Posted by: trevormeers | May 1, 2012

Warning: Do Not Yield to Oncoming Goats

Even in today’s Twitter era, the Des Moines newspaper still includes a sound-off feature called “Your 2 Cents’ Worth.” Its main purpose is letting angry old coots write anonymous attacks on the universe of people who annoy them. Mostly that means griping about traffic. A typical “Your 2 Cents’ Worth” reads like, “To the driver of the black Mustang who cut me off on I-235: A pox on you and your house!”

The scenery along the "curb" on our daily commute from house to orphanage.

As I spent a week commuting around the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, last month, I couldn’t help wondering what would appear in a Haitian “Your 2 Cents’ Worth.”

“To the driver of the Toyota pickup truck carrying 12 people in seats welded to the bed: I look past you running over my goat; it was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, after all. But you will pay for sideswiping the broken-down Mercedes I was storing in the center of the highway.”

Of all the daily shocks American sensibilities face during Third-World travel, traffic is often one they struggle with most. Americans, after all, consider driving a private vehicle on a smooth road with sports talk on the radio an inalienable right. Throw a bunch of red-white-and-blue road warriors into a van rocking through pitted roads while dodging pedestrians, livestock and Mack trucks, and you’ll have a roller-coaster’s worth of white knuckles. It’s easy to picture how our missions team looked in the streets of Port-au-Prince: a dozen blans (the Haitian term for visiting white people) riding around safely inside their Toyota van, cameras pointed out every window like machine guns in a Humvee. I tried to guess what goes through Haitians’ minds as they watch this oasis of American suburbia roll by, imagining Barry Manilow music and the scent of espresso leaking out the windows.

A typical "tap tap," the omnipresent Haitian taxi cab.

In Haiti, our team’s drivers for the week were Pierre and Webley. Pierre was smooth and steady—once he figured out how to use brakes while descending mountains. On our first day, we returned from a mountaintop church service with the growing squeal of grinding metal and rising scent of burning brake pads. Pierre made a call to the van in front of us (despite living mainly in shacks, Haitians almost always have a cell phone), and word spread through the blans in back that we had no brakes.

We coasted to a stop beside a dirt soccer field where a guy was riding a motorcycle in endless circles between the goals. Webley found a bucket of water and splashed it onto our front wheels, sending a plume of steam into the air. The experience seemed to have made a deep impression, as Webley seemed committed to avoiding his own brakes for the rest of the week. Instead, he relied on engine braking, using lower gears to slow down the van as needed. When we paused on hillsides, he’d work the gas and clutch pedals just enough to keep us rocking back and forth in one spot, mimicking a unicyclist rolling forward and back to maintain a position. It was a pretty effective way to simulate seasickness for travelers who lacked the time for a boat tour.

The Third World abhors potholes no less than America. But in developing nations, where the Department of Roads’ complaint line may be staffed by a guy with an AK-47, drivers cope with potholes by simply refusing to hit them. One afternoon during a trip into the Peruvian Andes, for example, I was browsing the wares at a roadside stand when I heard a blaring horn and looked up to see a Toyota sedan roaring down the highway’s gravel shoulder in my specific direction. Potholes, amigo. A man’s gotta drive where they ain’t.

The glass half-full perspective: This downtown street in the area hit hardest by the 2010 earthquake is at least partially paved.

In Port-au-Prince, most thoroughfares could be considered “roads” to the same extent that Keanu Reeves could be considered an “actor.” Streets are generally unpaved, steep and bordered by block walls set apart from each other by slightly less than the width of a truck’s side mirrors. Pedestrians fill these glorified alleyways like tunnels in an ant farm, and the driver’s only responsibility seems to be a warning honk as he draws near. Throughout our week, I kept gazing nose-to-nose into the faces of Haitians plastering themselves against a block wall as our Nissan SUV skimmed their chests on its way by.

The upside to this approach to traffic is the social freedom it gives you when hauling items in undersized vehicles. In America, we love to laugh at the guy who decides to haul a new mattress home on top of his Taurus, holding the load down with one hand, managing his Marlboro with the other and steering with his pasty-white knees. In developing nations, that guy would be viewed as wasting a trip with so little cargo on-board.

On the last day of our Haitian visit, we needed to haul 4 bunk beds and 8 mattresses from one orphanage to another. (Sending 50 U.S. dollars for delivery apparently ensures cargo will be dropped at an orphanage, but not necessarily the orphanage you had in mind.) Our team took this as an opportunity for cultural immersion. We decided we’d tie the beds atop the Nissan and haul them the 25 bouncy minutes across town to the proper orphanage.

The team moves the first load of beds between two nearby orphanages, before we squeezed the second batch inside the truck and headed across town.

But just as we were reviewing knots forgotten since our hay-hauling days, Pierre arrived with the truck and a handwritten note from our first squad, whom he’d delivered earlier that morning. “Do NOT tie beds on top of truck. Hills too steep. P.S. Bring yellow ball.” I searched my mind for codes forgotten since my spy days. Was the yellow ball the keys to the nuclear codes or the list of agents working in Uzbekistan? What was clear enough was the part about the beds. So we decided to stuff the beds and mattresses into the back of the SUV, and stuff our two American bodies into the front seat beside Pierre.

With the bedframes padded with a variety of leather gloves and mattresses, and two Americans padded with each other and the Nissan’s stick shift, we set out across Port-au-Prince. I wanted to make a Twister joke like, “Left hand red! Right foot dashboard!”, but we being conservative Baptists, we instead filled the time with doctrinal debates. Bouncing around washed-out bridges and hogs rooting through roadside ditches, we broke down the essentials of covenant theology while Pierre gingerly worked the stick shift around the knee of his new co-pilot Pete.

When we arrived at last at the orphanage, I pried the Nissan’s door opened and popped out like a spring-loaded snake escaping a faux can of peanut brittle. The first squad walked out of the gate with eyes wide, glad to see we’d finally come to evacuate them.

“Did you get the note about the yellow ball?” one of them asked.

“No problem,” I said, tossing them the ball. “We had plenty of room.”

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Responses

  1. got to drive when I went to Haiti last year in Gonaive– a city of a couple hundred thousand and not one traffic control (no speed limits, no stop signs, no traffic signals, no lines on the road)— crazy scared the first time— starting to enjoy it by the time we left.


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