Crazy Town, Crazy Island – On the Streets of Port Au Prince

It gave me a chance to see the melee around me.  The streets were full of both pedestrians and hawkers.  Everything was for sale along the narrow strips of pavement or sidewalk, shoes piled high, clothes of all sorts jumbled on any surface  – maybe just a sheet of cloth or tarpaulin on the ground.  A pot pourri of  skirts, shorts, shirts, dresses, blouses, knickers, bras, briefs, socks, caps, jackets, suits, wraps, children’s school uniforms, t-shirts, vests, trousers, swimwear, beach shorts, Hawaiian shirts.

There were small stools with old women or young boys selling a couple of peppers, pineapple, bananas.  There were traders of other goods; maybe just a couple of plastic buckets, utensils, pills, dope, phone cards.

But then I saw a mismatch.  Hundreds of pedestrians walking up and down past these stalls, and hundreds of stalls and people trying to sell their wares.  But rarely did I see any transactions.  Amongst the ordinary people of Haiti there was not enough money in circulation to make markets thrive.  And yet people were also desperate to earn whatever they could that they would spend all day trying to sell their meagre crops on the streets of Port Au Prince, or work for peanuts to sell the usual mix of wholesale goods from richer middle men.


Hawkers line the roadside

Through a lot of nerve on the part of my driver, we inched out a taxi to join the main thoroughfare and crawled up and up the main road.  It was near straight and the scene hardly changed along its length.  A complex mix of cafes, shops and small businesses fronted by rows of market stalls and people, bikes, animals, cars, and belching buses and trucks crammed together going up or down the hill.  At one point a broken down lorry stopped our progress for ten minutes, and my driver found a gap between the buildings to head round one block – for a second or two we reached about 30kmh-1 but then we had the joy of trying to rejoin the traffic once more.

As we got up into Petionville itself (there was no gap between the capital city and the ville), the houses were more substantial.  In the central square (which took ten minutes to navigate round) there were some trees, the first public greenery I had seen since leaving the airport.  We continued on upwards in a much more suburban, well constructed and greener environment.  High walls concealed the high status housing .  Up some steep cobbled roads off the main route south out of Petionville, we veered off down a red dirt driveway and stopped next to a high white wall with a heavy metal gate blocking an entrance.  I walked over to the gate, where a small shutter was scraped open and I made my introductions.  I had to hand over my passport and wait a few moments in the blistering heat.  Two heavily armed security guards were ambling around on the driveway.  Eventually I was let in to a  narrow courtyard packed with diplomatic cars and through a glass lobby into an amazing house.  The back was converted to administrative offices, the front was a huge open plan area fronted by three storeys of glass looking out over the city.  This was the European Union’s offices in Haiti, our funders for the project, and my two colleagues were already deep in a meeting here.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Negotiating the traffic

That little disaster over, I sat back and let the driver take me to my colleagues.  I was aware we were going to drive about 10 kilometres, but that it might take up to two hours.  Haitian main roads are in bad repair, they are clogged with traffic made worse by people trying to be clever and gain advantage ending up clogging the road even further when they get stuck – for example by dropping into a storm drain, crashing into a market stall or just being wedged at a curious angle against the general direction of traffic.  My driver was almost resigned to this, but he said he knew a few short cuts that would hopefully get us up the hill faster.

The first stage was not too bad – a wide dual carriageway leads from the airport along the valley bottom towards the city centre of Port Au Prince.    But soon this became clogged with lunch time traffic.  My driver veered off the main road on to some rough back streets – at best untarmacced, at worst a minefield of craters and piles of rubbish, stones, bricks, and rubble.   Yes the rubble.  It was two and a half years since the earthquake and yet on every street corner there were small hills of concrete, rebar, stones that had once been houses, shops, walls, people’s property.  In many areas they had simply been bulldozed to one side of the street to allow access, and left there as no-one could pay to have it moved away, and maybe the sites where they could be dumped were already full.  Some enterprising souls had scavenged in these piles and extracted materials to build again, but mostly the rubble was mixed with so much detritus, dust and dirt that it was futile to try and recycle.


Finally a quieter street

We zigzagged up these steep side streets for several minutes, progress circuitous as we avoided the worst of the potholes.  Occasionally we would have to slow to a crawl to work our way round another vehicle coming down the hill – neither wanting to give up the better road surface meaning wing mirrors would touch as you squeezed past.

The use of the backstreets did mean we appeared to make progress for a while, but we were heading to the town of Petionville  perched on the side of the main valley.  The limited options for getting up the slope meant at some stage we had to rejoin the main road.  Not only was the road itself choked with traffic but few vehicles would give way to joining traffic, and when we got within 100m of the road, we had to sit patiently in a queue of our own.