I'm struck when travelling in countries like Barbados by how quiet things are on their roads (the uncharitable would say "dead.")
There is very little of the general commotion and noise that marks Kingston streets. The cacaphony of tires screeching, loud cursing, music playing, sirens wailing, dogs barking and preachers shouting (often in unintelligible tongues) is enough to drive anyone crazy. However, it is the language of the car horn that reins supreme, for its brevity, volume, availability and mysterious origins.
Our ancestors were deprived of their talking drums when they were kidnapped and brought to this country as slaves. We have replaced the drum with the horn.
Here are just some of the common messages that Jamaican drivers send with our horns:
- Honk on a green light – a light, perky single tap on low volume: apparently we in Jamaica believe that drivers sitting in front of us at a light need an auditory as well as a visual indicator that the light has changed. It’s not malice, or anger… how can it be, when the person behind you taps their horn lightly to tell you that the light has just turned green…. in case you were too busy applying your makeup, talking to your girlfriend, or exploring your inner ear with your pinkie. Visitors may get visibly upset at this honk, which when performed at a light generally means “You Jerk!”
- Hello Honk – a friendly 2 tap at high volume: this honk is reserved for friends, family and colleagues and is bright and friendly. Foreigners will get pissed at this one, thinking that the person honking them is being rude when in fact it is quite the opposite.
- Goodbye Honk – another 2-3 tapper at high volume: this one carries with it a sense of relief and says “I made it to my car, and there are no thieves that I can see, so I think I’m safe now, but will call you on my cell-phone if anything happens, so stay awake for awhile.”
- Thank You Honk – a slightly long single tap at medium volume: this is civilized way of thanking someone for letting you cut in front them, when there is nothing to gain from them helping you. This honk must have a full, sincere tone and may be accompanied by a casual hand wave. A “Learner” will miss all of this as they stare at the road in front of them, hoping not to hit anything
- Watch Your Ass Honk – An unfriendly blast of several seconds at high volume: practiced by truck drivers, this is a pure warning. It says “I am flying down the road at top speed with 50 tons underneath me, and my 24 wheel semi will crush anything in its path so GET OUT OF THE WAY as I only have “air-brakes.”” Some regular car drivers use it to chase away dogs, goats, mad-men and school-pickneys.
- So Sorry Honk – this timid two-tapper is done at medium volume, with a sense of regret: It’s offered by a minority when they realize that they have made a mistake and either cut you off, turned without signaling, changed their t-shirt while the light changed from red to green, or mistakenly ran over your leg. It requires practice to get it right, as it can be confused easily with the Sadistic Honk.
- Sadistic Honk – a loud obnoxious honk, that may have a nasty, loud “tune” that may sound like something from the horse-track or play an off-key version of "la Cucaracha": this honk is a real “fuck you” honk that is meant to intimidate, overpower and ruin the most sensitive hearing. This honk is all Jamaican and may be augmented with some choice curse words by a machete-wielding mini-bus driver. Sometimes, this honk may accompany a daredevil overtaking move on the Junction or Mount Diablo, and the flashing headlights are just a reminder that when you see four headlights on high beam coming at you, instead of the usual two, the best option is to slow down while somehow keeping your eyes open and looking ahead.
- You Damn Fool Honk – a useless, very long, very loud honk used in a defensive situation. I tried this honk once when a driver in front of me stopped in the middle of an empty street, put his car in reverse and hit me in the front causing US$2000 in damage to my hood. This honk is generally useless as the Damn Fool who is meant to be the recipient is either listening to loud music on their CD player or talking on their phone to the children. In my case the fool was talking to his friends at the side of the road.
I understand that in some other Third World countries, they use their horns just as creatively so we might not be unique. But until I travel to that country, we are!