Belose, Eddy, Erik, and I had decided to leave Lazil on Tuesday morning at about eight. It seemed like a reasonable compromise. Erik in particular likes to sleep, but we all preferred to make the two-hour walk from Belose’s house back to her car before the sun could get too hot. Eddy, Erik, and I also wanted to get back to Pòtoprens as early as possible. Erik and I wanted to return to our respective villages early. We would both be leaving on Friday for the States, and we both felt it would be good to have some time at home before we did. Eddy needed to leave again for the countryside to do some research early the next day. He wanted some rest between trips.
Our plans were changed for us at dinner the night before, though. Belange, Belose’s father, decided to go with us. He himself, however, needed to leave at five, he said. He decided we would get up at four so that we would have plenty of time to eat and to load the mules before we left.
So we were outside at quarter to five, quietly and sleepily watching Belange and his neighbor load the mules. One mule would carry large sacks of produce. A second, our luggage. Madanm Belange, Belose’s mother, would ride the third. She had decided to go with us too. She needed to go to Leyogann, and we would pass the city on our way. All three mules would return with Belange carrying sacks of cement he needed.
Madanm Belange is not a small woman. She’s a rural health worker in her late forties or early fifties. She climbed up an unsteady chair, wobbling on un-level ground, to maneuver herself onto the small mule. As she settled into the saddle, the mule stepped to the side. In doing so, it started to trip over the chair she had used. It regained its balance, but it was startled, and it began to buck and twist. Madanm Belange held on for a few moments, but the mule eventually threw her. She bounced off the chair, and hit the ground.
Thankfully, she wasn’t hurt. Because of her work, she had ibuprofen on hand. She took a couple, and sat for awhile, catching her breath. We finally got going at almost six. We figured we could get to the car around eight and be in Pòtoprens by ten or eleven.
But we had to stop by Leyogann for Madanm Belange, and it turned out that she had some errands to do. In a place where there aren’t many phones, and where the phones that there are don’t always work, you take advantage of easy opportunities to visit the people you need to talk with. And Belose’s car was an easy opportunity. Madanm Belange had us drop her at the hospital first. While she was inside, we went by a friend of Belose’s to drop off some produce we had brought back from the countryside for her. Then we went back to pick up Madanm Belange. She would be staying at her sister-in-law’s house that night, and she wanted to let the family know it. Then we went to her sister’s, where we dropped off another sack of produce. We went by the office she does her work through so she could check the time of an upcoming meeting, and then went back to her sister-in-law’s to drop her and another sack of produce off there. The roads in Leyogann were unpaved and uneven. Belose could hardly do better than ten miles an hour in her Honda sedan. Even at that, her muffler spent a lot of time scraping the ground. It was hot and terribly dusty. All that running around took over an hour, but we finally headed towards Pòtoprens. We figured we’d still get there by twelve-thirty or one.
Then we arrived in Kafou and, predictably enough, we hit traffic. We inched along the hot, dusty, crowded road. The traffic was not, however, as bad as it could be, though, and we still thought we’d get back by one-thirty or two.
At about twelve-thirty, we were hit. We were not moving at the time. An empty passenger truck coming in the other direction scraped the left side of the car. Belose went to talk with the driver, and they walked together with Eddy to a nearby insurance office to register the accident. Erik and I waited inside a small roadside restaurant and had a cold drink. Thirty minutes later, Belose and Eddy came back. We had to turn around and drive back to that office so they could take pictures of the damage that had been done to the cars. Then we drove to the police station to make a second report. We got to the station at about two.
As Belose and Eddy were inside the station with the truck’s driver, Erik and I watched what appeared to be off-duty police officers beat up and threaten the driver’s assistant. They didn’t beat him badly, but they did jab him and menace him with their guns, and there was no obvious reason why. Erik and I stood and watched, not knowing what to do. Eventually, Eddy came outside, and learned what was happening. He went back inside to get Belose. He wanted to get us all out of there. As he and Belose were heading for the car, where Erik and I still stood, the police starting beating the man again, dragging him in to the station under arrest. We continued to watch the scene unfold as the man was led away with slaps and shoves and Belose and Eddy themselves were threatened.
The four of us drove from there to the Office of The Inspector General of Police to file a complaint. We got there at about three-thirty, and spent two hours filling out forms, answering questions, and waiting. It was five-thirty by the time we left, six when Belose dropped Erik and me off back at the office. Too late for us to head up the mountain to our respective homes.
I’ve emphasized the time in this account of the events, because my consciousness of time was so much a part of the experience. There was hardly a minute of the day when I felt I was in control, and my constantly wondering when we would ever get back was the most pervasive, if perhaps the least important, aspect of that. I felt helpless all day. I wanted to get home, and had know way to control when I would. But I was helpless in several ways that day.
I watched in frightened silence as Madanm Belange struggled with the mule. Nothing within me knew how to react – helpfully or otherwise. Then I was impatient and annoyed – but helpless – as we ran slow errands in Leyogan, and frustrated and helpless when we hit the traffic in Kafou.
And then I watched a man beaten and dragged away. I had no idea what else to do. The sight of guns was terrifying. There was no real danger that the police would attack a white foreigner and risk the scandal, but that thought came only later. The police were shouting more and more angrily, as was their victim, and the angrier they got, the faster they spoke. Several would be shouting at once, and I understood less and less of what was said. Eventually I entirely lost what was being said. When they first drove the man off police grounds I thought of going to speak with him, but I didn’t know what to say or where doing so would lead. If they sensed that he was complaining to me, they might have wanted to hurt him all the more. He himself was in a rage, and I worried that he wouldn’t be able to slow down enough to explain to me or that, if he tried, he would only get more frustrated and angrier. And besides, I was still scared.
When the police started to threaten Belose, I was entirely at a loss. I watched passively as Eddy finessed her into the driver’s seat and we drove away. The confusion and the fear combined to leave me more helpless than I ever remember feeling. I know that there’s something that I could have or should have done, but I don’t by any means know what, and I have no confidence that I will know any better if I am, God forbid, in a similar situation again. I don’t think I learned anything useful from the experience at all.
Adults are not supposed to be so helpless. I know that we sometimes are, but to be confronted so brutally with one’s helplessness is a hard and humbling thing. Barriers created by confusion and by fear blocked me from being able to do anything. And somehow it belongs to adults to be able to do. Humility may be a virtue, but it doesn’t feel like one. Maybe I don’t understand it very well.