Strap yourself in for Haiti’s wild ride

Times Staff Writer

A shirtless man leaps from a crowded tap-tap to rescue a woman’s lunch pail that had flown from her hands when the bus hit a pothole.

Lithe women with head bundles that weigh more than they do slink between dump trucks, SUVs, peacekeepers’ armored vehicles and wobble-wheeled pushcarts, deftly navigating the lurching, smoke-belching river of rolling stock.

The crush of vehicles and people filling the streets of this most destitute of Caribbean slums every day plays across a windshield like a frantic tango, the horrors of urban poverty dominating one minute, glimpses of the humor and humanity the next.


Driving in Port-au-Prince is not for the fainthearted. Kidnappers have been known to pluck hostages out of SUVs before drivers realize their windows have been smashed. Burning tires signal discontent, by whom and about what not often apparent. Victims of vigilante justice are usually dumped in the road, like the bound and hooded man lashed to a chair encountered a few months ago on the busy, serpentine Canape Verte Road.

But the teeming streets are also a canvas of everyday kindnesses among strangers, a mobile tribute to the human spirit that neither poverty nor injustice seem able to crush. They give testimony to Haitians’ survival instincts and seizing of nascent opportunity, the determination to wrest a few gourdes from those who can afford a car and the gasoline to use it.

In the last year, since gang violence subsided and ransom kidnappings dropped to a fraction of their terrifying 2006 level, vehicles of every ilk, but mostly beaters rejected by more discriminating countries, have poured in by the thousands. More than 300,000 are registered here now, about double the number a decade ago, never mind the fleet of wrecks that owners don’t bother to make legal. Haiti has vehicle registration standards and roadworthiness tests, but there are clearly ways to get around them.

Most of the tap-taps, the battered pickups outfitted with metal fencing on the sides and camper tops for roofs, long ago lost their side and rearview mirrors, their window glass, their head- and taillights. Drivers of this main form of public transportation, their vehicles painted in primary colors with testaments to God, Christian saints, voodoo spirits or Elvis, depend on the cab passengers to know what’s around them.

Cast-off commercial vehicles also are making their way to Haiti to fuel the mobility boom. A delivery truck, circa 1960, still bears the logos and phone number of the Daily Pita Bakery in Yonkers, N.Y. An equally ancient truck marked Empire Seafoods of Medley, Fla., lumbers out of a new refrigerated storage business on the airport road.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic, all day, every day, is urged on by incessant honking and inscrutable hand signals. What the uninitiated might take for a cabbie stretching his wrist is actually a gesture of submission: Go ahead and make that move -- left turn, back up, park -- so that everyone isn’t held up longer.


Pedestrians have few rights, real or respected, but a certain etiquette has developed between drivers and those on foot. The more confident pedestrian will put up a manual stop sign, Supremes-style, willing drivers to halt and let the human tide flow for a while. Schoolchildren mimic their elders, raising tiny hands to demand safe passage.

At a few intersections downtown, stoplights have been installed. If police officers in their new blue-and-khaki uniforms are in sight, the efforts at traffic control are sometimes heeded.

The mobile mass is both slowed and served by an army of vendors. Rickety carts display mangoes, bananas, cassava and other produce carried in from the countryside before dawn. Old men tucked behind scratched tables repair watches, fill cigarette lighters, mend shoes. Emaciated women in faded dresses curl behind their straw baskets and plastic tubs, catnapping amid the din and an incessant parade of battered shoes stepping around them, their heads inches from tires.

Curbside commerce has been the mainstay of Haiti for decades, but the ranks of peddlers have visibly swollen in recent months, rising with the tide of incoming vehicles sent by emigre relatives in Florida and New York.

The more enterprising present their wares to each driver’s window, one-handing the exchange of money for plantain chips, canned sodas, stalks of sugar cane and other nibbles while holding their display trays with the other.

Signs of a painstakingly slow recovery from two decades of political turmoil emerge on the streets. Banners heralding store openings swing from utility poles. Billboards that once carried political slogans now advertise concerts by Haiti’s renowned hip-hop and roots musicians. Trash is collected from the brimming gutters each morning by private companies under government contract, one of the few job opportunities ascendant in Haiti.


Street signs have been erected in some neighborhoods by the Digicel cellphone company, whose move into this market 18 months ago broke a monopoly by conspiring Haitian providers. Cellphone ownership has more than doubled. Rechargers and cards for inputting minutes are the ubiquitous vendors’ hottest sellers.

Drivers thread the crush of hawkers with white knuckles, and skill. Pedestrians have perfected an elastic rooster-stepping maneuver to slide between cars even when they’re moving. Injuries are remarkably few, considering the mismatched contest between man and metal. Hit-and-run accidents aren’t even possible in the human sea.

A driver’s adrenaline rises after nightfall, which in winter comes before rush hour or the end of school. There are no streetlights in the city, nor security illumination in shuttered offices or shops. There are no lane markings or painted curbs that can be picked out by headlights in the blackness. A schoolgirl in her dark blue uniform is visible only because of the motion of her white ankle socks as she walks.

Life has returned to the nocturnal streets nearly four years after a rebellion sent President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile and capital residents into their homes. There are more prostitutes, wearing white to stand out in the dark. There are more homeless, huddled on broken sidewalks or slumped in doorways.

But there also are more young people congregating after hours at gas stations and on corners, votive candles in decapitated plastic bottles casting an eerie glow on the laughing and the flirting and the swaying to Caribbean rhythms that float from transistor radios.

Traffic seldom eases before 10 p.m. on the two main roads between Port-au-Prince, a city of nearly 3 million, and Petionville, stronghold of the bourgeoisie just east of the capital, where the jobs are.


After 9 p.m. on a recent Sunday, fully loaded tap-taps sat with their engines off on Tabarre Road near the airport, locked in the embrace of four solid lanes of immobilized traffic. Packed cheek to jowl and balancing plastic bags on their knobby knees, the dozen passengers, mostly women, sat patiently, quietly, exhausted.

As if in challenge to the horn-blowing, cursing drivers, one by one the passengers began whispering a gospel song in Creole. As each weary voice joined in, the hymn became familiar, and puzzling, coming from descendants of the first Africans to overthrow slavery in the Western Hemisphere. The soulful voices were appealing for the ultimate ride home.

Swing low, sweet chariot.