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An empty downtown, crowded tap taps and sleeping police: Sights on a road trip across Haiti

The beautiful southern coast of Haiti near Aquin along Route National 2.

Four o’clock in the morning is early even for a morning person like me.  Yet last week this is precisely the time of day I found myself crawling out of bed and into our car.  Martha and I do not usually get up this early.  But on this particular day we were headed to the city of Les Cayes which is located in southern Haiti and needed to be there by 8:30am.  The trip can take over four hours, depending on the traffic or blokis, hence the 4am wake up.

World Concern has been working with small scale farmers near Les Cayes for over 15 years providing training, seeds and tractor services.  We last visited Les Cayes in June and you can read about three gentleman we met then in a previous blog post by clicking here.  Our purpose in traveling to Les Cayes on this occasion was to document an organic compost training for farmers and agronomy students from local universities.  More later in a separate post on this training specifically.

This was our fifth trip outside of Port-au-Prince for World Concern since arriving in Haiti nine months ago.  After four trips we have figured out travel essentials versus what can be left behind.  Sunscreen is always a must.  We’ve made the mistake of forgetting this precious item before only to pay for it for the next two weeks.  On a personal note, it is especially sad that I have recently needed to start applying sunscreen to the (little) bald spot on my head.  Forgetting that has proved disastrous as well.  I often opt for a hat nowadays.

A notepad but also several pens are also at the top of the list because pens seem to disappear when meetings, road trips, hotel rooms and farm visits are involved.  We used to always carry a small English-Creole dictionary but found that it was a bit impractical to pull out a book and look up a word mid-conversation.  I often feel like an 8 year old when speaking Creole but we are improving slowly so this last trip we left the dictionary at home and did fine.

I always insist on bringing my Leatherman knife which Martha doesn’t feel as attached to (shocking I know!).  Maybe it’s a guy thing but I just feel so much more prepared for whatever may happen when I bring my knife along.  Of course it is not only a knife.  It is a can opener, filer, screwdriver, pair of scissors, and saw.  And it fits in my pocket!  Definitely a must.

Lastly, pre-charged batteries.  It’s amazing how fast Martha flies through battery packs when she is using her camera for 8+ straight hours.

The night before we left was busy as we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast and iced coffee for the road.  Martha was kind enough to iron a couple things because despite often being in very rural areas when we travel, a pressed shirt is nearly always expected.  Haitians are very clean and great care is taken to look nice.  I dress nicer in Haiti than I ever did in Seattle for most occasions.  Okay, Seattle is a bad comparison because jeans and a REI button up with UV protection is considered business casual but you get the idea.  Since we would only be gone for one night we shared a small backpack and easily fit in our clothes for the next two days.  Martha’s camera bag and stand were set by the door.  Extra water was thrown in the car and the gas tank was filled.  We were ready.

As we drove through Port-au-Prince in the pre-dawn twilight the city was uncharacteristically quiet.  Streets that are usually bustling with cars, public buses or tap taps, and street vendors were almost completely vacant.  It felt like we could have been the only ones in the city at that moment.  We passed the Champs de Mars plaza and the National Palace or at least where it once proudly stood pre-quake.  It was damaged badly and eventually torn down with the help of Sean Penn’s charity in 2012.

The wind kicked up dust in front of us as we continued on which made the car’s headlights appear dimmer, only adding to the eeriness of driving through an empty downtown Port-au-Prince.

With no blokis we quickly found on our way out of downtown and onto Route National 2, heading west.  We passed the city of Léogâne which was closest to the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake.  Next came Grand Goâve and Petit-Goâve.  Interestingly, the road only gets better on Route National 2 the farther you head west from Port-au-Prince.  By the time you reach Grand Goâve the road becomes consistently smooth.  In fact, Route National 2 is one of the best stretches of road in Haiti (at least that I’ve been on).

At this point the sky was showing hints of light which we were both thankful for.  With little street lighting, especially outside Port-au-Prince, driving in the dark can be a chore.  Pot holes and speed bumps are extra hidden so we found ourselves consistently praying that we did not blow a tire.  In Creole speed bumps are called polis kouche—literally, ‘lying down police.’  It was explained to me that it’s called that because the speed bump is like a policeman sleeping in the road forcing you to slow down.  I love it!  The Creole language never ceases to amuse and amaze.  Thankfully the car did great through the entire trip and we would make it Les Cayes safely and san pwoblem.

Although the sun was still rising, Route National 2 became increasingly busier as we kept driving west.  Men and women, although mostly women, waited on the roadside for the next tap tap to pass.  If one did, you would see all hands go up and begin waving in unison signaling to the driver that they wanted a ride.  Often the passengers were carrying totes, bags, produce, or even chairs that are accompanying them on their journey.   Buses and tap taps in Haiti are often painted vibrant colors and it is not uncommon to find Justin Beiber or Lionel Messi’s face plastered on the side.  They are also notoriously filled to the brim with everything you can imagine—people, goats, charcoal, clothes, and produce to name a few.

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There’s always room for more.

Not in an overwhelming way like in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, but the smaller cities and villages we passed were certainly teeming with life and activity as a new day began.  I have found Haitians to be proactive and industrious people.  I would confidently say the vast majority of Haitians I have met are not waiting for a handout despite what I hear from the occasional visitor or in the news.  They are busy and proactive, trying to make a life for themselves and provide for their families despite living in a country where ‘getting ahead’ is only possible for a privileged few.

I am always confused when someone makes a comment about the lack of work ethic or ambition of Haitians.  I completely disagree.  A few months ago we met a woman who lives near the city of Port-de-Paix in northwest Haiti who works seven days a week frying food and selling it on the street to earn enough money so her kids can eat and go to school.  She is always up before dawn and rarely takes a single day off because if you don’t work, you don’t get paid.  This woman is not waiting for a handout.  The people we passed who were obviously busy getting ready for a new day reminded me of this woman and once again I was impressed by the diligence and fortitude of many people in Haiti.

We eventually reached the port town of Miragoâne.  At this point, Route National 2 veers inland taking you south and west across what I would call “the panhandle” of Haiti.  If you are familiar with Oklahoma or Texas you will know exactly what I mean.  Leaving Miragoâne you definitely feel like you are in a rural area.  There are a series of small villages on this nearly 50 kilometer stretch from Miragoâne to the small seaside town of Aquin on the southern coast but that is about it.

The contrast between the busyness and density of Port-au-Prince and the open space and vistas nearly everywhere else outside the capital still amaze me.  I am not really a city person.  I almost always prefer smaller towns and the countryside.  Therefore getting outside of Port-au-Prince is like a breath of fresh air.  The Haitian countryside is absolutely beautiful and the area between Miragoâne and Aquin is no exception.  Soon, the sun was peeking over the mountains giving us quite the show.  This part of the country has a decent amount of tree cover remaining which only added to the beauty.  The car had to work harder as we climbed then descended the numerous hills and mountain passes.

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This is where, as a driver, you get lots of experience passing and getting passed by vehicles of all shapes and sizes.  There is no real concept of leaving room between cars in Haiti.  It is one of the things about driving in Haiti that I am still trying to get used to.  In the U.S. we generally like our space when driving and expect other drivers to give that to us.  There is almost a sacredness with the small area around our rear bumpers.  You know what I mean.  In your rear view mirror you notice car closing in pretty quickly and that isn’t necessarily bad.  But then the car keeps coming.  As it gets closer and approaches that invisible sacred line of “that is way too close to my bumper man” the driver’s blood pressure quickly rises and even the nicest of people can turn into absolute tyrants.  Ever heard of a “brake check” or better yet used it?

So in Haiti I’m training myself to think not so much about what is happening behind me and instead focus on what’s ahead.  When another car is passing you they will often get right on your bumper and then move slightly into the opposite lane to see if there is room to pass.  Even the smallest gap in traffic is often enough.  As the car picks up speed and flies passed you, the driver will honk multiple times which basically means “I’m coming so get out of my way.”  Martha and I are learning quickly.  Martha learned to drive in the Philippines so she definitely uses her experience from there in Haiti.  I tend to be a more aggressive driver than Martha but together we’re a nice team, whoever is driving.

You know you are getting close to the southern coast when you descend and descend and keep descending.  As you approach Aquin, out of nowhere, the Caribbean Sea reveals itself.  It is a real surprise; and an awesome one at that.  The sun was now shining brightly which gave the sea an incredible blue hue.  I finally decided to pull out the coffee at this point.  I had resisted for the first couple hours of the drive out of fear of an 11am caffeine crash instead of the more bearable 3pm one.  Thanks to my well insulated mug, there were still a couple chunks of ice remaining which was refreshing.

From here Route National 2 hugs the coast for the most part for another 55 kilometers before reaching Les Cayes.  Although Les Cayes feels quite small compared to Port-au-Prince and has considerably less traffic, entering the bustling city reminded me that I was not on a rural mountain road anymore and I needed to pay attention.  The World Concern staff had moved offices in the couple weeks prior so Martha acted as my navigator as I dodged motorcycles and mules and street vendors.

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The new office! A local artist hand painted the World Concern sign.

We eventually found the office on a well paved and charming street in the heart of “downtown.”  Only the guard, Gino, was there when we arrived.  As we waited for the others I reflected on our journey that morning.  It was only shortly after 8am but it felt like noon.  I was certainly awake and ready for the day right then.  I was excited to see the World Concern staff in Les Cayes again and also the whole idea of an organic compost training sounded fascinating.  Mostly I was thankful for an uneventful and generally pleasant drive from Port-au-Prince; our first outside the city since moving to Haiti.

I like long distance drives because there is so much to see and observe.  Haiti is a small country with a largely homogenous culture but driving the four hours from Port-au-Prince to Les Cayes reminded me that it is also a place of contrasts.  Landscape, population density, wealth, tree cover, road quality and even fruit varieties are different depending on where you are at.  One thing is for sure.  I am looking forward to my next road trip in Haiti.

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A couple of our fun loving and exceptional colleagues in Les Cayes.