Economy Of Spirit
Haiti by Public Transport
Genevieve Allison // Photography by Elliot Ross
We had been waiting since sunset with a sense of foreboding heightened by the lightning storm on the horizon. The captain, when he finally appeared before us in the dark, greeted us with warm and reassuring words – and, disconcertingly, a bottle of rum in his hand.
After exhausting maps, articles and travel guides we had both come to the same reluctant conclusion: there was no way. It’s 39 miles as the crow flies between Marigot and Anse-à-Pitre – a distance covered in less than 40 minutes on the average US interstate. How could it be that the only public transportation between the last town accessible by road in Sud-Est Haiti and the region’s only border crossing to the Dominican Republic was a perilous seven-hour sea voyage, to be taken in the dead of night from an unmarked location, in grossly overladen wooden skiffs (with no shelter, bathrooms or life preservers) which not infrequently sank with their human cargo in shark-infested water?
That was the question that had brought us here, to a crumbling cinder-block discotheque on the pebble shores of Marigot. We had been waiting since sunset with a sense of foreboding heightened by the lightning storm on the horizon. The captain, when he finally appeared before us in the dark, greeted us with warm and reassuring words – and, disconcertingly, a bottle of rum in his hand. He patted each of us on the back and returned to the woman selling drinks from the trunk of her car. As we dispensed the highest recommended doses of Dramamine and Imodium, we reflected that, for much of the earth’s population, travelling even short distances involves danger and discomfort, and for the rest of us simply degrees of inconvenience.
Despite their questionable safety, the boats from Marigot are the lifeline for a string of isolated communes along Haiti’s mountainous south-eastern coast – a region with no paved roads. In a country with little tourism and severely broken infrastructure, resources are not there to be consumed, we quickly found, but to be sourced and constructed.
As the Imodium detail might have revealed, our adventure hadn’t started there. We had come to Port-au-Prince in a modern air-conditioned coach from Santo Domingo. The trip is typically anywhere between five and nine hours along a highway of low brush and sleepy, hot towns, crossing the western province of Elías Piña. When we arrived at the border, the trafficked but peripheral vibe of Elías Piña the town evoked every frontier stereotype – the kind of dusty place that only wandering livestock and teenagers populated in the mid-afternoon heat. Our food stop yielded only Prestige beer and plantain chips, which the proprietor of the lone bodega graciously dusted for us. We continued on into Haiti with little fuss from customs officials, eager to leave what we felt were the known quantities of the Dominican Republic.
By land, borders are often gradual. Another landscape unfolds by degrees through subtle changes in topography, architecture, and land cultivation. But sometimes they happen precipitously – in a beat, one world closes and another opens. You could argue that the border between the Dominican Republic and the Republic of Haiti is both. On one hand, the changes in character are subtle: for miles on either side of the border, the hamlets and groves of banana palm look very much the same. As do the men on porches and plastic lawn chairs, perfecting the art of passing time. And then on the other hand, the border marks the departure from one reality to another: from the largest economy in the Central American region to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Since Dominican officials began a deportation programme targeting Haitian migrants and Dominican-born people of Haitian descent in July 2015, an estimated 200,000 Dominican-born Haitians have had their citizenships revoked, and have found themselves stateless – having never lived in Haiti or spoken the language, but unable to continue living in the Dominican Republic. And as thousands of migrant workers send their families back to Haiti to escape the Dominican Republic, an influx of mainly women and children has inundated the border, leading to impromptu refugee camps.
Haiti has two distinct climates: tropical, and semi-arid where mountains in the east cut off trade winds. The dense tropical foliage we passed gave way to rocky corrugations and denuded mountain slopes, and the unhurried pace of rural life gave way to urban industry. Streets thickened with traffic as our bus rolled into the city, creeping through its congestion. Amidst vehicles and blaring horns, women wove deftly through the streets carrying loads on their heads; children streamed home from school; livestock loitered in the periphery; and from every inch of operable space vendors sold sugarcane, auto parts, lingerie, circuit boards, telephones, apparel, live poultry, pharmaceuticals and haircuts. Those not in the business of getting somewhere watched from their doorsteps.
We found the unmarked entrance to our hotel and retreated into the microclimate of its shaded grounds. The Oloffson is an exquisite example of the French colonial architectural style known as Gothic Gingerbread that originated in Haiti in the 19th century. Once the haunt of dignitaries, writers and Hollywood stars, the Oloffson now emanates a sense of sympathetic disuse – like a beautiful dress that has fallen out of style. A new international airport in 1965 and improving relations with the United States enabled Haiti to flourish as a tourist destination in the 1970s and early 1980s. But as the AIDS epidemic took root and political and economic turmoil increased, tourism steadily declined. The pristine beaches that once made Port-au-Prince a beach getaway for the likes of Jacqueline Onassis are long gone. As the ecological health of the country continues to erode so too does tourism. In 2013, only 20 hotels were operating in the entire country.
Walking to the market district from the Oloffson is a matter of a few miles, but what might be a modest urban stroll in any other city felt like an odyssey in the punishing heat, crush of traffic, and enormous potholes. Five years after the earthquake much of the city has yet to be stabilised, much less rebuilt. More than half of the population is technically unemployed; over two thirds contribute to an informal economy of peer-to-peer labour and trade, and as a result, the streets churn with improvised commerce and small-scale industry. Even the public transit system is informal. Pickup trucks are converted into minibuses; ‘taps-taps’ are colourfully painted vehicles that run prescribed routes with the driver broadcasting their final destination. Passengers chase them down and pile into their rear.
In the absence of any discernible traffic control, motorbikes, tap-taps and freight trucks pushed for space and hoped for the quick reflexes of others. Pedestrians are often daring, as bumpers and wheels rattle just centimetres away from feet. Lesson number one was learned pretty quickly: pay attention to all things at all times. Another lesson offered by a long-term resident: walking is not recommended.
Haiti has two distinct climates: tropical, and semi-arid where mountains in the east cut off trade winds. The dense tropical foliage we passed gave way to rocky corrugations and denuded mountain slopes, and the unhurried pace of rural life gave way to urban industry.
Strung with luggage and hung over the rear wheels, we clung to our drivers and focused our attention on the physical delight of moving at speed and not on the statistics of tourist motorbike deaths and injuries in Haiti.
While some reconstruction came early – such as the rehabilitation of the iconic Marche de Fer (Iron Market) – neighbourhoods radiate away from it in varying bands of neglect. Former symbols of civic pride are now emblematic of the country’s economic distress: the famously collapsed domes of the national palace and the ruins of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. Its congregation now meets under tarpaulins. Nearby, masons continue to produce cinder blocks by hand using shovels, cement and small aggregate mixture. Without better materials available, the brittle mix of watered-down concrete that caused such widespread destruction in the earthquake is still used in construction.
We left Port-au-Prince for Jacmel, a tranquil coastal city on the south coast, over the Massif de la Selle in a tap-tap packed beyond capacity. Settled on a wide bay, the port of Jacmel was developed by French merchants who profited enormously from the coffee and sugar trade. The mansions they built, with ornate facades and cast ironwork shipped over from France, still survive intact, capturing a dramatic architectural history that dates back as far back as the city’s foundation by the Spanish in 1504. The streets hummed with the revelries of bars and churches in full assembly. We stopped at a small seafood restaurant to drink Haitian beer and watch the nightlife unfold.
It was at precisely this moment that the signals of low-level anxiety I’d been receiving from my digestive system all day matured into a “situation.” Instead of enjoying our night in Jacmel and the next day’s visit to Bassin-Blue (a set of miraculously blue waterfalls outside of town), we would spend the next 18 hours studying our hotel room’s ceiling and bathroom floor. The price, presumably, of the Haitian-Mexican food we’d had for lunch after becoming desperately bored with the bland, expensive dishes offered at hotels.
The boats from Marigot were to sail for Anse-à-Pitres that night. We had no choice but to cut short our convalescence or wait another week. Feeling fragile but ready to be elsewhere, we mustered the energy to leave our hotel by mid-afternoon. The tap-tap from Jacmel to Marigot takes only a few hours but there was word of a demonstration along the way. The highway was blocked with barricades, forcing us to decamp to motorbikes, and eventually to proceed on foot. Strung with luggage and hung over the rear wheels, we clung to our drivers and focused our attention on the physical delight of moving at speed and not on the statistics of tourist motorbike deaths and injuries in Haiti. Against a backdrop of beautiful coastline, we passed a funeral procession – a reminder that this community was at the centre of a recent cholera outbreak. Since the disease was reintroduced to the country five years ago through contaminated water filters allegedly provided by the United Nations, the cholera epidemic has claimed the lives of nearly 10,000 people.
We pulled up to the beach where half a dozen brightly painted wooden dinghies bobbed in the waves. Muscled men ferried enormous loads of equipment, freight and people on their shoulders through the surf, and when we were finally summoned to the beach we were loaded on to shoulders too. As my porter’s face dipped below the waves until almost fully submerged, I was unable to pull myself up onto the boat, so I rolled my backpack over the edge of the stern and let my body follow its momentum. It was an awkward procedure and I was now soaking wet anyway, but otherwise the transaction had been seamless.
Getting on board had seemed like it would be the tricky part, but now we were faced with the daunting question of where to put ourselves. In the dim light of my head lamp I realised that the boat was merely a deep uncovered hull, where sacks and boxes were piled as high as possible – and on top of those were people. Just as we all managed to fit ourselves in, the captain’s mate would shout new commands, and passengers would begrudgingly rearrange themselves once again to make way for yet more additions. At last, the captain – our friend – joined the boat. He greeted us warmly, ‘mes amis,’ and in deference to him we were granted a place on the stern. Despite that place being on top of sacks of fiberglass, it was something we were deeply grateful for after noting the degree to which the bow pitched with every wave, while the stern, weighted with ballast to keep the small forty horsepower engine in the water, clung stubbornly to sea level.
The captain pulled up a wooden stool, the crew put on their trousers (many had been naked up until that point to avoid saturating their clothes), the commotion died down and the boat set forth in silence. Although a storm had been forecast the sea was calm. There were no lights on board, just the moon and the Orionids meteor shower streaming above us. We strapped ourselves to a pole and submitted to the lull of the waves and the deep effects of Dramamine. Over the course of the long night we would wake from time to time as warm waves splashed over the gunwales and underneath us, and as the captain periodically broke into loud homily or song.
As Venus appeared brightly on the horizon a kindly neighbour, sensing our fatigue, reached over to reassure us ‘not far, mon blancs.’ The night sky started to merge into a predawn grey and the shore materialised ahead. A crude wire fence dropped out into the water, marking the border where a riparian zone extended out into the Dominican Republic side and huts and overturned boats dotted the Haitian side. The crew began to mobilise. Clothes came off again and pebble-filled sacks that had served as ballast were dumped back into the sea. The whole process would begin again, in reverse. We were the first to come off, slipping down onto shoulders that carried us back to shore.
‘Go up a few streets and then right a few streets’ were our cursory directions to the border crossing. There, we found the blackened shell of a shipping container with charred documents and office furniture. A young woman with an infant joined us on the footsteps and confirmed its provenance: the immigration office, until it was torched several days ago. Close to opening time at 8.00am, an official arrived with his own office chair in tow, parked it under a tree and took out a clipboard and rubber stamp. We joined the small queue that immediately formed. Our documents were processed there, in the shade of the tree, and we left Haiti over a footbridge. Despite everything, we had made it. So too do hundreds of Haitians every week, though, simply as a matter of course.
Currently based in New York City but working predominantly on the road, Elliot’s work is concerned with human stories that explore the interpersonal, cultural and economic effects of geographic isolation–interests he developed during his upbringing in rural Colorado. His work has been widely published, with notable appearances in National Geographic Magazine, The Guardian, Refinery29 and the The Atlantic.
Genevieve Allison is a New Zealand writer and artist based in New York City. She regularly contributes to Aperture and Artforum.com in addition to past and ongoing projects for magazines such as SUITCASE, Le Roy, and The Collective Quarterly.