A Wild Ride: travelling by ZR in Barbados

We’d just stepped off the ZR van, stopping for dinner on our way home after an afternoon of errands in Bridgetown, when Scott looked up in disbelief.

“I don’t have my phone.”

While we stood, frozen, the next #11 ZR van pulled up. “He left his phone on the bus!” I shouted to the driver through the open window.

“Hop on!” he said, after finding out he was heading the same direction. And so the ride began.

Traffic was heavy and the driver and conductor quizzed us, trying to ascertain which bus it was. Did it have a conductor? What colour was it inside? They debated van numbers, or at least I think they did. The rapid, full Bajan was hard to follow. When I explained that the backs of the seats were spray painted plywood they decided they knew whose it was.

On our main mode of transport!

While this discussion was going on, we were speeding down the road, when not slowed by traffic. We passed vehicles on the narrow, bumpy, two-lane shore road, when we could, stopping only once to let off a passenger, and within 5 minutes they spotted another ZR in front of us, separated by 3 or 4 cars.

When it stopped at a bus stop, our conductor leapt out of the still rolling vehicle and ran to intercept it. With a break in the on-coming traffic, our driver pulled out and passed all the cars, pulling in front of the other van. We jumped out and ran back, just in time to be handed Scott’s phone by our conductor.

There was jubilation when we got back on the bus. Us, the driver, the other passengers— all excited at the successful conclusion.

We were almost home and we abandoned thoughts of dinner out. We gave 20 dollars each, instead of the $3.50 Barbadian usual fare. After, I wish I’d given them more.

In Barbados, there are three types of public transportation. The Transport Board buses are large, usually new, and have a box for your exact change fare. I’ve ridden staid buses like that in Helsinki, Vancouver, New York. They are infrequent, perhaps once and hour, and often, but not always, appear when the schedule says they will.

Just a normal ride on the Transport Board bus

The yellow minibuses are nicknamed the Reggae buses, as there is always music blaring as they rattle down the roads, windows and often door open. Privately owned, they have seats for about two dozen, although I’ve been on one with almost twice that number of passengers squeezed on. I assume there is a rough schedule, as they come at somewhat regular intervals.

Riding on a “reggae bus”

And then there are the ZRs, so named for the first letters on their license plates. No one uses the official name of “route taxis.” These white, 12 passenger vans are privately owned and usually leased by the drivers at a daily rate that necessitates a large number of $3.50 BBD fares to just break even. This means that they only run on the busiest routes, and are fiercely competitive.

With Covid, some of the vans that took tourists from cruise ship to rum tasting or catamaran tour have taken out ZR licenses, and this created great resentment in the established drivers, although as a passenger the occasional luxury van with tinted windows, air-conditioning, and even seatbelts, is a rare treat!

Route taxis, better known as ZRs, in Oistins

They are competitive enough to begin with! I have been on a van that drove up on the sidewalk to get around traffic to get ahead of another van that had “stolen” passengers earlier on the route, and on another that took a high-speed detour through the local fish market parking lot to do the same thing. There are yelled conversations where, if I don’t follow the Bajan, I certainly get the gist.

When I first arrived in Silver Sands, I was confused. Hadn’t we already been by this minimart and church? Knowing that past Oistins on the way to Bridgetown there would be competition from Transport and reggae buses as well as other ZR routes, our driver was determined not to head to Oistins until the van was full. Another time we headed down a dirt road for several minutes, picked up a couple of farm workers, and turned around in a field before returning to the posted route. Had they WhatsApped the driver, or did he know what time they got off work?

Mike’s Minimart is not on the route. But that’s our driver buying a lottery ticket one night, as the van full of passengers waited.

I’ve seen drivers slow right down, impeding traffic on the only coastal road, being honked at and passed, because they know when shift change is at Chefette, the local fast food chain. I’ve been more often on vans that travel at breakneck speed, with a conductor who almost tosses people out through the open door while still moving. Or, spying someone a block away on a side street, they tootle the horn (“La Cucaracha” is the most common tune!) and wait to see if that person wants a ride.

I have also seen conductors wait patiently for a slow moving elder, or help a passenger with groceries or small children on or off the van. The driver might go out of their way to deliver a young school child directly to their door, or discuss the best way to reach the clinic with someone going there for the first time. They wave, or even stop and chat, with friends, and make conversation with the closest riders.

The LED lights flashed in time to the loud hip-hop music. Who needs a night club?

Asides from occasional concerns about speed, I have always felt safe on the ZRs. On a packed van or an empty one, at night, even alone, traveling with the locals as they go to work or school, out for errands or an evening out— I have alway enjoyed sharing the space with the people who call Barbados home.

So be brave. If you get the chance, take a ZR.

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