Kenscoff, Haiti (Port-au-Prince) Tuesday September 2nd.
The Monday night ride up the hill to Barbara’s house was magical. The group of us in the back of the pickup bounced over pothole roads, up the winding track following our own headlights. Occasionally a faster tap-tap would catch up to us, shining headlights into the back of the cab until they pulled around us and sped up and away. Beyond the headlights, vague shadows of trees beside the road, the occasional swaying eucalyptus overhead, and the outlines of hills against the clouds.
Half an hour later, we stop at a fork in the road, and the driver turns the lights off. There are people here – maybe a few dozen gathered around the three shops still open. “Shops” in the loosest sense of the word, mind you. There are three or four men in the barber shop, where the hollow glow of an energy saving light bulb burns off of the power of a car battery stuck in the corner. Next door, a young woman keeps a tiny grocery business going by candlelight. She sits at a high wooden bench, a few men standing around talk with her, one is buying something, I think. Charlot has gone off across the street to buy drinks under a tarp where another few people are huddled. I’m standing in the street taking it all in, looking into the shadows, staring up the walls of the cathedral on the hill. In daylight, there will be a market here, where I will buy citrus lychee-like fruit and a baby food jar of homemade ground chili peanut butter that I’ll end up finishing off in one sitting when I return to Santo Domingo, something which seemed like a good idea at the time but would prove not to be the next morning.
It’s cold up here – Kenscoff is in the clouds. Down below, it’s hard to sleep. Up here (not coincidentally, where much of the foreign population of Haiti’s capital lives) I’ve loaned my raingear to the girls in our group to cut the shivering. Charlot hops back in and we speed up the hill another few hundred yards to our destination – a modern – sort-of – apartment building, complete with tile floors and flush plumbing. The plumbing works, but we all take cold bucket showers anyway, mostly out of habit and to conserve water.
The power works sporadically, and we watch part of a bad Jet Li film with even worse sound, but the power keeps cutting out every half hour or so as the DVD player gets restarted three times before the power finally cuts off for good. There are teenage girls cooking by charcoal in the kitchen (there’s no propane for the stove) and the place is filled with acrid smoke. I do laundry in the bathtub and hang in the mudroom on the front porch.
It’s started to rain, and I sit with my journal waxing poetic about tree frogs and drops of rain on banana leaves and the lights of the radio tower against the dark clouds in the distance. I’ll drift off to sleep on a blanket on the tile living room floor smiling at how sweet it all is. The next day is when I’ll get the news – that stiffening breeze and gentle rain was nice and pleasant on this side of the hill, but on the other side, just a hundred miles north in the town of Gonaïves, the water is up six feet – the survivors spent the night on their rooftops, awaiting rescue. The death toll from Gonaïves alone was already up to 82, and it wasn’t the only town under water.
On Tuesday, it takes me almost all morning to finally arrive at the building where the conference was, where I’m to meet Miguel. He’s asked me to bring my guitar, and I have high hopes of music making – I’ve schlepped the camera gear and guitar. I call Duval to meet us there, but he can’t make it and asks me to call him back in the morning. I walk around town, and by the time I get back, Miguel is there, having meetings and working on the computer. He shakes my hand and leaves shortly after, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the whole purpose of my day was to spend the afternoon with him playing music.
Planning in the Third World is almost always an organic thing. I’d say that it was chaotic, except that it’s not. It just doesn’t run like a clock does.
It’s dark outside, Miguel has left the building, and only four of us are still there – me and eleven-year old Ruben, his mother and grandmother Barbara. I tell them I’m headed back up the hill, Barbara insists that I take Ruben. Fine. It begins to rain as we walk up to the corner where the tap-taps begin their 15 kilometer trip up the hill, and there are a handful of motorcycles buzzing about, most with silhouette stickers of Jesus on their headlights, some which don’t kick start so well. The motorcycles are a faster and much more expensive form of public transport, and while Ruben and I stand shivering in the rain (we wait there for an hour as other tap-taps come and go other directions, and the two that are going our way are so full of bodies that we couldn’t even sit on the roof) the motorcycles have singled out the only white guy in the crowd and keep asking in Creole why I’m not interested.
Well, the tap-tap ride is $1.50, and the motorcycle ride is $10, which is an astronomical leap when you’re on a local budget (which I am.) The bigger deal is that I have my guitar and the camera bag strapped to both sides of me, and I’m not keen to sandwich Ruben (sorry) in between us and bounce up the pothole hill in the rain – without helmets, no less.
He takes a call from his mother who tries to get us a cheaper motorcycle, then she calls back half an hour later to talk to me, asking vaguely what I want to do. There’s an unspoken expectation that I’m going to get the two of us out of this mess by just paying for a motorcycle and getting out of there. He suggests walking back to the office, and as we turn to leave, an empty tap-tap stops that’s going our way. We jump in.
The ride up the hill in the dark is magic like before – except bad magic this time. The higher up we get, the more damage is apparent from high winds and the rain that’s been on and off all day. Both wind and rain have picked up now, and the street is flowing water. There are lines down which we zip right over – I ask the guy beside me: “power lines?” He doesn’t miss a beat – “yes.” But I haven’t seen anything yet. There are trees down on either side of the road, in some cases BIG trees that somebody spent their afternoon cutting in half with an axe.
Most of the way up, the tap-tap in front of us has stopped and we stop to survey the scene – a telephone pole down with a full compliment of power lines drooping low across the road. Some newer, smarter pickup beep-beeps behind us, then swerves around, drives slowly underneath the wires (“no juice,” the guy next to me explains) and then hops nimbly over the downed telephone pole. Another truck does the same, then the tap-tap in front of us. We get out in the driving rain and push our little wagon over the pole. It makes it.
Makes it – another few hundred yards until the engine goes clunk and the driver pulls over and turns the truck off. He explains to me that the electric pump (cooling pump, maybe?) has failed, and that they’re done for the night.
Three of us in the back now – me, little Ruben, and another guy. I have no idea how far it is to get home, but we waste no time. We’d previously been soaking wet and shivering, now we’re running up the hill, keeping warm by keeping moving. The wind continues gusting, rain is coming in sheets, and it’s dark dark dark.
I would have been more smug about my little carbon fiber guitar getting wet (a wooden guitar in that gig bag would have been seriously damaged) except that between the blackberry and digital camera in the soft guitar case and my borrowed camera bag, I had about two thousand dollars in electronics that I was carrying through the rain, most of which were loaners. I’d tried to put the camera bag in plastic, but couldn’t make the little bag hold.
“Run faster,” Ruben turns to me as I lag behind them: “The trees are already starting to fall.” They were. One of the Eucalyptus trees we ran under was halfway down – there were broken telephone poles and wires everywhere, standing water racing down the street, and we ran on, dutifully watching the trees on either side for signs of weakness.
I had no idea how far we had left – I guessed a few miles. And just as I decided I couldn’t keep pace with my eleven year old guide, up ahead in the little moonlight there was I saw the outline of the church – we’d made it just a few hundred yards from home. The other guy turned off, and we hitched a few hundred yards in the back of the first vehicle we’d seen since driving over the telephone pole – a smart new pickup with an English-speaking driver whose face I never saw.