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Broadening My Horizons

May 12, 2012

Yesterday was a day for a bit of adventure, a day to try some new things, to stretch myself.  My Permis de Sejour was to be available, so I planned a trip to Port-au-Prince to pick it up.  The original plan was to make the trip with Dr. Felix, but midweek he informed me that something had come up; he had to go in Thursday and would be staying overnight.  He would, however, meet me in the city Friday, and bring me back to Pierre Payen.

So at 6AM I was out at the highway hailing a tap tap, heading for Montrouis.  This is a very familiar trip, as I travel there for church every Sunday, as well as making occasional trips to buy things I need, as it is the closet town of any size.  Pierre Payen, being a small village, offers little more than basics.

At Montrouis I transferred to a tap tap to Arcahaie.  Now I was on unfamiliar ground, as I have never travelled beyond Montrouis on public transportation.  I had made enquiries with friends about the fare, so I knew what to expect to pay.  The tap tap was very crowded, and the conductor (my term for the guy who collects the fares) was determined he was going to load a few more people.  When I thought there was no way to squeeze anyone else in, we stopped for a rather large woman.  She got on and proceeded to sit down in a space about six inches wide, compressing those beside her.  There were some angry protests of discomfort and disbelief, but somehow everyone managed to sandwich into the available space and still breathe.  Again the truck stopped, this time for two young men; seeing there was nowhere left to sit, they climbed onto the roof.  Yet another stop saw the conductor relinquish his space on the back bumper, which he had been sharing with two others, and hang off the side of the truck.  Finally two women were jammed in to stand in the sliver of space between our feet, bent over double due to the low roof.

At each stop, the conductor performed a little ritual that is common here.  As the truck was slowing to a stop, he would jump off and run behind it.  Then, as it began to move again, he would hesitate a bit as it moved away, then run to catch up and swing himself onto the back.

We made the trip accompanied by a radio program that featured a preacher using the shouting style common in Haiti, over mournful Haitian gospel, somewhat akin to “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”.  I was glad I was not too near the huge boom-box style speakers that were pumping it out at rock concert volume.

At Arcahaie  I was directed to where the buses for Port-au-Prince loaded.  I found several in a line, all empty.  Then the driver of the bus at the rear of the line opened his door, and slowly people began to climb aboard.  I was at a loss to understand why the hindmost bus loaded first.  Decaled across the windshield was, “Believe in God”.  As I boarded, I thought that might be a very good suggestion to anyone risking this mode of transport.

I took almost an hour to load the bus, but the driver would not move until every seat and the aisle were filled.  This was slowed by the fact that people were getting onto the other buses, whose drivers had the same goal.  Finally even our driver was sharing his seat.  The old school bus was designed to hold 66 school children, not close to 80 adults.  It was hot and I was squashed against the wall.  Unlike on the tap taps where you pay as you get off, on buses the fare is collected before the bus leaves.  We finally pulled out, only to have the driver pull into a gas station to fuel up.  I would have thought it would have made sense to fuel before loading, but I assume the reason was that the driver had no money before collecting the fares.

Finally we were on our way.  The driver worked his way through the gears, the transmission grinding its teeth in pain.  As is the habit of most bus drivers here, he charged down the centerline, horn blaring, dodging around other vehicles and forcing others onto the shoulder.  Once the bus was moving, the breeze through the open windows cooled things a bit.

A man at the front of the bus stood and launched into a lengthy sales pitch for some antibiotic.  It was a typical snake oil routine; according to him, what he was selling would cure anything.  The advice he gave for its use was a foolproof recipe for building drug resistance in whatever bug you were trying to combat.

Our driver caught up with another bus and the race was on as he tried to overtake it, while the other driver did everything possible to prevent him from doing so.  Eventually our driver executed a daring (read foolhardy) pass against oncoming traffic and pulled ahead.  A while later, the other driver, who had been hanging on our rear bumper like a NASCAR driver, saw his chance, and boxed us in behind a slower-moving dump truck, pulling into the lead.  As we traversed the unimproved section of highway near Port-au-Prince, neither driver slowed.  We were treated to a bone-jarring ride for a few miles as the wheels encountered rocks and potholes.  We pulled into Gonaïves Station literally on the bumper of the other bus.

Now I was on really unfamiliar ground.  I knew the most economical option at that point was to take a tap tap, but I had no idea of the routes they take in Port.  They are marked, but to someone who doesn’t know the city, the signs are meaningless.  The wisest thing to do was to take a moto taxi.  I called Dr. Felix to tell him I had arrived in the city, but was diverted to his voicemail.  I found a taxi easily, but had no idea how much I should be paying.  I told the chauffeur I needed to go to the immigration office and he knew where that was.  He quoted me a price that I thought very high, twice as much as I had paid for the first three legs of my trip combined.  I negotiated him down to near half his opening bid, and we agreed to that.  However I still totally unsure it was a fair price; I suspected not.  We wended our way through the back streets to avoid traffic; it was a longer trip than I had imagined.  But the large bike delivered a comfortable ride and my chauffeur was a considerate driver, slowing to a crawl over rough sections, which is to say most of the ride.

Arriving at the immigration office, I was able to jump the huge queue that spilled out along the sidewalk, as I had the necessary papers to get past the surly security guard at the gate.  I made my way up to the Permis office and showed my receipt.  I was informed that the document was not ready.  I explained that I had been assured a month ago that it would be available on this date (the woman who had told me that was sharing the desk of the man whom I was addressing), and was simply advised that I would have to return next Friday.  I told him that it was a considerable inconvenience to have to make another trip from my home, and that I had been trying to get my Permis de Sejour for several months, but he was not impressed.  When I suggested to him that the likely outcome would be still another delay, he assured me again it would be ready, adding in English, “Trust me.”  I laughed and told him I had heard that line many times before, usually from very untrustworthy characters.  His face broke into a broad smile as he repeated, “Trust me.”

Just as I was going through the door of the office, a woman who appeared to be a supervisor called me back and directed me to another desk.  She advised me my Permis would be ready Thursday.  When I said that was really no improvement, she just shrugged.  As I was leaving the office again it dawned on me the adjustment had not been made out of any concern for my plight; next Friday is a holiday.

I called Dr. Felix again, and again got his voicemail.  I left a message, and then sent a text just to be on the safe side.  I bought myself a drink, and finding a spot in the shade, sat down to wait and enjoy some people watching.  Just down the sidewalk from me a couple of men began to argue energetically with a police officer.  Within a very few minutes there were about a dozen officers on the scene, some wearing flack jackets and armed with assault rifles.  Eventually a man with a briefcase and the look of an embassy official pulled up in a chauffeured SUV, spoke to the group, and the fracas died down, everyone dispersing.

I called a rather interesting character over to ask the name of the street I was on; there are few street signs.  He was in his late twenties I would estimate, a small man not much over five feet, dressed in a suit jacket, baggy jeans with a long wallet chain, a wide fedora pulled low, and oversized glasses.  He was obviously trying to look “cool” and was doing a good job of it.  He engaged me in conversation asking all the usual questions—where I was from, where I lived, and what I did.  Did I speak French?  When I said not much, he said he knew most Canadians speak English.  This knowledge is uncommon in Haiti; most think we all speak French.

An elderly man in a wheelchair arrived and appeared to want to enter the pharmacy on whose steps I was sitting.  When I offered to help him, he explained someone had gone inside to make his purchase for him, and then went on to explain at length the nature of his maladies, and how difficult it was for him to afford medication to ease his pain.

After an hour I decided I was waiting in vain for Dr. Felix.  I found a moto taxi, and the driver wanted even more than I had paid on the way into the city.  I was not in the mood to argue; hot and tired, I just wanted to head for home.  The guy earned his money.  The traffic was horrendous, and a number of times we sat for several minutes, unable to find a crack through which to squeeze the bike. We carried on a conversation, difficult at times due to the noise of the traffic with all the blaring of horns (Haitians lean on their horns even when it is obvious that no one can possibly move).  When my chauffeur used a word I didn’t know, he managed to use his very limited English to clarify.  Reaching Gonaïves Station, he made sure I found transport heading in the right direction and saw me settled before leaving.  This time I got a van that was going to Saint-Marc, so I would not have to make any transfers.  Again the driver didn’t budge until we were all packed in like sardines.  The fare was higher than I had paid on the trip to Port, but again I had no idea is this was reasonable or not, whether vans charged more than buses.  As I was packed into a corner, I couldn’t even watch to see if others had been charged a similar amount, and besides, I had no idea how far others were going.

Shortly after we pulled out my phone rang.  It was Dr. Felix, informing me his plans had been unavoidably changed, and that he had earlier returned to Saint-Marc.  He told me he had sent me a text to let me know what had happened.  However, I rarely check my texts, as both my cellphone carriers send me advertising several times a day, and my mailbox is always jammed with stuff in which I have little interest.  But basically I had done what the doctor had advised.

At a police checkpoint just outside the city, the van was stopped.  After briefly giving the van the once over, the officer told the driver to park in front of the police station; he had no spare tire, apparently an offense in Haiti.  Our driver argued violently, but when another officer came over and it became obvious his protest were about to dig him in deeper, he pulled to the side and got out to deal with the problem.  A discussion erupted among the passengers as to what our fate was to be.  One of the women insisted we would not be allowed to proceed.  This was met with howls of disbelief.  Eventually, after a very long discussion with the police, the driver returned with a handful of papers, one of them obviously a ticket, and we were on our way.  I was on the sunny side of the van, and got a slight burn even though I am very tanned; the sun continues to get more and more intense as the days pass.  I tried to open my window to get some air, but it wouldn’t budge.

As it was midafternoon and I had not eaten all day, I decided to stop at a little patio restaurant I discovered in Montrouis.  It has a thatched roof, so is well shaded, and there is often a cool breeze.  They serve a huge portion of delicious barbecued chicken with french fries, fried plantains with a generous serving of pikliz, and ice-cold drinks (not just chilled a bit, but icy).  It would be a welcome change from rice and beans.  After my leisurely meal, I was on another tap for the short jaunt home.

Although I did not accomplish what I set out to do, the day was not a loss.  I learned that I can easily get to Port-au-Prince on my own and I can do it for $1.75.  I will ask some people how much I should be paying for a moto taxi to insure that I do not overpay next time.  I learned that the chauffeurs are very knowledgeable about the city, and I can get to wherever I need to go without difficulty.  Next Thursday I intend to be a little more adventurous and cover more ground.   A friend has volunteered to accompany me to show me where the best places in the city to find some things are.  Perhaps I will take him up on it.

The trip has fueled my desire to travel, and I am learning that tourism here is a real bargain.  I think my next adventure will be a trip to La Gonâve, the island I can see just a few miles of the coast.  Everyone tells me it is beautiful and I would like to visit a new hospital I have heard about there, and talk to those involved about the possibility of using some of our students to meet their staffing needs.  This will involve a ferry trip and a stay in a hotel.  After reading Leslie Rolling’s blog post on her trip to the Dominican Republic, I am giving that some consideration.  Her post was a very good “how-to” that covered all the bases.  I would also like to see Haiti’s famous Citadel, the largest fortress in the Americas, built between 1805 and 1820 by 20,000 workers on a mountaintop near Cap-Haïtien to defend against a French invasion that never came.  My horizons are slowly broadening.

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