Haitians Have My Back

I left the office today at about noon. It had been hard to get from Pétion-Ville down to Fonkoze’s office in Port au Prince in the morning, and I was afraid I would have to walk home – three hours, uphill, in the midday sun – so I left early.

What made it hard to get to Fonkoze in the morning, and promised to make the trip home even worse, were street demonstrations. Inflation has been getting steadily worse, particularly with respect to food, and people are really feeling it.

Early in the morning, I had walked from Kaglo to Pétion-Ville. Once there, I had had to weave my way through the downtown streets before I eventually found a pick-up truck headed down the hill to Port au Prince. I was the last on to get a place on the truck, standing on the step up to the bed. I hung onto the roof, as we headed off.

It took some time to get started, because the driver wanted to explain that he couldn’t promise to get us all the way to Port au Prince. Word was that demonstrators were blocking the main road, Bourdon, and if they cut off the secondary route that he planned to descend, he’d have to turn around. But we made it down the hill without incident, and I was at the Fonkoze office before 7:00.

I heard demonstrators in the streets on and off through the morning as I worked.

When I left the office, I walked across Avenue Christophe to Bourdon. I figured that I could walk up Bourdon in any case, and that I should at least see whether there were trucks heading up the hill. When I got there, I thought I was in luck. I saw a flatbed truck barreling uphill, overloaded with passengers. Though it was much too full for me to get a place, it gave me hope. I decided to walk down Bourdon to get closer to where the trucks start loading for the trip uphill. It seemed like the wisest course.

But I had gotten about a block and a half further down the hill, when I saw something that surprised me: A couple of minibuses and a pick-up truck that were heading down the hill made quick u-turns in front of me. Then I saw a couple of pedestrians doing the same thing. I looked up, and I saw why: Several hundred demonstrators were marching up Bourdon. They were still a couple of blocks away, but they were headed in my direction.

I’m not afraid of Haitian demonstrations. It’s not that I’m brave or reckless. It’s that experience has shown me I have no reason to fear them. I’ve been caught in the midst of them before, and have never suffered even a scratch. They make a lot of noise, but are generally peaceful, even cheerful. I know that’s not always the case, but it has been my experience.

But most of those experiences are of happier times, the times around René Préval’s election as president. He replaced the unpopular government that had been imposed by Haiti’s “allies” after President Aristide had been swept away in a coup d’état. Very many Haitians were excited by his election, optimistic that the country was taking a good turn.

But that optimism is gone. I can’t evaluate whether it is rightly gone. There is visible progress in Haiti, but not enough for a people that has been living in some of the worst poverty in the world.

So I turned quickly back up the hill. I see no reason to look for a first bad experience. I had resigned myself to what I then expected would be the long walk home, when I saw a pick-up truck making a u-turn right in front of me to head up the hill. I jumped on as it passed – it slowed to turn even if it didn’t stop – and got a tight grip on its roof.

Within seconds, however, it had come to a stop. Passengers were pouring out. They themselves were, I expected, headed downhill, and so wanted to get off a truck that I assumed to be heading back up.

But I was wrong. When the truck took off, it turned and headed back along Avenue Christophe, the cross street I had walked. At first I thought this meant that the driver was, prudently, taking a secondary road back up the hill. But when he got to the main road leading to and from Champs de Mars, he turned downhill again. He was still trying to get downtown. I asked him to stop, and jumped off. His assistant asked me why I wasn’t paying, and I answered that I was headed uphill, not down. He explained to the driver, and then told me to get back in. They would let me ride with them until they turned around, then they’d take me up the hill. “We can’t leave you here when the streets are like this,” he explained.

So I jumped back on.

Champs de Mars is the main park in downtown Port au Prince. It stretches uphill from in front of the presidential palace. There are trees and statues and benches. There’s the national history museum in the middle of it, and swings and slides for kids. There are a fountain or two and even a stage for concerts. It’s nice.

When the pick-up got to Champs de Mars, it stopped. I wasn’t sure why. Neither was the other guy sitting in back, a teenager amusing himself with questions about the slightly ragged-looking blan in the truck with him. The driver’s assistant signaled with his hand that we should be patient. Then he got out of the truck, and came back to talk with us. A woman who had been sitting in the front seat, between him and the driver, got out as well. She walked off into the crowd.

As it turned out, she was going after her son, a first grader at a private downtown school. She had convinced the driver to wait for her. This is what the assistant explained. They could not, he said, “leave the boy downtown . . .” So we parked in a corner of the park and waited.

By the time that the woman got back with her boy, it was too late to drive off. The demonstration was approaching us from two directions. Most of the shouting was against hunger. “Down with hunger!” “We won’t die of hunger!” Not much to argue with there. There was also music and dancing. Several demonstrators asked me what I was doing there as they marched by, but no one did anything more violent than tugging on the loop of my denim painter’s shorts. Thanks to Papouch, Madan Anténor’s 18-year-old son, I had a belt on, so the shorts stayed right where they belonged. The driver’s assistant had his eye on me the whole time.

The demonstration continued past us, down towards the palace, and we jumped on the truck and sped off. The driver wound through back streets, until he emerged onto Bourdon, well uphill of the excitement. As soon as he pulled over, his truck filled up. There were 18 adults in the back, six on each of two benches, three standing in the space between the benches, and three sitting on other passengers’ laps. The assistant was as bossy and hard-nosed about collecting fares as people in his position usually are, but every passenger seemed just glad to have found a space. Both sides of Bourdon were crowded all the way up the hill with those who hadn’t been as lucky, those who had had to walk.

I will probably never see the driver or his assistant again. There are so many in this city of more than two million people. But who knows? I gave them a little something more than the fare because I appreciated the way they took an interest in my safety, but they had not had any reason to expect that I would. Their interest appeared to be the kind of simple good will I’ve seen so much of in Haiti over the years.