Crazy in Port-au-Prince

[published in CounterPunch, 9 January, 2015]

There are days when the tap tap comes and goes regularly; other days when you are left waiting for hours as people shove by, pushing one another, jumping onto the empty tap tap. Men can be the most brutal and in order to jump onto the end of this converted pickup truck, they shove women, children and smaller men out of their way. I have done what I call the “run for the gold” when trying to board a tap tap, joking later with people that this should be in and of itself a unique Olympic sport. I tell Haitians they would definitely win the gold medal in the “Race for the Tap Tap Competition.”

In Haiti size is often a factor in political domination: if you are too large to make the run for the tap tap, too fat to fit into the seat with other people, or tall and thin such that you become a desirable commodity as your legs are turned into a sofa for those who prefer to sit on you rather than stand hunched over. Size maintains your ability to throw, quite literally, your weight or jettison towards a tap tap which never slows down to ensure that only the fittest will be able to board, thus eliminating fights to enter a parked tap tap. There could even be a separate competition for those with children, since the skill in being able to push your child onto the tap tap and then jump in yourself is an art form.

And then there are the politics of sex and the tap tap. If it weren’t bad enough walking down the street here as a woman having men constantly remind you to look out for cars, pushing you perpetually as if you hadn’t the eyes, ears and brain to figure that one out for yourself, the tap tap brings up an entirely different set of sexual politics. Often when sitting with the driver there will be a third person who wishes to crunch into the very same seat. I gladly move over if the person boarding is a woman, but if a man is boarding, I step out and allow him to sit in the middle seat, next to the driver. On many occasions I have had men tell me, “You know that is not your place…your place is between two men.” I inform these men that they are misinformed, that not only do I not have “a place,” it is certainly for me to decide if I feel comfortable being surrounded by two men whom I do not know.

One man yesterday told me that I “need a man to protect [me]” to which I responded that it was in fact the women in Haiti who protect the men,8 and not the other way around, citing him what is a commonly accepted fact amongst most Haitians men and women alike: that women do most of the work inside and outside the home (and this paradigm does not change around the planet incidentally). He grew furious and started yelling at me insisting that I didn’t know “my place.” I reminded this gentleman that not so many years ago, this same rhetoric was uttered by Europeans towards people of African origin, who likewise told them to get in their place. Of course, he denied the parallel structure, repeating that I needed his protection. I let him know that his anger made me think I needed protection from him, not by him.

The driver laughed quite a bit as I spoke of the history of Haiti while this man screamed at me, claiming to “know everything” (as well as his reminding me that men are stronger than women, etc). Asking him to recount certain facts about Haiti’s release from slavery, I find out that the screaming man’s words were not backed up by facts and that he had little knowledge of Haitian history whatsoever. So I recounted him the liberation of the slaves, the late 18th through the early 19th century with Louverture’s work around Saint- Domingue and I reminded him that only the individual decides where she wants to be, for whom she works, and where she chooses to sit. He was still screaming when I left the vehicle to change tap taps.

There are other days when the tap tap exists at a premium: the driver holds up his fingers to show three fingers. What was once a ten gourde ride (two Haitian dollars) has suddenly become fifteen (three Haitian dollars). One woman in the back of the tap tap last Tuesday protested and I joined her asking the driver, “What are you offering us that the other tap tap for ten gourdes are not?” He grunted, “That’s just the price.” Everyone paid the three dollars begrudgingly in this exceptional act of having to pay up front—the driver knew that people would not pay fifteen gourde if he had to collect when they descended the tap tap as is the normal practice here. Nonetheless, resistance was expressed on the tap tap ride as a gentleman seated in front of me announced, “Ok, he charges us more, but we are not letting anyone else onto the tap tap.” As is the usual score with tap tap, they comfortably seat five and if no large people are on board, often six. But there are many rides which simply are pushing the limit in forcing six adults to line each side of the tap tap. So this gentleman told each and every person who attempted to jump on and do the hip crunch that there was no room. We were ten in the tap tap and everybody joined in this act of resistance, refusing the driver more passengers thereby avoiding the sardine effect. We all laughed as we continued our journey towards Académie refusing passengers, with everyone finally giving in and letting a gentleman holding a rooster in his left arm stand on the back of the tap tap for the last kilometer, hanging on only with his right hand.

This morning, there were no tap tap at all. Well, there were a few, stuffed with men and boys, brimming out of all open orifices, reminiscent of the packed Mumbai trains during morning rush hour, and dozens of people lining the streets hoping for more transportation. The older Haitians, women and their children, stayed at the side of the road and there was a particularly high number of school children unable to go to school waiting in the Petionville market. I waited a good twenty minutes and realized that there was no getting a tap tap given the plethora of students gathering, so I went to the nearest motorcycle stand hoping the students would get to school. I tend not to take motorcycles here as they are more expensive for foreigners (as a volunteer, I am on a tight budget) and more importantly they are bloody dangerous. I have done a great many crazy things in my life and the motorcycle sans helmet is not a new adventure—even riding without a helmet, an obstacle course of bad roads, plus driving chaos I have also done. But Port-au-Prince is by far the most dangerous place I could fathom riding a motorcycle: the roads of this city are full of ripples and holes. Also, the use of the horn creates more confusion than clarity and the main roadway is not a concept that is respected here, such that cars will literally pull onto a major roadway with speeding traffic being forced to grind to a halt simply because the offending vehicle is larger. Coming down Delmas, a main road in Port-au-Prince, the motorcycle driver took a cautious yet expedient pace and each and every time a car or truck approached the main road, the motorcycle driver would not just slow down, he would stop. This is the land of bigger is better—bigger takes precedence. This is evident everywhere where those who are smaller and poorer have no place on the road or the cityscape, while the bigger and posher are given carte blanche to all spaces.

So, we continued down Delmas, turned right at Delmas 33 and whenever anyone would cross the street or when we would enter a tight pedestrian marker, the horn dominated the road as the driver would honk repeatedly to rush people out of his way. This is the dictionary entry for the vehicle horn in Port-au-Prince:

1. Get the fuck out of my way. 2. Move your ass you mere pedestrian walking with grocery bags! 3. I have a big, new car—look at me! 4. Don’t even think of going there. 5. Hey, friend, it’s me. 6. This is a horn and it indeed works. 7. I am running you over—goodbye. 8. Cogito ergo honk.

Now for anyone who has been in a rickshaw in Delhi or has crossed Tahrir Square on foot, you are aware what crazy driving is. For those of you who think that crossing Broadway near the Flatiron Building is dangerous, suffice it to say that we are simply not in the same solar system of “danger.” The reality on the streets is both daunting and light-hearted: amidst the most surreal situations from traffic disasters, to the infamous blocus (congestion) that occupy most every morning and afternoon traffic pattern, to the market scenes that reveal the only true signs of livelihood within a chaotic tableau of conterminous desperation and prosperity.

Sunday morning, while shopping in the Petionville market, I was looking for avocados to bring up to Kenscoff and none were to be found. I bought greens, onions, tomatoes, garlic and mangos, but I was persistent to find the avocados for my friends in the mountains. Forty minutes later I gave up my search as everyone in the market informed me that the avocados were not yet ripened—it would be a few more weeks before I would be able to have my much dreamt of avocado, tomato, salt, olive oil and lime salad.

Walking towards the tap tap, I looked up and before me walked a fifty-year old woman who was entirely naked from head to toe. Nobody in the market seemed to notice and I was having a definite crisis of conscience—my heart raced as I wondered if anybody noticed this woman aside from myself. People were talking with one another, parents were walking with their children to church and through the market were those who like me had the task of shopping, the phone card sales boys were strolling around with their red vests with phones in their hands front and center, women were selling eggs, and men selling friend plantain chips, all conducting their transactions as normal. Nobody looked up shocked, nobody pointed, gawked or pointed—it seemed as if this woman was invisible. It was after a full two minutes of thinking where I might find someone with a large piece of cloth, looking to the woman to see if she was injured or even to see if she was simply mentally ill (as if looking at her would discern this). My eyes would dart back to the masses to see if they reacted.

Finally I went to the youths selling the phone refills and asked them wondering if I might have imagined this woman, “Do you see her?” They laughed at me and I thought to myself, “Maybe I am mad?” I went to the women selling the eggs and fried pastries and asked if they saw her, to which they said, “Li fou” (“She is crazy”). I persisted, “Are you sure she is crazy?” They smiled and assured me this woman wanted to be naked, barefoot walking down the streets of Petionville. I turned and pondered this scenario a moment and then continued walking in search of a tap tap.

Arriving in Kenscoff I found out that a nurse who had, with an American doctor, rescued a child from an “orphanage” and admitted the child into a hospital for treatment, was being threatened with legal action from the “orphanage” who was demanding the immediate return of the child. The orphanage in question is well known in Kenscoff for utilizing the children as sexual slaves, sending girls out daily to prostitute themselves, and this fact has been chronicled by the local police and recently by the US Army Military Police. A Child Protection Officer from UNICEF asked me to investigate the orphanage after reports came from the Haitian Police and the US Army that this orphanage was selling young girls into prostitution. Still the IBESR has done nothing to shut this “orphanage” down and there is no sign this “orphanage” will be put out of operation any time soon.

After hearing the story of this good samaritan being threatened with legal action from Sister Dona’s lawyer who attempted to distort the medical care given to the child as kidnapping, I became so cynical about the situation. I even told the nurse not to worry simply because the government would rather keep a corrupt orphanage running rather than shut it down and admit their own wrongdoing—namely, that they did not take action months ago when agencies and local police were warned.

My task that morning was to go to the orphanage and chronicle the conditions of the children as well as to attain information regarding adoption for my research on the use of orphanages in illegal adoptions. So I showed up at the orphanage, my iPhone in pocket. I was met at the door by a young woman dressed as a nun who told me that Sister Dona was not in. I told her that I came from the United States, that I was with a “church group,” and that I was interested in adopting a child. She invited me in. She showed me the children in the back of the orphanage, broken down into two groups, those under seven and those above seven, having what seemed to be like lessons without a teacher present. All were seated underneath a blue plastic tarpaulin. Strangely mulling about were two young men of approximately 18 years of age who had no place in any orphanage.

I was shown around the premises as I had asked where the girls and boys sleep. I was shown two separate rooms where light filtered in through concrete blocks up high as triple bunk beds served as the sleeping spaces for these children. From the numbers it was clear some had to double up. This young “nun” avoided showing me one room on the left front building’s second story which she claimed were uninhabited. This is the room where these young girls were said to be raped. At one moment while she took me around, my “husband” called. My “husband” in these sorts of investigations was a method I employed in such situations when I would take out my iPhone and have a fake conversation with nobody while I would use my thumb to snap photos as I fake-discussed how beautiful the children at the orphanage were. I walked around the premises clicking away and by the end of my conversation, I came back to the “nun” and asked her what it would take to adopt—how much money, essentially. She told me that “many foreigners make a donation of $6,000 US.” So this was the price of a Haitian child’s life.

She then offered to show me the registry of names of people who had come to this orphanage. I looked through the list of signatures and addresses and people from around the globe who had visited this orphanage to include some officials within various embassies in Port-au- Prince. Next to almost every name were the names of children, the “wish list,” of each signatory as if reserving that specific child. I was able to sneak in a photo, albeit a shaky one, when the nun left the room for a moment.

As I write this article, the “orphanage” of Sister Dona called Soeurs Rédemptrices De Nazareth is still operating, its doors wide open.