Tuesday, July 02, 2013

An 8-Day Land, Sea, and Air Tour of Haiti, Part 1

For our band of 16 travelers, the recent summer solstice was, indeed, the longest day of the year-- in every way imaginable.

Although for me, June 21st began just after 3:30 am in Miami, I had no illusions that the day would be truly underway until an 11 am blind date with a bus named Patrick.

When news of our altered travel arrangements first leaked, I could use only broad mental strokes to conjure images of the land-travel vehicle that would take us on our 8-16 hour trip to Mole St. Nicholas.  Drawing upon footage from foreign-travel foreign-gone-awry films and my already-proven-flawed imagination I expected to travel in a rusted hull reeking of chicken dung and outfitted with tattered burlap seats; or, failing that, one of those double decker, filled beyond-capacity rigs one tends to see bouncing down dirt roads while animals bleat plaintively out the windows.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Patrick was no luxury coach.  But he was colorful, vibrant, and, as later events would prove, self-sufficient. And he had a name!  What more could you ask for from a 3rd world bus, really?

I boarded Patrick with a sense of optimism and adventure, which was further buoyed by the discovery of seats so large the aisle was reduced to a narrow strip.

The Americans spread out, each of us staking claim to an extra large seat, while a group of six to eight Haitians piled together at the helm. I learned that these men were Patrick’s mechanics, sort of like an on-board NASCAR pit crew. 

Making allowance for Haitian mores such as a universal disregard for right-of-way rules and near-constant employment of the horn, the first several hours passed in relative calm.  In contrast to initial fears that Patrick would make no rest stops, we were delighted to discover that his insatiable need for fuel dictated frequent pit stops, complete with opportunities to score cold drinks from street vendors.

I was enjoying the opportunity to see parts of Haiti that few people ever experience: farmers working rice paddies, families about their Friday business, and then—what appeared to be an animated gathering up ahead.  A crowd of maybe one or two hundred Haitians surrounded a platform—was it a concert?  I flipped my camera to video mode to capture the scene, and immediately heard that I was filming the president!  If we’d planned for a year to meet up with the Haitian president at that particular juncture, it never would have happened—yet, there he was, surrounded by soldiers with Uzis and the UN.

Immediately after we passed the presidential platform, we made a hard left into—you guessed it—a gas station, and THUD—the bus shook like the bottom dropped out, and, it basically had.

It didn’t take too long to diagnose the problem, as the drive shaft was lying in the road.  A team member gravely offered the prognosis of “fatal,” for any of us who may have missed the significance of the event.  The Haitians, however, were nonplussed.  They simply pulled out their rusty tool kit and got to work, one offering a “50% guarantee” that we’d be back on the road in an hour and a half--while the rest of us mingled with Haitian onlookers, many of whom were now heading away from the now-disbanded political rally.

One particularly gregarious Haitian approached us in a glow of excitement. “That’s Mickey!”  he said of the president.  “He’s new!”

“What was he talking about?” I asked.

“About the changes in Haiti.”

“Good ones or bad?”

“Oh, all good!  Very good!  You came from Port au Prince, right?”

I nodded.

“See how easy, how smooth you get here,” he said, with great passion.

I allowed concession of the point—beeping and bumping aside, it wasn’t the Third World bad for which I’d been braced.

“That’s Mickey!  He make progress!  One little bit at a time!”

Moments later, I spoke with a less enthusiastic Haitian--not a Mickey devotee, apparently.  So I asked him for his version of what the president said.

“I don’t know,” he answered woefully.  I came in from Port au Paix.  I arrived just in time to see your bus break down.  I missed the whole thing.”

Now, Port au Paix was the next big point on our route, and the minute we were back in route, which we were, in under three hours, and the very minute—I mean the exact minute, we pulled out of the gas station, I realized why Haitian #2 was 1) not enthralled with Mickey, and 2) missed the rally.  It was, additionally, evident that Mickey’s selection of a celebratory rally location was, um, strategic.

From the turn from the gas station onward, the trip went like this:

When things were still good, that is.  And by good, I mean, the presence of a visible road combined with the benefit of daylight (and it being the aforementioned solstice, there really wasn’t a better day of the entire year for all of this to transpire).

But, as good things are so wont to do, the road and daylight dwindled in tandem, until we realized it was dusk, and we were driving along dry river beds and crossing medium-sized moving streams.  Rest stops deteriorated, as well.  The last one involved a ramshackle structure where the men were told to “pee on the floor,” while the neighboring structure housed a non-flushing, seatless toilet ‘for the women.” 

We made a brief stop in Port au Paix during which an additional group of Haitians boarded the bus for unknown reasons, and we were now crowded.  (We later learned that these were our interpreters, but at the time it just seemed mysterious and random.) 

There would be no more stops after that, other than the time when Patrick’s oil dwindled, and the Haitians drove hut to hut down a narrow path in search of petrol.

By the time it was completely dark, were off-road, blazing through thick forest, branches reaching in through the open windows and slapping us across our faces.

A hairpin turn in pitch black left us hovering, nose first over a cliff right before a thud of slightly lower intensity to the loss of the drive shaft. Of course, we figured this was it, it had been a good run, but clearly Patrick could take us no further, assuming, of course that he could get to level ground and we’d survive; however, the spunky bus burst backward, leveled off, and turned into the forest, causing a team member to declare that an American school bus was now his Top Pick for a zombie apocalypse vehicle.

The Haitians, however, remained nonplussed, simply reporting for hours on end that we would arrive in The Mole in “four more hours.”   I should probably report at this juncture that a few Haitians had actually spent THE ENTIRE TRIP with our luggage on the roof of the bus. I spent most of my time with my tongue between my teeth, hoping to provide enough cushion so as not to arrive at the Mole looking like I should be in Sports Illustrated clutching the Stanley Cup.

The Minister eventually checked out.  His head bowed, and he quit speaking, as he drifted into his mental “happy place.”

Calls of “four more hours!” could sometimes be heard over the din of the clanking bus and whining motor.

Someone finally asked me if things looked familiar.  “No, no, four more hours,” I mumbled, until, a couple minutes later when things did, indeed look familiar and I realized that, against all odds, we were at the mission! 

I greeted my friends Tippy, Dittle, and Sophie, ate spaghetti, and assisted in a shower repair before finally finishing the day safe in The Mole, 22 hours after it began.

And Patrick?  He slipped away in the night, like so many blind dates before him, and wasn’t seen again.

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