Traveling can be hard in Haiti. But its difficulty can be hard to write about, too.
For one thing, one doesn’t want to whine. I’m constantly in busses and trucks with Haitians whose need to get around the country is more urgent than mine and who put up with troubles much more genuine than the little inconveniences I face. For another, one tends to run out of suitable images, pictures that communicate the difficulty well.
On Monday, I came across a solution to the latter of the two problems: As I watched the two young men standing in front of me on the bed of the truck, holding tightly onto to its ropes as their well-ironed jeans bunched up around their ankles, I knew I had come across an image. The guys were so afraid to let go of the ropes which they clung to that they couldn’t be bothered to reach down and pull up their pants. An older gentleman seated next to me eventually reached over and pulled up the pants for one of the kids. He carefully tucked in his shirt – This was a message: The young man’s shirt had been distinctly un-tucked. – and then hitched up his belt. I followed his lead, reaching over and doing the same for the other. I left his shirt, however, as untucked as I found it. I’m not in any position to deliver messages.
They were lucky. One of their companions had shrunk to the bed of the truck, unable to weather the battering he was taking. Seated on the floor, with his head between his knees, taking the very same battering, he vomited. A lot. The nice man next to me explained that his heart had been overturned too much. A couple of market women were sitting next to the young man on the floor. Unflustered, they helped him to remove his jersey, to wipe himself and his backpack off with it and some rags they had with them, and to settle himself in for the rest of the ride. The kid took a lot of teasing, but he seemed relieved by their help, and he gave himself up silently and unresistingly into their hands.
We were all on an afternoon truck from Okap to Wanament. Okap is Haiti’s major city in the north, and Wanament a large commercial town right on the border. The road between the two cities is terrible, just terrible. Strangely so. It’s a very impotant commercial route, constantly travelled by trucks, busses, motorcycles, and cars of all sorts. Oh: bicyles, horses, donkeys, and mules as well. Some people even walk.
So there are strong reasons to make it a good road. It’s wide in most places, but rough, covered entirely by bumps and holes and ruts as it crosses the northeastern lowlands. There are rocky, gravelly stretches and broad, swampy pits, six-ten inches deep with oozy brown mud.
Most of the trucks that work the whole length of the route are a size or two larger than big pick-ups. Some are much larger. More importantly, perhaps, they’re higher off the ground, so the bumps, the holes, and the various gashes in the road don’t bother them much. Drivers really keep them moving. And the trucks transmit that motion, every bone-rattling bit of it, to the parts of their passagers that they are in direct contact with.
I was sitting on a hard, narrow wooden bench, along the side of the flatbed. I had been one of the first to get into the truck because I just missed getting onto the previous one, so I had a reasonably good seat. It had taken me some time even to get to the Wanament station in Okap, so I was anxious to finally get to the city of Wanament itself.
I had walked out my door at just before 4:00 AM. Busses leave Pòtoprens for Okap from a station at the very base of Delmas, about two hours away. The first part of the journey from my house to the station takes longer in the early morning because you have to walk all the way down to Petyonvil. The trucks that normally take you there from Malik don’t start working until after 5:00. So it was after 5:00 when I got to Petyonvil and found a truck loading up for the trip to the base of Delmas. To make up for the extra time you spend walking at that hour, the rest of the trip tends to be quicker because you don’t have to deal with the Delmas traffic, which can be considerable.
When I arrived at the station at around 6:00, two busses were loading competitively for Okap. It seemed clear which would finish loading first, so I bought my ticket and got on.
It was past 7:00, and we were still sitting. The bus certainly seemed full, but drivers won’t leave until they’ve sold all the places that they think they can sell. The bodies of the busses are old schoolbusses, which are grafted somehow onto larger, higher truck frames. They sell three tickets to a bench, and people making the long trip tend to bring lots of luggage, so one tends to feel pretty packed in. They also sell a certain number of reduced-price, standing-room places, so you can easily have large adults very close to you in every direction.
And then there’s the music. Haitians like it loud. Really loud. Our driver had one cassette tape full of popular Haitan dance music, and it was coming at me in waves from 6:00 AM until I got to Okap at around 2:00.
We finally got going around 7:30. The other bus was nowhere near full by then.
It’s a long ride to Okap. Six-eight hours depending on an unpredictable range of variables. There’s a ten-minute stop for snacks in Pastrel, just north of Gonayiv,a little less than two-hours from arrival. The people around me on this trip all seemed very nice, but they were also, quite uniformly, large. I was pressed firmly into my place for the whole ride. We chatted a little bit a couple of times, but the music and the heat and the fatigue didn’t leave a lot of room for dialogue skills. It was easier to pretend to sleep.
The leg from Okap to Wanament is much shorter, but much harder, too. I arrived in Wanament, a little ragged, but none the worse for wear, shortly after dark. Technically speaking, I had both – and I believe I’m using these words correctly – contusions and abrasions on the part of me that enters a room last. But they’ll heal.
And that’s the point I suppose. They will heal. And I am none the worse for wear.
It is tempting to get wrapped up in the little discomforts that belong to the kind of work I do. But such temptations – And they are very real: I had great fun writing a fuller, anatomically more vivid version of this piece for a friend. – are a distraction.
They are rooted in the most intimate, the most fundamental aspect of the privilege that I grew up with. I am accustomed to an extraordinary degree of physical comfort: pleasant places to sit; quiet places to converse; easy, roomy ways to get around.
Facing – maybe “facing” is the wrong word – a hard, narrow bench on a heavily-rutted highway might actually be as good for my soul as it is bad for my rear-most parts. It can remind me that comfort is a privilege. It might just make me stronger.
But whether it’s good or bad for me or for anyone else is not really the point either. The road is not there to teach me a lesson. Struggling to draw a lesson from it is as much of a temptation as the temptation to playfully whine is.
The road is not a challenge. It is simply the one route from Okap to Wanament for those who want to or need to make the trip.
I think the market women understand things best. They just sit in the truck, discussing the day’s purchases or sales, talking about their families and their friends. And if someone throws up, they take care of him.