Pétionville, Haiti. Monday September 1st.
I called Duval as planned when the bus got in, but he was tied up. I ended up going home with a yellow-clad gal with big hoopy earrings that I met on the bus, then sleeping in a room with her and her sister, bouncing her six-month-old niece on my knee most of the evening. She (Dananie) changed outfits about four times (one of the permutations was faux leopard skin, complete with fuzzy matching spike heels) in preparation for an evening of clubbing that never happened. Instead, we sat on the roof until my eyes would hardly stay open then went to bed. In the morning she’d hatched a plan to get her nails done, and to have me pay for it. “Mi amor,” she cooed “can you give me a hundred Gourd before we go out today?” Uh – nope.
She was ticked, and I lost no time politely beating it out of there. “But how will you get out of here – you know your way? You really shouldn’t travel alone.” I was nervous about that alone part, but I wasn’t going to stay. I retraced the gravel road as best I could from memory (it’d been dark when we arrived her brother-in-law’s car) and tried to follow the arteries in reverse, at each fork taking the wider road, and once following the power lines towards what I hoped would be the center of the village. Everybody – and I mean everybody – was staring. I’d landed in a place where I suspect very few white people tread. The plan was to catch some form of public transportation then head towards the church where I was supposed to meet Duval the night before, call him, and we’d work something out.
I dawdled, in the best sense of the word. I’d changed money at the border, so I had a few soggy bills and beaten up coins with which to forage for food. I stopped at vendors and bought bits of breakfast – a bag of white bread rolls, a banana, two little bags of water. I stopped in a little internet café to check the weather and after explaining to the kid who worked there why I was in the country, found myself filming a teenage friend of his named Charles-Rodrigue crooning his heart out for Jesus. Sweet kid.
I walked a few miles mostly to get the feel of the place, then scored a tap-tap and headed up the hill into Pétionville. Tap-taps are universal, although the permutations and nomenclature vary from country to country. This particular flavor of public transportation: pickup trucks with cab tops with welded steel and wood bench constructions in the back. The more elaborate of the race are painted bright colors with extra welded bits on the caged sides – hands, flowery shapes, whatever – and adorned with Bible verses – for protection, one supposes. Like most of the working trucks in the country, tap-taps also have intricately welded grills over the front bumper, too – collision insurance.
Wave at them, climb in (or if they’re full, climb on top or on the bumper and hold tight), then tap-tap on the steel roof when you want to get out, and pay the driver 10 Goud (thirty US cents) and go on your merry way. I was most of the way to destination when I went by what looked like a party spilling out of some building on the main road, complete with four foot square thumping black speaker boxes – and get this – instead of the standard issue mongo bass dance remix pouring out, there was one voice and one acoustic guitar coming through. A singer-songwriter, go figure. Tap-tap. I had to go investigate.
The room was stuffed and suffocating, and sure enough, in the middle was a guy with a guitar, and behind him was a table with three important-looking women and microphones in front of them. Some sort of conference. On seeing my guitar, it took one of the women about two seconds to ask me to play. She pushed through the crowd and sat me down on a chair in the middle. Somebody held a microphone to my face. I passed the video camera to one of the young men standing around, plugged in my little green guitar for the first time, and pounded my way through Martin Sexton, then the Beatles.
Paydirt. Like unbelievable. The room was hopping, everybody was singing along and clapping, hands in the air, and the white guy was a rock star. The man who’d just given up his seat was standing in front of me, being super supportive for someone who’d just had their gig crashed. Turns out they were just finishing up – as they packed down, I spent the next half hour signing autographs. After explaining that I was in town to meet musicians, I also ended up taking names and phone numbers. In addition to Wisly from the town of Léogane (the guy who I’d heard at first) there was Sam Junior, who proudly played me his first recorded track that he just that day got from the studio. Sam Junior is a sweet-faced skinny kid from Aquin, in the south, traveling with his friend/manager Josette. She was a very sharp tack: 29, with bright eyes, wide cheekbones, twisted hair, and crystal-clear French. Later I discover what I’ve walked into, but for the moment all I perceive is an abundance of strong women in the room.
I end up talking at length with Miguel Philippe, a fairer-skinned man in cream button-down shirt and slacks. The musicians hang around for a while waiting for me and hoping I’ll go home with them and continue the music. I’m torn, but speaking with Miguel feels right, so I do that, and the others head out as the place empties out.
Turns out Miguel is the secretary-general for this new organization, the awkwardly if appropriately named “Socio-Political and Technical Platform of Democratic Women.” For short, it turns out to be the inauguration day for an organizing base from which to train women in computer and tech skills, and prepare them for high-ranking public office. The woman who was behind the table when I got there turns out to be a national cultural and political icon, although I haven’t the foggiest notion of anything of the sort yet. Her name is Barbara, and as Miguel and I continue talking Hatian racial politics, he tells me I’ve been invited to stay at her home.