I have been shocked now for three days straight. I feel like I entered into a dream and haven’t woken up yet. It just gets more and more strange. Monday I took the tap taps up to Petionville by myself. This city is so unreal. Imagine Time Square on steroids except it’s a free-for-all for the cars and trucks.
Here, the best way to park is with two wheels on the curb. Semis and heavy machinery are free to be sticking way out into the road because they won’t get wrecked if they get hit.
It took me almost an hour to travel a few miles up the hill to Petionville. It’s a major road that is mostly a logjam. Motorcycles are quicker because they pass on the sidewalks or squeeze by between two trucks at a fast speed with inches to spare.
I thought my tap tap was full with eight people. It fit twelve. All along the way people sell their goods on the sidewalks. I like the guys who sell the bags of water. Just shout out “Dlo” and they will race to your tap tap. Once I reached the busy markets of Petionville, I bought three bags for one Haitian dollar, or twelve and a half cents U.S. Here is where it gets crazy. There is no such thing as a Haitian dollar. For things that cost one dollar, you have pay with Haitian currency, which is the gourde. Five gourdes equal one Haitian dollar. All prices of things are quoted in Haitian dollars and all currency is in gourdes. Got it?
There are people selling phone minutes. You give them your number and they enter it into their phone and your done. I saw a “The Best of Yanni” cd for sale next to the man selling TVs which was next to the banana stand. I think U.S. laws are too strict about selling food in general (there is a measure working is way through the Wisconsin legislature to allow the sale of raw milk on farms and it has lots of opponents). Here there are goats tied to the table watching their brother get hacked to pieces just above them. The log on which they are quartered is full of deep machete cuts that could never get cleaned and the parts are displayed on piece of cardboard soaking up the blood and attracting the flies.
Somehow, with no street signs to read I found an art gallery run by, Mireille Perodin, a friend of the French teacher at my old college, Macalester. Mireille displays art from local artists. Fantastic art made by poor artists who use recycled material and who have no training at all in art technique. Buyers come from around the world and pay thousands of U.S. dollars for a piece. The art market has dried up in Haiti since the earthquake and almost half the galleries have had to close as a result of the decrease in foreign buyers willing to travel to Haiti.
That was Monday. Tuesday I venture downtown. I learned that tap taps can hold even more people. As I waited for an empty tap tap to come by, I realized that they were all packed. I laughed as I thought to myself, “so… that’s how it’s going to be, why would I expect anything less in this country.”. I was number seventeen. There was only room for one of my feet as I stood on the back bumper hanging on with both hands, hoping we don’t get rear-ended.
So what is downtown Port au Prince like? Imagine a seemingly unending grid of two, three or more story buildings that all look like they have been through a war. Dirty, broken, walls missing, kids climbing up the sides, sitting with their feet dangling out the empty window frames. The storefronts are empty, but the sidewalks are packed with vendors. One man was up on the second floor of one building cutting off a piece of concrete rubble with a hack saw to get the the rebar. There is value in that rebar once the concrete is broken off. The front wall and the first ten feet of the side walls for the first floor of one building were missing, creating an overhang above And the top four floors above this overhang were angling down at about a forty-five degree angle with a full crowd of people just below.
An old lady sat on the curb with the stubs of her legs dangling in a rocky mud puddle. Another younger blind lady with one leg sat banging her tin cup against the stick she uses as a crutch. You can buy used tires, get a passport photo, trade in your reclaimed rebar, choose a bra from the assortment hanging from a chain link fence.
A giant unfinished monument towers over the city that was supposed to commemorate the 200 year anniversary of being a free and independent people back in 2004. The cauldron on top that was supposed to display an enormous flame, now just looks like a back end of a cement truck tipped on its end resting on something that looks like a fireman training tower.
If ever there was a people’s town this is it. It doesn’t belong to the government. It’s as if it was abandoned by civilization and taken over by millions of people without a government. That is except for the freak of moderness from another world that flashes by. Spreading the people in the streets like Moses spreading the sea, a motorcade of seven black SUVs race by, their sirens piercing the air, windows completely darkened. For just a few seconds, the people are reminded that they aren’t alone on this island.
And oh my God, the traffic getting downtown was the worst traffic I’ve ever seen. For some reason the bus stop is along this road. Imagine thirty or so yellow school busses trying to park in one of three lanes. This stretched for several blocks. A front-end loader trying to slowly nudge it’s way across the other two and a half other lanes. I know I just added another half lane, but that is what is created when traffic from both directions try to pass, each vying for the same six or seven feet in the middle. There is no way for any business to operate in a normal way here, no matter how sophisticated their business skills. In fact most companies in the world couldn’t operate here as well as the ones that are here right now, somehow staying afloat against all odds.
On my way downtown, I noticed two people on my tap tap buying single bags of water for one gourde. Doing my quick Haitian currency math, I realized that this was two and two-fifths U.S cents, which was less than the three bags for five gourdes I paid the day before. I figured it was because I was an American. I had never even seen a one gourde coin before.
My luck, I found a one gourde coin on the street a little while later. I couldn’t wait to see if I could buy water that cheap. Later, on the way back to the orphanage, I was going to buy some water at a transfer area, but I thought no. I wan wanted to try calling for it from the back of a tap tap. The problem was that we drove by too fast whenever I saw any water sellers. When we were stopped, they weren’t around. Finally, the truck in front of us stopped in the middle of the road to pick up a passenger. There was an old man with a sac of water bags on his head. “Dlo!” Here he came.
We were starting to pull away but he was able to reach into his sac just in time and retrieve bag of water and I handed him my one gourde coin I had specially saved in a separate pocket just for this. He grasped my coin just as we raced away. He looked down at the coin in his hand and looked up with an expression of shock and disbelief to the laughter of the other people in the tap tap. I later learned that there are two water companies and they each have different sized bags. There is the one gourde size and there is the company with the one and a half gourde size. Given the expression on the old man’s face, I think I had just purchased the bigger size