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Doin’ the Backroad Boogie (Haitian Style)

June 1, 2011

After writing the first draft, I decided this post required a preamble.  Those of you who know me to any extent know that I have at times operated transport trucks, gravel trucks, fire trucks and ambulances.  I have driven extensively in the north of Manitoba, BC and Alberta on winter roads, ice roads, construction roads, mountain logging roads, bush roads and seismic lines.  I have frequented roads so dangerous users were required to announce their location and direction of travel periodically via a special radio frequency so that oncoming traffic would be watching out for them.  But Haiti is a whole other experience.

I spent Tuesday out in the Artibonite as driver for the installation team.  I had never driven the truck fully loaded, and things got off to a shaky start.  Our driveway up to Route Nationale #1 is quite steep and I didn’t build up enough momentum to make it to the top, so I had to back down and take another run at it.   Probably at this point some of our crew was questioning whether showing up for work had been a wise decision.

Once I got onto the highway things went well.  I am now comfortable driving in Haitian traffic and even going through Saint Marc causes me no concern.  I do have to learn to remember where the newly laid layer of asphalt begins and ends; this occurs in several places on the highway, Ingeniería Estrella crews from the Dominican having left the more complicated sections for later completion.  The new asphalt layer is a few inches thick and where it ends the paving crew just tapered the transition edge at 45°.  A loaded truck hits that pretty hard at speed.  I’m sure every time I hit one of these the guys sitting on top of the load were airborne momentarily.

I was pleased with myself that I had learned the appropriate Creole phrases to be able to understand directions.  In fact I noticed that getting my head around Creole is getting easier and I was able to talk with Julie and Fritzner who shared the cab with me.  Fritzner speaks no English so this was an accomplishment.  Julie speaks English a little better than I speak Creole, and she loves to get hold of my Creole-English dictionary whenever she can.  Between us we can almost always find the words we need.

When we got out to the Artibonite I discovered that many of the day’s deliveries were down “roads” that were so narrow the truck mirrors were raking through the cactus hedges on either side.  Some of the turns were so tight that I had to make a few tries to figure out how not to take the corner off a house or demolish a mausoleum.  On one occasion the trail simply petered out and the crew then informed me I would have to back all the way out.  This was no simple matter.  Since my side mirrors were of no use much of the time, someone had to walk ahead of me (behind me really) and indicate direction.  Unfortunately few people are really good at this task.  So there was a lot of moving ahead a bit to realign the truck, and then backing out a bit further.   The fact that our truck is a 4×4 saved my bacon on one occasion as well.

The next time we encountered one of these narrow dead end tracks, it was decided I should back in.  Michelet acted as my guide and I have to admit he did a pretty good job.  I, however, was not so good at following his directions at times.  I am grateful for mirrors that fold away when they hit something rather than rip off the truck.

Whenever we stopped to do an installation, I stayed with the truck and talked with the children and sometimes adults who gathered.  I now can carry on a very simple conversation, greeting people, introducing myself, asking names and of course asking if they want their photo taken.  Most people are thrilled at this prospect and inevitably I would have to tell them I had enough pictures of them.  The usual ploy is to run and find someone who has not yet had their picture taken and then pose with them.  Eventually the group gets so large it’s difficult to recognize people on the small camera screen.

In many cases someone eventually asks for money, and at this point my Creole gets really bad.  I shrug my shoulders and tell them I don’t understand what they are asking.  Usually this is met with expressions of skepticism.  Alternatively I simply tell them I have no money.  I’m not sure how God views this dishonesty, but as I have explained in earlier posts, giving gifts most often causes problems.  At one point a young girl came running up with a bill in her hand and I asked her if it was for me.  All the Haitians burst into laughter.

Some are even more brazen.  One young man asked me if I would give him my camera as a gift.  When I said no in no uncertain terms, he then asked for my phone.  When that was refused, he got up on his tiptoes to peer through the truck window to see if I had anything else he might like.  When he saw nothing, he asked for my glasses.

As I have said many times, I love the children.  They are so open and full of joy.  They smile quickly and laugh easily.  They take great delight in very simple things and obviously enjoy each other’s company immensely.  The older boys tend to get quite competitive and sometimes they get carried away.  I have witnessed several incidences of meanness toward one another.  Being macho is very definitely part of their culture.

In the afternoon the sky blackened and brilliant streaks of lightning knifed through the clouds.  The sky opened up and we found ourselves in the midst of a torrential downpour.  This too turned out to be a bit of cultural education for me.  It seems Haitians, very few of whom have running water, take advantage of the rain to shower.  Men and women alike strip down and lather up in full view of those around them.  They apparently have no hang-ups about their bodies.

When it became apparent that waiting out the rain was futile, we decided to head back to Pierre Payen.  Carrying filters on wet ground and especially over the rickety canal bridges is very hazardous.  The material they use to build many roads here is what I would describe as extreme pit run, gravel with a very high percentage of large rocks.  The rain washes the fines out of it, leaving rocks sticking out all over the road surface.  The resultant surface is akin to driving over a rock pile.  Runoff had already carved trenches into the road as we travelled homeward, and another issue quickly presented itself.  When filled with water, gaping craters look no different from shallow puddles.  On the way in I had been able to drive around the worst of the holes, but since I could no longer judge which ones to avoid (and it is impossible to avoid them all) at times the ride was brutal.

We had yet another near-mishap on the way back.  On our route there is a metal-decked bridge.  This bridge has been under construction for some time, and on my every crossing some of the decking has been missing.  Tuesday the gaping hole was quite close to the usable portion of the bridge.  I was so focused on missing this hole on my left that I failed to see that the bridge approach had been severely washed out on my right.  Fortunately screams of “Stop!  Stop!” from my crew had me hit the brake so hard I stalled the truck.  Another couple of inches and I would have dropped a wheel into the washout.

A short time later we were back on pavement and the rest of the ride home was uneventful.  When Chris asked me at supper whether I would be willing to drive on our next installation day I told him it might be best to check with the crew to see if they were willing to travel with me.  I did, however, manage to get the truck back in one piece and not kill anyone.  I guess that counts as success.


The Fox family—Brian, Kelly and their 5 boys, ages 10, 8, 6, 4 and 10 months—arrived Tuesday.  Brian has come from Georgia to assist me over the summer.  The Foxes were part of a mission near us until 5 years ago, and Brian is a fluent Creole speaker, a skill that will be invaluable to me.

I have been temporarily been relocated to the dormitory, and the Foxes have moved into the round house.  When Chris leaves on the 9th, I will move into the Rolling’s suite.

Today being the 1st of the month, I have been busy with month-end accounting.  Not my favourite job.

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