The other day I found myself walking home up the mountain at an hour much later than I usually would. It was raining and too dark for me to see, but I am getting to know the path well. I wasn’t really worried. The dark, lonely walk came after a couple of hours of hard riding around, so I spent some time thinking about transportation here and in the States. I’ve written tangentially about transportation before: how crowded public transportation is, how badly one ride bloodied me. I mentioned a motorcycle taxi. But it’s
worth speaking about transportation more generally, and I can do so by talking of an afternoon’s traveling.
It was a Wednesday, so I had a class to lead at the offices of an organization called Pwofod, off Rue Christ Roi. It’s down the hill towards Pòtoprens from our own office, on the other side of Rue Delmas. John, Erik and I left at 1:00 for a 2:00 meeting, and found a tap-tap to head down the hill.
A tap-tap is usually a pick-up truck. The back is covered, and there are benches along its sides. I suppose that they get their name because people knock at the window of the truck’s cab to tell the driver to stop to let them out. The ride down the hill to Kafou Ayewopò can’t be more than a couple of miles, but the midday traffic is rotten, and it can take 30-40 minutes if your luck is bad. Ours was. We were on the verge of getting out to walk – a miserable prospect in the heat of the day on dirty, crowded, polluted Delmas – when we arrived. We paid the driver seven and a half gouds, about 40 cents, for the three of us, and looked for our next ride.
We crossed the intersection to looked for a taxi. We had been using taxis to get to these weekly meetings. But someone called us over to another tap-tap, and he convinced us that his driver would stop at our street. The man was not a driver, nor had he any connection to the driver. He is, for lack of a better word, a tap-tap packer. Men and boys – a lot of seeming street children – hang around various tap-tap stations waiting for a truck or bus to arrive. They jump on before it stops, and begin to yell out its destination: “Lavil, lavil, lavil. Ann ale” (Downtown, downtown, downtown, downtown. Let’s go.) If the driver is satisfied that his truck is filled quickly enough, he might give the packer a couple of gouds. There seems to be no guarantee.
We decided to give the new ride a try. It worked fine. It brought us to within a quarter mile of our destination, though we needed directions to find it. We were so unsure whether we were headed in the right direction that we got out of the truck early, and the driver’s assistant had to tell us to get back on. When he decided we should get off, he stopped the truck himself, and pointed us the way. Our meeting went well from two to four.
The way back was harder. Four is rush hour. When we walked back to find a tap-tap headed the other way, we saw one after another pass us by already packed with people. As over-full as they are willing to get, there are limits, and a driver will not stop if he believes he has no space. There were four of us now. Tito, the Haitian high school student who is Erik’s Creole teacher, was with us. He is part of the Wednesday group. After some minutes waiting, we decide our chances of finding a truck with room for four were very slight, and turn to looking for a cab.
Now, there isn’t much here that sets a cab apart, except that they generally have a red ribbon hanging from their rear-view mirror. They are mostly small, four-door sedans that will take up to six passengers. They are generally about double the cost of a tap-tap, but tap-tap prices are quite fixed, whereas a taxi driver might try to get double or triple his usual fare out of a white person – of course, that’s still less than a dollar. When a
driver stops, you tell him where you want to go, and he quickly decides whether the destination suits him. If he’s willing to pick you up, you get on and are off. But if the cab is less than full, he will continue to stop for more passengers. Each time a potential rider names a destination, he will quickly calculate whether there is a sensible way to add it to his route and either let him or her in or drive off.
We took this cab back to Kafou Ayewopò, and looked for a tap-tap up the hill. It was futile. Everything was packed. We were a little pressed, because John and I wanted to get all the way up the mountain out of the city before dark, so we found another cab. The driver agreed to 75 gouds for the four of us. It was a ridiculously high price, but we felt we had little choice. Of course, it still amounted to very little dough.
Unfortunately, the fares are so low that drivers have little money for maintenance. Many of the taxis are in bad shape. Such was ours. It gasped along up the hill in bumber-to-bumper, stop-and-go traffic until the driver turned to enter a gas station. He was out of gas. He bought a couple of dollars worth, and we were ready to go.
Fortunately, the station was on a steep hill, because the taxi itself was not so ready. The driver had to let it roll out of the station and about fifty feet down a side street to get it started. Then he turned it around and headed back up to Delmas. And we sat there. At this point, the traffic was more “stop” than “go.” We crawled forward for awhile, but then we stalled. The driver didn’t quite know what to do. He was headed straight uphill, with
cars and trucks of all sorts packed in behind him. Angry horns and shouts told him nothing but that he had to get moving fast. The four of us piled out of the car and started pushing.
It is not easy for me to convey what a spectacle this made: three white men and a Haitian schoolboy pushing a beat-up taxi through rush hour traffic. Heads turned on every side. We were lucky: The car quickly started again, and we were off. Soon the driver was able to turn off Delmas to head up the hill via a back way. This went well for awhile, but – almost inevitably – we eventually found a spot in the road were the street was narrowed to one lane by a parked car. The series of full-size dump trucks headed straight toward
us convinced our driver that, all rules of the road aside, they had the right of way. We stopped and waited. The driver kept revving the engine in neutral to keep it from stalling again.
By now we were sitting in three-four inches of grimy, oily, putrid muck. Erik turned and said he didn’t want to have to push again. Not just here, anyway. The laugh helped, I think. After 45 minutes, we made it to the office. It was a long ride.
At this point, John and I wanted to head up the hill, but it was getting dark and beginning to rain. We caught a tap-tap to Petyonvil – not hard to get from the area near our office – and there we looked for a motorcycle.
The most convenient way to get around here is on the back of a motorcycle. Drivers wait at certain central locations to pick up fares. They are more expensive than tap-taps or ordinary taxis, but they have no set routes, and they do a lot of weaving, so they’re not much affected by traffic. Whether they are safe is a hard question. But I don’t feel
especially safer getting around in any of the other ways available to me here. Traffic here is dangerous. Period. But we can’t decide not to get around.
In any case, the cycle took us both, and got us almost as far as John’s place. He lives about a 20-minute walk down the mountain from me. At that point, the road is so steep that the driver couldn’t get his cycle up in the rain. He started to slide back. So we got off, and walked.
I’m not sure that rush hour here is worse than it is in Chicago or Washington or New York. It’s certainly more eventful.