated eyes and glazed smiles.  Whether or not they were under some form of influence, or just filled with the vigor of life, was a question we did not stick around to resolve.  My professor had not disclosed navigational tips on surviving the obscure personality of the Caribbean’s “split personality.”  However, I would not have understood the answer even if she attempted an explanation; I had to learn through experience how the Caribbean culture breathes as a whole.

A dash of movement entered our path: a swerving bicycle or a wandering dog.  With a sudden tilt and bending frame, the mini-bus proved its agility and regained its balance on the left side of the road.  This potentially devastating incident was surprisingly not accompanied by a burst of outrage from our driver, who simply beeped his horn twice before regaining top speed.  One fellow student with a little more confidence than the rest, ventured to ask the question burning inside all of us: “Excuse me sir, are we safe?”

Through the cracked rear-view mirror I watched a slight smile warm our driver’s face.  Then, to no one in particular, he said, “ov course thees is safe.  You are with Gillen and I drive every night.  No accident yet.”  Then, as if he sensed our yearning for more assurance, he added, “and besides, you are on de Super-Bus!”  I twisted my neck and strained my eyes into the interior, searching for signs of super-hero powers that might save us if the van flipped or collided.

As the street lights drifted across the walls in slow patches, I discovered that we were actually riding in a heavily cushioned van: every wall, including the ceiling, was layered with a puffy burgundy pillow that resembled a billiard room, squat, grandpa chair.  No wonder Gillen could drive recklessly and have “no worries”: his super-bus was fully equipped to roll over and adjust to the traffic flow; man and bus were the perfect Caribbean tandem: shifting and swaying to the impulsive cadence of the road.

Searching for the outside world again through the crowded front glass, I discovered a denser traffic laden road: red blurs mixed with bright swimming lights as we carved a “round-a-bout” heading downtown.  Opening onto a straightaway clear from oncoming traffic, our driver and the rest of the left side spread fully into the right lane.  For ten agonizing seconds I sat numbly, anticipating a head-on collision and praying to the ceiling cushions to welcome me in a soft hug.  But miraculously, the first sign of an oncoming car sent our side of traffic back in place in one quick shift, just in time to speed through a red light.  Honks grazed us on every side and the world became a whirl of unpredictable motion, but we remained untouched in our flying cocoon.

Gradually the outskirts of the city melded into the heart of downtown, and as the streets became littered with people, the super-bus slowed to a steady andante.  Buildings framed the colorful nightlife, each unique with its distinctive purpose: Par-may-la’s Inn cuddled its customers within balconied rooms, the Bank of the Caribbean towered from on high behind a locked gate, and stark homes trailed stubbly walkways spotted with leering children.  The array of structures and styles packed together on one bent street twisted into a long, cracked smile, as if it held the very secret to the Caribbean within it’s grasp.

As we turned the corner we collided with a sudden force of sound: jubilation in ringing pitches mixed with an eager beat.  A group of swaying color was gathered in a cemented courtyard, and as our driver paused I could see the heart of the Caribbean:  in the center of the crowd stood two dozen musicians, from the vivacious young to the weathered old, all playing their PAN drums[1] with dancing sticks.

The brilliant cadence beckoned us off the bus and into the pan yard with mouths ajar and eyes peeled wide.  Staggering men offered us chairs, and cloudy smirks turned into boisterous greetings flavored with excessive “no problems.”  Our group of ten Nordic college students was instantly enveloped in a shroud of throbbing dark skin and swaying, braided pendulums of hair.  Although I still retreated from the memories of the abandoned resort where hollow stares threatened, I welcomed the pan yard and its undulating embrace; I finally understood the fine balance between safety and danger that carries throughout Caribbean culture.

At the front of the crowd the pan drummers stood in two lines with their upper bodies strong and straight, while their wrists and hands brought each drum alive with its unique voice; together the streets of the Caribbean raised up in one symphony.

The music continued throughout the night, but we had plans at a downtown reggae club, so with backward glances and nostalgic eyes we clamored a board the super-bus.  Even as we pulled away from the yard and resumed our course on the highway, the sound of PAN remained in my mind.  Now when a van jumped lanes or a jaywalker threatened our course and the Super-Bus swerved without complaint, I understood.  The give and take of the Caribbean soul could not rely on petty rules, but rather on the flow of the music rising from the pan yards and surrounding every member of the society.  The shadowy corners that previously filled me with trepidation now became a beautiful part of the whole: a land of inclusion that continually shifts to accommodate every part of its pulsating body.  As our driver flew through the alleyways, breaking dozens of rules upheld in America, the continual honks and sliding tires that before pressed in on our cramped square van, shifted to song like a great steel drum, and sent our van free through the dancing Caribbean.

[1] Steel drums in a general concave shape, although each drum has slightly different dents creating an array of ringing pitches when played with the appropriate sticks.

The real-life Gillen, our mini-bus driver, pausing at the side of the road to handle a snake!
Marit and I enjoying a night in the Caribbean (not at the Pan drums - unfortunately I don't have photos of that night).


  1. Thanks for posting Carolyn. It was fun to read! No deep insights from me.....but I really enjoyed reading yours.


  2. Glad you liked it! It was kind of fun reading something I wrote a few years ago... Actually, there were parts I was tempted to change but decided it's best to leave them how I originally intended.


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