The Writing Traveler: Bouncing across the top of Haiti


J Gerald Crawford, left, and travel writer Jerry Flemmons wait to board our Tap Tap bus before it makes its long and often precarious journey from Cap Haitian to Port-Au-Prince.

The old bus, rescued from a junk heap, although no one remembers why, breathes the diesel smoke it spews while complaining its way across the high country.

LA TRINITE IS BIG, bulky, and awkward, all dressed up in a carnival splash of color, twenty-three stripes of black and blue, green and white, with even a streak or two of dishwater white thrown in. La Trinite is a Tap Tap bus, and come eight o’clock we will climb on board and travel the narrow mountain passages from Cap Haitian to Port-Au-Prince.

Its motor comes from Britain, its tires from Japan.

And the old bus, rescued from a junk heap, although no one remembers why, breathes the diesel smoke it spews while complaining its way across the high country.

It’s a 171-mile journey through the heart of Haiti.

The roads are precarious.

And rough.

But don’t worry.

That’s what I’m told.

Antoine St. Cloud is behind the wheel, and, for years, he has been taking Baptist missionaries back into the highlands.

Hasn’t lost any yet.

An old lady in a yellow bandana crosses herself.

Caleb Pirtle

The passenger coach is wooden and homemade with burnt-orange benches that seat forty-eight. There is no aisle. To get on or off, you have to wedge your way between planks and people, but no one seems to mind.

The engine coughs.

It backfires.

The old lady in yellow crosses herself.

Burlap bags, laden with vegetables from the field, are tossed on top of the Tap Tap. Women with bright-gold earrings and scarves knotted around their heads pull themselves onto the bus. Clorox bottles filled with drinking water are tied around their waists.

It’s not a hardship.

It’s a way of life.

The driver is taking no chances. A sign hand-painted behind his seat reads Saint Christopher. Antoine is apparently unaware or unconcerned that the good patron saint of the traveler has lost his Catholic union card. A wooden crucifix, held together by an elastic band, swings from the sun visor. And a cyclopic voodoo eye has been sketched mystically across the top of the windshield. You can never be too careful on those never-ending rows of chug holes that Haiti refers to as a mountain highway.

The engine fires.

The old lady in yellow crosses herself.

At 7:59, a minute early, we all lumber out of town and head for that staircase road in the general direction of Port-Au-Prince. It’s an odd band of travelers composed of photographer Gerald Crawford, travel editor Jerry Flemmons, seventy-two Haitians, one jackal-faced dog, and nine screaming chickens.

I guess they are screaming. They certainly aren’t clucking.

And I should know. My feet are propped up on the cage that’s holding them. I don’t blame them. A hundred and seventy-one miles, and I’ll be screaming, too.

Along the highway are naked little children with potbellies and bright eyes who learn early how to smile and say, “How are you?”

“I’m Fine.”

“Do you have a quarter?”

In some sections of Port Au Prince, men have been known to kill for a quarter or for the promise of one.

Pigs are grazing among the garbage on the side of the road, and there are a lot of places to graze. Skinny dogs are sniffing. Old ladies are sitting. And Haiti, for the most part, is on the way to Sunday Mass by bicycle, motorbike, donkey, and foot.

Valestin Jules, the headmaster for the private school at St. Marc, turns to me and says, “The people on the road are either going to Mass or market. Sunday is a good day to either feed your soul or your stomach.”

The mountains at first glance are lush and green, beckoning in a flirting sort of way, the kind you fall in love with but can never call your own, the kind that belongs to everyone, yet belongs to no one

Then the mountains suddenly flex their muscles and become the taskmaster, asking as much of the bus as it can give, throwing us haphazardly from hill to hill, from one chug hole to the next ditch. The air around us is thick with dust.

I choke.

Crawford coughs.

The old lady in yellow crosses herself.

Inland, the mountains abruptly change, rising with harsh disdain for us all. They are unsympathetic and barren, their slopes littered with ashen rock as though poured from a pauper’s fireplace. The brush is stunted and sapped of vitality. It’s the kind of dry, stubborn terrain that wears down man’s patience and steals his spirit. But those who learn to live with the land on its own unredeemable terms are the strong, the independent, the survivors.

We bounce into Gonaives exactly eight hours and forty-seven minutes after leaving Cape Haitian, after Antoine has honked his horn 1,212 times, with a baby crying and the chickens squawking – or maybe it was the chicken crying and the baby squawking.

We squeeze out of the mountains and begin our descent into the outer limits of Port-Au-Prince, the city at the end of an endless road.

Antoine yawns.

The bus groans to a stop.

The baby smiles.

The chickens sleep.

And the old lady in yellow crosses herself.

She is home.

You can read many of my travel escapades in Confessions from the Road. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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