by Bill Bollendorf
The best way to gauge the mood of Haiti is to read the graffiti. The above graphic was the most prevalent graffiti sentiment that I saw on this trip. Aba lavi che means Down with the expensive life, meaning that basic supplies in Haiti are very dear right now and this is causing great hardship to the average person. In the days of Duvalier there was never any graffiti anywhere in Port-au-Prince. I remember clearly the first time I saw any. It was in late January 1986 and I was at home in Pittsburgh watching the TV coverage of the uprising in Haiti. The tape showed a street kid spray painting with blue paint on a white wall. Aba Duvalier, Papa Caca. I was stunned. It was unthinkable in those days. I knew right away that Jean-Claude Duvalier was in big trouble. A few days later Sam Donaldson was reporting from Haiti, declaring that the uprising was finished. He was wrong.
Port-au-Prince, Haiti. May 25, 1998
If Port-au-Prince gets any more oppressive, I am going to have to remove it from my Most Liveable Cities list. The traffic is getting heavier, the streets are more destroyed than ever and the crime rate is as bad as in most of the dangerous American cities.
But, It is great to walk into the baggage claim area of the airport and see that the the luggage carts are still here. These carts were a new addition when I last visited , in October 1997. It would not have surprised me to see that they had been spirited out of the airport by unscrupulous Haitian entrepreneurs and made their way out into the streets of Port-au-Prince, where they could do some real work.
For the last few years, since the inception of "democrazy" in Haiti, arriving at the Port-au-Prince airport has been an arduous experience. Two to three hundred passengers and about that many "redcaps" are milling around in the large, hot room, waiting for the bags to come off the plane. I think that each one of the redcaps appproaches me, wanting my claim checks so that they can find my bags for me. Considering the chinese wall of luggage that is growing where the redcaps are piling the bags right next to the conveyor belt, it is not likely that knowing a claim check number would help any. Now that the luggage carts are here, the redcaps are not. This makes the room much more spacious.
The next major improvement is that the car rental counter has been moved into the same building as the baggage claim. Formerly it had been across the street from the main building, meaning that you had to run, for half a block, the gauntlet of the airport vagabonds, the most aggressive in all of Haiti, yelling Give me moany , My fren, Ahm hoangry , Geevmeonedallah! It's useless to explain that you had already paid one guy to handle the bags inside the airport and would have to pay the two other guys who were now dragging your bags along the rutted street ( because there is no such thing as a hand-truck at the airport), not to mention the one or two guys who will want to carry your stuff the 10 feet from the rental office to the car and be paid for it. All this adventure has now been eliminated, and the redcaps that remain do actually do have hand trucks and end up making a decent day's pay. Hooray for technology!
After some discussion with the vagabonds, I decide to take the old airport road into the city. The last time I was on that road, about two years ago, I sat for more than two hours. The traffic jams there are especially terrifying. You lose all sense of control as you sit there surrounded by dump trucks and water trucks and cement trucks, all belching diesel fumes while you sit in the same spot for five or ten minutes and when you do move, it’s only five feet. The worst thing is that you have no clue about when you might move, if ever, and the air is vibrating, throbbing, pounding with the noise of the trucks. A few years ago I was taking some steel sculptures to a freight forwarder on that road and I was in the throes of despair, sitting still in monster traffic with all the windows open as the air conditioner blew hot air. The sweat was flowing freely , dripping off my nose; I felt like I was in the wet T-shirt contest from Hell. I was reduced to talking to myself in uncomplimentary terms, complaining out loud that I could not possibly make enough money on the trunkful of steel sculptures to justify this torture. Just then, the guy in the car alongside me yelled at me. " Blanc! Li cho!', It's hot, huh! He is a Haitian cab driver laughing as he offers me his box of Kleenex. It is things like this that originally won my heart in Haiti and that keep me in love with her now. No matter how grim the day gets, you can rest assured that comic relief is on it's way.
The alternative to the old airport raod is the Route Tabar, a road that was built by the Americans in 1995. It’s a wonderful road that goes out on the plain and then winds up through the hills into Petionville, a suburb that’s up the mountain from Port-au-Prince. Aristide has his large house off Tabar. Is that why the road was built? Some say yes. Even people who live near downtown Port-au-Prince go to the airport via the Route Tabar, going up the hill to Petionville and down the other side, out onto the the plain and back in to the airport from the opposite direction. Even though you are going 20 or 30 kilometers out of your way, at least you can keep moving and you actually make it in less time. But tonight I am staying near downtown so I will try the old road.
Auto Mechanics 101
There is a part missing. Normally the aerial would come up through a hole in some kind of a disc that is attached to the fender. This disc keeps the aerial from coming out of it’s hole. There is no disc now. I figure out that by turning the radio off, then hurrying to the rear, I can pick up the aerial and guide it back into it’s hole and when I turn the radio back on, if I run back with my Swiss Army knife open and ready I can hold the blade against the bottommost telescope of the aerial and it will stay in the hole. Ok, No Problem! Great. I always feel good when I solve a problem this easily in Haiiti. The only thing is that I will not be able to turn the radio on and off at will, only when I am in a place where I can jump out and attend to the aerial. And to think that this car is costing me only about $60 a day. What a deal!
I make it into P-a-P without much hassle, but the going is very slow. It is the rainy season now and the streets are muddy and the holes are filled with water and you dont know how deep they are, so it is safer to come to a full stop before you enter one. I suppose if a hole is large enough to enter it must be called something other than a hole, maybe a chasm. Sometimes, the steet is so bad that you have to steer the car all the way over to the extreme left to find a way through, or the oncoming traffic has to come all the way over to your side over to make it. This slows things down quite a bit. Driving in this town is like playing a video game, but a dangerous one. You have to watch the other cars, the people, who walk everywhere , the dogs, and the holes. Lately there is another interesting ingredient: an alarming number of manhole covers are missing. I wonder what happens to them? Do people actually steal them? Do they steal them to sell them? And if so, who buys them? And after they buy them, who do they sell them to? The Department of Streets? Who else needs them? It is possible to buy a TV set at a very cheap price and rationalize that maybe it is not really stolen, but manhole covers?
There are a few streets in P-a-P or Petionville where you can actually go fast and when I get on a street like that, I do sometimes drive faster than I should. There is no feeling like clipping along at 35-40 miles an hour, maybe even passing a slow truck, and suddenly realizing that the manhole you are going to traverse in an eighth of a second has no cover on it. It gets your attention immediately and after you swerve dangerously and miss the abyss by an inch, you do have a tendency to slow down right away. Maybe that’s why they steal them, to keep the Gro Negres in their place.
This is getting kind of long , so I will stop here and pick it up next time. I want to talk about Terrorizing the Elite, the carjacking epidemic. Also I did see hundreds of Wonderful paintings ! and managed to buy a few. Plus, I wanted to do something new to me so I took a car trip to Port Salut, a beach town about as far south and west as you can go in Haiti before resorting to four wheel drive or horseback. It was the highlight of this trip. I am working on this and hope to more put up more about the trip soon. I have the best intentions to do this.