Lately I feel as though I’ve been spending a lot of time in Kosovo. Let me explain: “Kosovo” is a nickname for the area around Pòtay Leyogann, the main bus station for destinations south and southeast of Pòtoprens. It’s called Kosovo because it’s said to be extremely dangerous, a shooting gallery of sorts. Before I go any farther, I should say that I am never there during the dangerous hours of darkness, always during it’s bright and busy-and therefore much safer-days. This is my way of responding to advice that is not really even advice. I have not so much been asked or counseled to stay away from there at night. There have been no “recommendations.” I have been ordered to do so, by Toto and by others as well. I obey.
Erik and I were entering Pòtay Leyogann on a recent Monday morning, sharing the back of Edwa’s motorcycle. I have been going to Okay every Monday for about a month, but this was Erik’s first trip with me. Pòtay Leyogann is an active, active place, home also to strange, strange sights. For example, every once in a while, as I sit in a bus, waiting to leave the station, I see a man walk by. He’s a healthy-looking young man, probably in his twenties or early thirties. He stands tall, and walks deliberately, calmly. As though he knows where he’s going, but is in no rush to arrive. I’ve never seen him stop to talk to anyone, never seen him turn to exchange a quick greeting or even to acknowledge a glance. He just walks, straight and slow and completely naked. Erik says he once saw him wearing a hat. No one seems to take any notice.
As Edwa, Erik, and I drove up, we came upon another startling sight. There was a brass marching band, playing a slow piece, strolling ahead of a bright white hearse. It was a funeral procession – in the States we might say “New Orleans style” – but there seemed little that was funereal about it. The music was slow, but not really sad, and the front of the hearse bore a stunning, many-colored wreath of flowers. Edwa made a quick left, cutting across a layer of rubbish and worse, into the station itself to avoid getting hung up by the procession.
Before going any farther, I should say that there are certain things that any understanding of the station would require. In order to begin to imagine the scene, you have to realize that it is hot, dusty, smoky, noisy, busy, and littered. I suppose that what strikes me the most is all the shouting: merchants shouting their wares and bus loaders shouting to potential passengers.
We drove in on the carpet of trash, and started to look for a bus. Generally, several will be loading up, competitively, at any one time. Teams of loaders shout and tug at you – they might try to grab your baggage, too – hoping to get a bus out a little sooner. They seem well-organized, even if it’s hard to figure out exactly how. I have observed this much: there are individuals, one tall, heavy man in particular, who are shouting loudly, angrily at all of them, all of the time, from the front of the station. The drivers pay the loaders a set fee for their work. There seems to be very little room to argue or negotiate.
The trick for a passenger is to find a bus that has a reasonable chance of leaving fairly soon, but one that also still has not-too-undesirable seats available. One has to make quick decisions about how to compromise between those two ends. The desirability of seats ranges both from bus to bus and within any given bus, too. Things like leg room, proximity to windows, the volume of the music charging out of the inevitable speakers –all these things can vary greatly. The wait can be fifteen minutes or more than an hour.
Erik and I were looking for seats next to the driver, in the front. The busses are local constructions. A bus’s body is built onto the back of what I believe is called a “flatbed” truck. The driver sits, with a small number of passengers, in a separate cab. The two seats right next to him, in contrast to the two behind him, have much more leg room than any others. They cost more, but they’re much more comfortable, too. I tell myself that I need to avoid arriving in Okay too tired. It helps me justify the extravagance. We secured such seats by choosing a bus that wasn’t nearly full yet. They don’t leave before they are. That gave us some time to take in the spectacle: the traffic, the shouting, the busses being washed, the deals being made. At the corner, there’s a tap-tap station. Down the street there are auto repair shops and a car and bus wash, too. Occasionally a police vehicle drifts by.
But there’s something else, too. I’m told that in my life in Waukegan, Illinois, I live near one of the biggest malls in the States, Gurney Mills. I think someone once told me it was roughly three miles long. Everything is there – except exactly what I want – but in order to find anything at all, you have to walk and walk. The stores can’t come to you. More and more folks shop through catalogues or web sites at home, but that involves credit cards, delivery charges, and waiting for the mail. Things at Pòtay Leyogann are much, much easier. The stores all come to you on merchants’ heads. There are hardware stores: baskets filled with flashlights, locks, batteries, screwdrivers, knives, scissors, and other miscellany. There are bookstores: neat, straight piles of Bibles and hymnals. There are opticians, carrying short poles displaying dozens of sunglasses in various styles. There are drugstores: baskets or small tubs of pills, liquids, powders, bandages, soaps, shampoos, toothbrushes and pastes, and other assorted stuff. There are bakeries: men and women selling cookies and cakes and crackers and breads. There are produce stands, selling local fruits and Washington apples. There are candy merchants and drink vendors. You can buy towels and wash clothes. You can buy sewing kits and sandals. You can buy brightly-colored combs for little girls’ hair.
And it all comes straight to you. If American consumers only knew how easy life could be.