The ride is about five hours long, and the road ranges from bad to awful. We had great seats: We were three of the four passengers packed tightly with our luggage across the back seat of the cab of a Toyota four-door pick-up truck. We were pleased about our seats because they allowed us to arrive in Ench (Hinche) without a layer of chalky-grey dust. Whether in the cab or in the back of the truck, it’s a bone-jarring, joint-cracking trip.
Saül, Job, and I had planned the trip last summer. Saül is my godson’s father, my monkonpè, and as close a friend as I have here. He is the caretaker at the office that I used back when I first came to Haiti. Job is his younger brother, a third-year medical school student. We wanted to go in August, but my time ran short. We decided we would go during Kanaval, the festive days leading up to Mardi Gras. They would both have short vacations. They are from Ench, a major city in Haiti’s central plateau. Saül actually grew up in Koladè, a village about 90 minutes by bike from Ench. He’s a good deal older than Job, and by the time Job was growing up, their parents had a house in the city itself.
We planned to leave early Saturday morning, sleep at their mother’s house in the city Saturday night, go to the countryside Sunday morning, see their father and Saül’s in-laws, return to Ench Monday, and come back to Pòtoprens on Wednesday.
But just getting out of town on Saturday. I slept at Job’s place, down towards Pòtoprens, on Friday night. We would meet Saül at the bus station Saturday morning. Job got home after dark on Friday, however, so his cousin wasn’t able to cut his hair. Job couldn’t go see his mother looking anything but his best, so we were delayed Saturday morning as Joseph gave him a meticulously trim with a razor blade and a comb. By the time we got to the bus station, it was past 7:00, and Saül had been waiting for awhile.
We started to look for a ride. Most of the drivers leave Ench early in the morning. There are about five or six regulars who work the route, plus a couple of large busses. They fill their truck, drive to Pòtoprens, take another load of passengers, and return. That’s their day. Regular passengers like Saül and Job have drivers they prefer, so they’re a little picky. In addition, Saül was very certain that he wanted us to sit inside the cab rather than on the back. It costs more, but this is the dry season, and the dust can be two inches thick on parts of the road. When we arrived in Ench, the passengers who had been in back looked as though they had been drenched in grayish-white shake-n-bake.
We declined one truck and missed out on another, and it was getting towards 10:30 as we waited in the hot, dirty marketplace/station. Saül finally saw another likely truck, and we ran. He had gotten Job and, then, me into the back seat, when someone announced it was full. Two others had entered the door on the other side.
I figured we were out of luck and would have to wait for the next truck, but I was wrong. One of the other men in the back seat had no intention of going to Ench. He had taken the seat because that’s how he makes his living: He fights his way to attractive seats on the various trucks and busses that go this way and that from the station, and then sells his place to someone who needs it. He’s like a scalper, I suppose. Saül paid him, and we were off.
The first hour or so of the trip is the roughest. The truck has to fight its way up Mon Kabrit, a long, steep climb out of the plain that the capital sits in. Abandoned cars and trucks remind you at regular intervals that you might not make it. A few of the morning’s busses and pick-up trucks were on the side of the road, undergoing repair as dusty passengers watched and hoped.
Our truck made it to the top, and we headed to Tè Wouj, a small market town that would be the next cluster of people we would pass. When we got there, we saw a dozen or so heavily armed men, wearing various combinations of green camouflage and whatever else. They are what are called “ansyen militè” or “old military” men who had supposedly been in the armed forces before Jean-Bertrand Aristide dissolved them after his first exile ended in 1994. Frankly, some of the men looked too young to have been soldiers that long ago.
They are a considerable force in Haiti right now, fighting for back pay and new power. They were wandering the small marketplace, serious-looking rifles across their shoulders. Most seemed to be eating at food stalls. Their guns looked enormous.
Our driver took us carefully through the town. A tire or two were in the final stages of burning themselves out at various spots along the road. The driver wound his way around them. A small jeep was burning more seriously. Apparently, a few minutes earlier a driver had gotten too close to the flames and his tank ignited. We heard that no one had been hurt.
We got out of town. The soldiers showed not the least interest in us. A few miles down the road, we came across several large U.N. personnel vehicles. Several dozen young Nepalese soldiers were relaxing around them in such shade as they could find. They are part of MINUSTAH, the multinational U.N. stabilization force here.
The Nepalese soldiers smiled and waved. They seemed friendly. And bored. I suppose they were waiting for instructions. Though they seemed to have overwhelming force on their side, they did not seem to want to attack. The hope is, for now, just to establish stability on the ground.
What struck me is that I had just been through something like a war zone, and it was all impossibly unreal. Except for the extra caution our driver seemed to show – he chose not to make a snack stop in Tè Wouj – the fact that we were crossing a line marking out the areas of influence of two opposed forces had nothing to do with us as we went about our business.
So far, I’ve seen Brazilians, Argentineans, Jordanians, Peruvians, Nepalese, Sri Lankans, Canadians, and Filipinos. One comes across the U.N. all over the place these days. But my travels have kept me very strictly outside of the places where I would really sense the reason for its presence here.
And yet I know that they’re needed. I have friends and colleagues who’ve had to forfeit as much as half a year’s rent and borrow money to pay for a new apartment at an inflated price to get out of the neighborhoods where something like war is raging. The reason Job was so late on Friday is that armed gangs refused to allow students to leave his school’s campus until the Dean called in riot police to clear a path.
So I can be grateful for the safety that the requirements of my work and the excellent advice I get allow me. I can talk to my Haitian friends about the ansyen militè, the police, and the U.N. forces. My friends are particularly moved to know that the Sri Lankans are here despite all that Sri Lanka has suffered these last months.
It’s hard to guess where these troubles will lead. It’s instructive, however, to notice that life – weekends with friends in the countryside and more vital things as well – all goes on in and around them. As it must.