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Just a Groovy Little Motorbike

May 10, 2013
The most popular motorcycle in the world is the Honda Super Cub, by far the best-selling vehicle in the history of the internal combustion engine.  In 2008, the 60 millionth Cub was sold.  Although it has not been available in the US or Canada since 1983, today assembly plants can be found in 15 countries and dealers in 160.

Honda Cub

Honda Cub

The Cub is the  “motocyclette” of choice in Haiti, accounting for most of Haiti’s half-million motorized two-wheelers.  In rural areas the 125cc bikes from Chinese manufacturers, particularly Haojin, are preferred for their greater power, speed and carrying capacity as well as their superior comfort on longer trips, but in urban areas, although more expensive than the bigger Chinese bikes, the venerable Cub reigns supreme.  Saint-Marc, where we have our school, is notorious for the number of motos, as they are referred to here, on its streets.  In an early blog post I compared the city to an anthill; I still think the analogy is fitting.

Saint-Marc's main street

Saint-Marc’s main street

Sant-Marc street scene

Sant-Marc street scene

There are a number of good reasons for the choice.  First, the Cub provides a lot of bang for the buck.  Dealers here push out reconditioned ones for about $1200 (new Honda’s can be found in Port-au-Prince).  Extremely economical to operate, the little 49cc four-stroke engine squeezes in excess of 150 miles out of a gallon of gas, (64 km/L for metric thinkers).  With the price at the pump remaining steady since I arrived in Haiti at about $5.00 per US gallon, that works out to 3.3 cents per mile.  Highly reliable, and with minimal maintenance demands, the Cub is inexpensive and easy to keep running.  For times when work is needed, Honda made it simple to take apart and reassemble, using very few bolt sizes.  Although modifications have been made to keep up with advancing technology, the basic design hasn’t changed since it was introduced in 1958, making it realistic for dealers to stock every part an owner might need.  And since there are so many around, it’s always possible to save a bit by cannibalizing a wrecked machine for parts. Furthermore, the Cub is virtually indestructible.  Even if poorly maintained, it will keep going though everything on it is technically broken.

Emergency repairs

Roadside repairs

Parts vendor at roadside

Parts vendor at roadside

The little bike takes minimal effort to start and is a snap to ride—step through frame, large tires, no clutch.   A few minutes practice and one is ready to hit the road.  And when one does head out on what passes for roads in many parts of Haiti, the Cub’s design makes it ideal.  The air filter is high, keeping it out of the dust, and the engine can take a dunking and keep going.  The 17-inch wheels and soft springing make it rider-friendly on rough terrain.  And although the little bike only has three gears, the transmission is well adapted to conditions here.  Second is ideal for zipping through traffic, third can wind the Cub up to 43 mph (nearly 70 km/h), and first, although very slow, enables the bike to climb all but the steepest slopes, even when carrying ridiculous loads.  If one encounters a complete impasse, the bike is light enough (around 70 kg or 150 lb.) to lift and carry to negotiable terrain.  In the event of loss of the kick-start lever, the Cub can be push-started.

By far the majority of riders of these machines are young men, some who appear to me to be young enough to still need training wheels.  Many have no driver’s license, and few of their bikes are registered.  Displaying the bravado and sense of invulnerability that comes with immaturity, they routinely ignore all the rules of the road, including speed limits, keeping to the right, signalling their intentions, and obeying stop lights or stop signs.  They pass vehicles on either side, ignoring oncoming traffic.  When they pull away from the curb or enter from a side street, they often do so without looking.  They refuse to yield the right-of-way to anyone or anything, be they pedestrian or a semi-trailer.  They jury-rig radios to their bikes and play them at high volume or listen to music through ear buds, masking traffic sounds.  They follow only inches behind other vehicles and regularly bunch up, traveling in  “packs”, the machines almost touching one another (and sometimes colliding).  Sudden U-turns through traffic are common.  They weave in and out between larger vehicles, taking ridiculous chances and risking life and limb, both their own and their passengers’.  Few drivers wear helmets, and none provide them for their passengers.

Most motorcycle drivers display contempt for pedestrians. Demonstrating their sense of entitlement to wherever they choose to drive, they charge through the crowded market, horn blaring, forcing everyone to dive for cover.  It is not uncommon for pedestrians to be clipped by a handlebar of a bike whose driver needlessly crowds them.  A couple of weeks ago, as I was crossing to the school, an approaching driver actually veered across the empty street to cut between me and the curb just as I was about to step onto the sidewalk, then returned to his own side of the road.  Searching for fares, moto drivers tend to congregate in areas of heavy pedestrian activity, angling their bikes every which way, effectively blocking traffic.  “Excuse me,” typically precipitates blank stares, but no movement.  Drivers frequently block the path of pedestrians, trying to convince them to ride.  Many times I have found myself muttering under my breath as some moto driver has for no explicable reason cut across my path only to stop in front of me, giving me a look that declares the self-imposed superiority he has no doubt learned from watching rap videos, an impression reinforced by his nylon-stocking do-rag, the heavy chains around his neck and his mirrored aviator-style sunglasses.

Squeezing through the market.

Squeezing through.

Full tilt through the market

Full tilt through the market

Outta my way!

Outta my way!

Any motorcycle is inherently more dangerous that a larger vehicle, and the condition of many of the bikes exacerbates the problem.  Many are poorly maintained.  Most I see in Saint-Marc have no functional signal lights or taillight.  Some have no headlight.  But that doesn’t stop them from being on the streets after dark.  Speedometers are almost always disconnected, so that if the owner decides to sell his bike, no one will know it has a bazillion miles on it.  Tires are patched and repatched, many worn bald.  Mirrors are missing or broken.  Brakes are sometimes worn to the point of being only marginally effective.  Haitians are experts at MacGyvering, and bikes often have makeshift repairs.  So many times Haitian repairs have called to mind this old Herman cartoon.

HM24

Tire repair shop uses open flame for hot patching.

Tire repair shop uses homemade gasoline-fired hot-patching machine.

Broken taillight

Broken taillights are all too common

I don’t mean to imply that every moto driver is an irresponsible jerk.  I have traveled with many very courteous and careful chauffeurs who took pains to ensure that I arrived at my destination safely and comfortably.  Many take very good care of their machines, respecting the large investment (in Haitian terms) and source of revenue they represent.  It’s just easier to remember the irresponsible jerks.

All spit and polish.

All spit and polish. Note cleaning rag on handlebars.

The drivers of cars, trucks and buses make it treacherous for the bikes.  In an argument between a motorbike and another vehicle, the motorbike will always come out the loser.  Larger vehicles routinely use intimidation to maintain momentum, taking advantage of their size to drive down the center of the streets, forcing the drivers of smaller vehicles to the side.  As soon as traffic slows, some drivers pull out to pass regardless of oncoming traffic.  Moto drivers squeeze through any available opening in the resulting traffic snarls.  When traffic starts to move again, the bikes risk being sandwiched between larger vehicles.

Things can get a little tight at times.

Things can get a little tight at times.

Everyone shares the road, sort of.

Everyone shares the road, sort of.

Adding to the danger is the condition of many of Saint-Marc’s streets.  Almost all are extremely rough, have broken pavement, huge potholes, or even open manholes.  The highway that serves as the city’s main street drops sharply into very unforgiving ditches.  There being few sidewalks, crowds of people mill along the sides of the streets, often darting across through traffic.  Wheelbarrows and makeshift carts compete for the space.  Goats, pigs and dogs wander into the streets.  Tap taps double park to offload passengers.  Stalled or broken down vehicles sometimes sit for days blocking lanes.  Construction crews dump stone, gravel or other materials on the streets.  Canals, unable to cope with the runoff from rains, overflow onto the streets, dropping piles of mud and garbage in their wake.  It is often weeks before it gets cleaned up, and with subsequent rains the street becomes a slippery morass.  Very few intersections are controlled.  Few streets are lit at night.

Street hazards

Street hazards

All this being said, many motorbike operators provide an essential service.  Without them, many in Haiti, myself included, would have a very hard time getting around.  Moto-taxis are the only means of public transportation in most parts of Haiti’s cities and many rural areas.  They offer affordable service (50 cents for a trip from one end of Saint-Marc to the other, 25 cents from downtown to most areas) and are quite willing to carry more than one passenger (my personal sighting record is seven).  The drivers are fiercely competitive and swarm every tap tap that stops, jockeying for position, hoping to find a fare.  They carry all manner of people’s possessions and purchases—baskets and sacks of produce, 20-foot lengths of rebar, 100-pound propane bottles and the occasional queen-sized mattress.  I once saw a bike hauling a large freezer.  Chickens, pigs and goats are frequent riders.

How's your balance?

How’s your balance?

Haitian school bus?

Haitian school bus?

Shopping trip, ladies?

Shopping trip, ladies?

Everyone ready?

Everyone ready?

He's having a bit of trouble seeing over his load.

He’s having a bit of trouble seeing over his load.

A full sheet of masonite.  What happens if he catches the wind?

A sheet of Masonite. What happens if it catches the wind?

Just delivering freight.

Just delivering freight.

IMG_3942_1024

Kind of makes the turns difficult.

Another balancing act.

Another balancing act.

Moving day?

Cuts down on gas if you’ve got a tailwind.

Many women ride sidesaddle, don't hold on.

Many women ride sidesaddle, don’t hold on.

A moto-taxi can provide a modest income in Haiti; I know chauffeurs who by really hustling routinely make 300 gourdes ($7.50) a day.  Even if one does not own a bike, an owner can often be found who will hire a driver to keep his bike on the road and generating revenue.

Collecting a fare.

Collecting a fare.

I could never have imagined, seeing my first little Honda when I was in grade school, that more than fifty years later and five and a half thousand kilometers from home, someone on one of those bikes would still be saying to me, “I’ll take you anywhere you want me to.”

IMG_4156_1024

My urban transportation.

 

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