Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Tap Taps


I saw yesterday the true nature of poverty in this country. Outside the main ports and the towns I have visited so far, people live a wretched existence that seems not to have changed for decades. No aid has arrived nor does it seem to be coming, for this part of the country was ignored by the earthquake as it has been ignored by everyone else. All the aid has been earmarked for earthquake hit zones yet it is needed just as much elsewhere.

I was traveling across the Massif de la Hotte, an inhospitable range of mountains that cuts off the South Western tip from the rest of the country. It is a trip I would wish on nobody, for there are no roads, merely dirt paths and tap tap's have no suspension. They have been building a road to connect this part of the country to the rest, but it seems that little is getting done.

There is an old Haitian saying, 'Beyond mountains there lie mountains', for in this country having overcome one obstacle there are always countless more. This journey showed me the literal truth of these words as well as the endless problems facing the country.


I was waiting for my tap tap to arrive in Les Cayes knowing that it would pull over for only a minute. It was market day, and the sounds and smells of the stalls were overpowering. One second I could taste fruit in the air and there was a sweet smell of vegetation, but the next I was choking on the smell of meat in the midday sun, and being deafened by the cries of street sellers. Blood dripped off makeshift wooden tables standing below hanging carcasses, while children and dogs played in the street. The police were doing their rounds, and appeared to be helping themselves from the stalls as they pleased. When they saw me taking photos they leant against their car and eyed me suspiciously, beers in hand.

A group of us were jostling for the few spaces that would free up when the bus arrived. I knew full well that any overflow would end up on the roof and that bloody well wasn't going to be me. When the bus came into view the crowd started to get rowdy and I decided perhaps a bribe would serve me better than a fight. 

Luckily for me though the multi coloured bus named 'Redemption' ground to a halt 200 metres past us, and we all took off running. I could see the driver laughing as we dashed towards him; I suppose there can be few other amusements in his line of work. Everyone else was hauling huge bags of maize behind them, or were large women, and being completely unchivalrous I sprinted as fast as I could. I arrived first and for no extra price found a seat and jammed myself in. I was delighted, for although bribes only ever amount to a few dollars I am reluctant to pay them.

At the back door people were still scrambling, and as the bus started its engine a few people were not on. One man had been hauled off at the last minute and had his place taken, and he was not happy. The door was slammed in his face and he ran behind the bus screaming; his maize was on board but he was not. People in the street barely even noticed, and continued selling. This is the way of the tap tap, a couple of people smiled to themselves. He finally made it onto the back ladder and continued to pound at the door until we were travelling at about 30 miles an hour, at which point he gave in and climbed to the roof. Others were not so lucky though and ran hopelessly behind us in the dust.

Once again I was delighted it is the world cup, for if ever there was an ice breaker this is it. I have purchased a small brazilian flag and whenever talk turns to football I pull it out to a chorus of cheers. On this occasion my flag served me well and soon most of us were friends. There are always some people in Haiti though who will never crack a smile. They look at you with suspicion and distaste, and it is these people who intimidate me, it is these people who worry me, and it is these people who have machetes. I have therefore taken to making allegiances early on and sticking to the friendly people.


As we left the city we left the tarmac and the bus climbed quickly into the mountains. Outside I began to notice a change. Villages were now little more than a collection of shacks covered with banana leaves and most people were practically naked. Barely any of them had shoes and of those that did some were wearing pieces of tyre attached with string. Haitians are an ingenious people and reuse every bit of material they find. Old shoe soles are perfect for hinging doors, while old bicycle wheels can sharpen even the bluntest machete, be fashioned into rudimentary bellows, or used as a hula hoop.

At every village people run alongside passing buses, desperate to sell a small handful of corn or a couple of sweets. There are two kinds of people among them; those with  a look of desperation on their faces and those who appear resigned to their poverty. A dollar out of the window is the least I can do, and elicits cries of joy. The only things in abundance here are mangos and bananas and families often eat nothing else for days on end. As we continued to speed higher up, the ride got worse and the poverty more acute. By the middle of the trip, in the middle of nowhere, the only villages we passed were temporary housing for the men and boys building the new road. It was as close to slavery as I have ever seen.

In the scorching sun, boys in their mid teens were lifting large rocks with their bare hands and carrying them barefooted through thick red mud. Straining under the weight they would carry them to a cart that was pulled, not by oxen or donkeys, but by other men over to a larger pile of rocks. Here, more boys waited to smash them with hammers before laying the small pieces back on the road. I have never seen more tiring work or more inhospitable terrain, and I was reminded of an African diamond mine.

Every mile or so there were warning signs for explosions, and every now and then we heard a rumble. I felt as if I was a character in the Mexican film "The Wrath of God" (Wrath of Evil?) and each turn or bridge we crossed got tighter than the last. Wheels often slid and corners were close, however the bus wouldn't slow down, instead it sped it up. By this point the ride was so uncomfortable that I was beginning to bruise and we hurled along the mountain. Another tap tap pulled up behind us and tried to overtake. As it did so everybody began to lean out the windows and shout "Aller, aller" at our driver. It baffled me that they would want to go any faster, but assuming it was a race and wanting to join in I did the same. Head out of the window I got a good view down the cliff but nevertheless belted out encouragement. After my second "aller" people turned and stared. I was apparently not to be included in this fun and sat back down sheepishly.

I soon realized why they were urging the driver on though, because when we were finally overtaken we were engulfed in a thick dust that was put up by the other bus. It was miserable and everyone was soon caked in dirt, my hair turned to dreadlocks. People were coughing and urging the driver to get back in front, and so again we sped up. Someone then broke a bottle of petrol as the bus pounded up and down continuously so there was now also a strong smell of gas. 

I wrapped a t-shirt around my head but it didn't help and I soon began to feel nauseous. For some reason I have recently become an insomniac and have barely slept for the last couple of days, so when occasionally my head would be thrown against the metal side I cursed my decision to take this road. I have also been taking immodium and was praying that it would continue to do its job, at least until the journey was over, but the way this was going I had little hope. Sure enough having held on as long as I could I had to cry out, "pisser, pisser", it was near enough the truth. The cry was passed on to the driver and as we stopped everyone cried out "Blanc veut pisser, blanc veut pisser" and stared. They laughed at me as I scrambled off, and watched as I crouched in the dirt.

I had barely finished when I heard the engine roar into action. As I scrambled to do my trousers up the bus began pulling away and I sprinted to catch up. Whether it was a joke or if they would have left me I don't know, but I've played the same trick in the past and may finally have got my comeuppance. I jumped in the open back door and did my best to make light of the situation, but inside I was fuming. Everyone else had found it hilarious and they were still laughing. I laughed with them but my sense of adventure had long since gone and I was now being mocked by a busload of Hatians. I wanted only to sleep, but the constant, painful jolting and swaying made this impossible. I was holding on with both hands. I finally put on my ipod and withdrew. Caccini's Ave Maria was a suitably mournful song with which to watch the misery outside.


The last mountain town we passed must have been the site of an epidemic, for I have never seen so many handicaps. There were a number of people with bloated heads, and deformed faces. Many seemed crippled and appeared to creep in their doorways reminding me of Moreau's Island. For once nobody approached the bus and the other passengers remained silent. Despite asking where we were, I could not understand their creole responses and was happy to keep moving. I caught a glimpse of a white priest dressed in a cassock and wish I could have spoken to him. What brings missionaries to these inhospitable parts of the world bemuses me, yet I am also in awe. 

After 4 and a half hours we arrived. I have found that travelling from one town to another has taught me a lot more than stopping in them, and while I do not intend to take that route ever again I was glad I had. There was no fond farewell this time, i was in too fowl a mood, so I jumped straight onto a moto taxi and headed to the home where I was staying. In this town mopeds and people share the roads with donkeys, cows, pigs and chickens so it took a while to navigate. As with the rest of the country piles of rubbish lie in the streets and and nobody works. Blancs are even more of a rarity.

I had been given an introduction to stay with a Pasteur David and had been in touch only a few days before. But arriving at the compound I was told that everyone had left for the States and I could not come in. I don't know what went wrong in communication but standing there, with the metal gate closed in front of me, tired, stranded, hungry and alone I was at a loss. A crowd of curious locals; boys, men and girls came to look. They do it  everywhere and it's infuriating but if you ask what they want they just stare at you. I tried to shoo them away this time, but must have looked ridiculous for they just laughed. I felt at a loss.

I finally managed to find my own hotel, not easy in a town like this. It was expensive and dirty, and the most welcoming place I have known. The staff when I arrived were warm, kind, and the food was delicious. I slept soundly and I no longer feel ill. Today I am as optimistic as ever and excited about continuing. Tomorrow I explore what is left of the home of Alexandre Dumas, whose family had slaves at a nearby plantation.

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