“The motor-car went Poop-poop-poop, As it raced along the road. Who was it steered it into a pond? Ingenious Mr. Toad!”
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows


After a late night and a busy morning Friday I set off for the first adventure of my Port Antonio weekend – my first cross-country Coaster ride. A Coaster is a particular make of Toyota mini-bus. While they are used for many things in Jamaica (hotel shuttles, guided tours, school transport, etc), generally when one mentions a Coaster they mean the commuting alternative to the much bigger, safer, official bus service in Kingston. The JUTC buses are nice, but the routes are limited to Kingston, so Coasters provide a valuable service. They’re also an adventure.

Coasters leave their starting point near any of the main bus terminals regularly, but not until they are good and ready – good and ready generally meaning packed to the absolute gunwales. I only waited 25 min, and was well entertained the whole time. Seat selection is crucial on a Coaster. I had thought I was being clever when I selected a seat at the back of the Coaster, believing I’d be out of the way there. There is no ‘out of the way’ on a Coaster, and since they (sensibly) fill the jump seats from the back, being in the back row means you are sardines the longest.

Anyone who has a low tolerance for being touched by strangers should not take a Coaster. They come in a couple sizes and layouts, but are generally designed to seat 20(ish), including the driver. The one I travelled in had 4 rows, each row containing three real seats and a jump seat that folds out in the aisle. There’s another couple single or double seats by the side-door and two or three at the front. And there’s a wee bit of standing room, that should sensibly hold maybe 4 people but seems to be regarded as elastic. If you have the seats by the clearing, you get to hold bags or try not to be annoyed by butts in your face & people falling on you.

I wondered what all the fuss I’d heard about Coasters was really about, until I realized the conductor was going to fill every row 5 abreast in 4 seats. So much for the lucky back seat – the 5th man barely managed to wedge his hips between me and the guy in seat two, and we spent the whole ride with him leaning forward against the back of the previous row, and me with one arm stretched out behind him to make a little more shoulder room. I arrived in Port Antonio with temporary dead arm.

This gentleman sold juice, water and snacks, acted as broker for the vendors outside, help stow bags, and directed people where to sit.

No one need ever go hungry or unprovisioned on a Coaster; our 25 minute pre-departure interlude was filled by a steady stream of street vendors both inside the bus and out the windows. We were offered snacks (and more) aplenty, and replenished at major towns along the way – banana chips, juice, water, donuts, socks, clothespins, super glue, peanuts, nut drops, mangoes. The last higgler left from the van as it eased away from the curb, and along the route transactions were conducted through the many windows. We left Half-Way Tree (the nearest transport centre to where I live) at 1:52 and arrived in Port Antonio at 4:10, with something beyond Mr. Toad’s wild ride in between – I don’t even have the words.

The Jamaican mountains are a shock to me, as they have been for two months. I thought I knew mountains. The Canadian Rockies are one of my happy places, but these ridged shooting dinosaur backs defy my expectations. Sharp steep slopes are saturated in vegetation. The road from Kingston to Broadgate has more twists than an episode of Scandal. It occurred to me more than once that I’d never be afraid of roller coasters again.

Another 7 or so people ‘fit’ into the standing room zone.

Our jam-packed Coaster flew along with granny and her shopping bag smiling as she bobbed & swayed & clung for dear life to the steady bar (she never did get a seat, but was only going about a third of the way), school kids with backpacks nearly as big as them, and my shoehorned-in-neighbour sleeping soundly against me like a toddler in a church service. We somehow managed to squeeze in more passengers at stops throughout the Kingston suburbs, and eventually the conductor and two passengers were hanging out the side door to make space. I’ve seen that happen in Kingston, but don’t know how they survive on such twisting narrow roads and at such seemingly high speeds – vegetation was frequently hitting the sides of the Coaster, and that had to smart on their sides/backs.

I wished a couple times that I had a window seat so I could take pictures of the amazing mountains and plunging valleys, but a moment later I would have to close my eyes as we dodged an oncoming lorry on a corner that seemed impossibly narrow. I find I’m becoming a better passenger here than I have been at home, but there are still moments I suck my gut in and hold my breath. Many of those moments happened on the Port Antonio road.

You can't really get a sense of the twistyness, but that 90km takes more than 2 hours is illustrative.
You can’t really get a sense of the twistyness, but that 90km takes more than 2 hours is illustrative.

After what seemed forever I thought for sure we must be getting close, only to see a mileage sign that said Port Antonio was still 51 km. We weren’t even half-way! Not in distance, it turned out, but time was on our side. That mileage sign was at the edge of a plain, an unusual (for Jamaica) wide-open swath of flat agricultural land. We zoomed straight across the plain to the North Coastal Highway. With sight of the ocean my furrowed brow eased. Yes, being a coastline there were still twists and turns, but the sight and smell of the sea helped and the twists weren’t combined with great elevation changes. The east side of the plain is also where people started disembarking, and for the last twenty minutes or so of the ride we managed to resettle one bum to a seat.

I was glad to get to do the trip in full daylight. I was equally glad to step off the van in beautiful Port Antonio. I know there will be more Coaster rides in my future; fingers crossed Mr. Toad continues to avoid any ponds.