How I finally got to Haiti: adventures on the border and what is taptap

Don’t be surprised – I’m NOT in Haiti right now! I decided to write a few posts about most amazing travel experiences during this last half-a-year – since the time I updated the blog regularly. A kind of a “Greatest Hits”. They will pop up in a kind of random order. First off – the most exotic of all – HAITI!

A visit to Haiti was in my sights already during my first visit to Santo Domingo. That time I couldn’t make it – despite trying numerous times to buy a bus ticket to Port-au-Prince. There was always a reason – the office of the only bus company that plies the route was unexplicably closed; or they wouldn’t have tickets; or the border was closed and the bus was cancelled – “Huelga!” shouted at me a black saleswoman when I inquired about the reasons.

And yet I was irresistibly drawn by Haiti – it felt like a truly weird place, wild, chaotic, exotic and unknown, a perfect candidate to broaden my own travelling horizons. Haiti is unique as the only country in the history of the world where a slave insurrection has been victorious and has led to independence. The slaves managed to defeat the troops sent by Napoleon himself!

Unfortunately, their hardwon freedom has not resulted in exemplary prosperity. The slave republic has long been an outcast in the world affairs, shunned by all of its colonial neighbours and even forced to pay absurd reparations to its former colonial master, France. In the 20th century constant meddling by the Americans guaranteed no sane leader could remain long in his position, whereas the terrible Duvalier dynasty had a free reign to terrorise the population for decades as long as they played ball with the United States. As if that wasn’t enough, an horrific earthquake struck Port-au-Prince in 2010. Today Haiti, while trying to rebuild itself, remains the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

So how did I make it there? I changed my tactics and decided to go to Haiti from Santiago de los Caballeros (DR’s second city) instead of Santo Domingo. As I flew to Santiago from Puerto Rico, first thing I did was visit the office of Caribe Tours that was supposed to sell tickets to Cap-Haïtien, Haiti’s second city. That office was a windowless room hidden somewhere in the back of an out-of-town bus station in Santiago. A lone black man sat in the windowless room. As I switched from Spanish to French, his facial expression changed immediately as if he decided that my request to buy a ticket was not a joke. He sold me a bus ticket for the following morning. I didn’t reveal my excitement, knowing how nothing is set in stone when it comes to Haiti.

The following morning I was waiting in the station and – surprise, surprise – the bus arrived almost on time and off we went to Cap-Haitien. To make it all easier for myself, I left my large luggage bag in a hotel in Santiago and only took a small rucksack with me. Each and every passenger in the bus besides myself was black, with one notable exception: a crazy guy from South Korea who didn’t even speak any of the local languages – not Spanish and not French (not even mentioning Creole). Of course we started talking (in English) and it turned out he had also been to more than 100 countries. We did have a lot to discuss, especially considering that his travel collection was very different from mine – he’d been to a lot fo countries in Africa for example.

And yet Haiti did show it’s character. Let me explain. As we were approaching the border, all of a sudden a strange commotion set in inside the bus. A loud discussion turned into an argument turned into a shouting match – in Creole. Finally I managed to grab the travel hostess (yes, these buses feature a hostess who welcomes you on board, serves lunch, and is theoretically responsible for all border formalities). The hostess declared to me that the bus will not go further. Why??? The border is closed. Somebody has been killed and the police has closed the border bridge. The bus goes back to Santiago!!! However, if you want, you can cross the border on foot. And then organise your own transport to Cap-Haitien.

I think something in me already expected something like this. Otherwise why would I have taken only a rucksack with me? So I translated all this story to the South Korean, we looked at each other for a split second and of course decided that we would cross the border on foot. To her credit, the hostess took us in tow and took care of us in the immigration departments of the two countries. On this pic you can see as she leads the way to the Haitian immigration. She is second from left.

A look back at the border.

The lorries wait in an eternal queue thanks to the Haitians’ crossing the border bridge.

The border itself is a very dirty river in which the locals nevertheless cheerfully swim and wash their clothes. I photographed it from a bus window on my return trip:

The hostess left us after we’d crossed the border without any issues. Immediately in the very immigration building we were surrounded by a crew of non-descript characters who insistently tugged on our clothes and offered us their “taxi” services to take us anyplace we like – charging tens, hundreds, why, thousands of dollars! Quickly we lost all trust in them and headed out, towards the border town of Ouanaminthe. I had info that from Ouanaminthe local minibuses headed to Cap-Haïtien.

I was impressed by the zen-like tranquillity of my South Korean companion through all of this. He cheerfully filmed all of this on his video camera and generally took his time, despite the fact that the evening darkness was slowly approaching. His calm was quite infectious. This is how Ouanaminthe looks. To be honest, it looks like a rubbish pile.

Finally after several kilometres’ walk through Ouanaminthe in the scorching sun we reached a non-descript “station” surrounded by a chaotic collection of local buses. We were quickly ushered into one of them – luckily next to the driver. My view – I’m sitting right behind the driver. Note the scenic metal scraps hanging from the ceiling.

The Korean is sitting next to the driver and is constantly filming, provoking everyone’s laughter.

The view of Ouanamanithe out the window to my left. We sit in this position for an hour, waiting for the bus to fill. The local buses all over Haiti are called taptaps. Very quickly I realised the origin of this name. Apart from the driver, there is always a second worker in a local bus – a kind of a hustler who directs the flow of passengers. Every time he asks for a stop or signals we can keep moving, he slightly taps the bus with his hand – literally “tap! tap!” The taptap stops everywhere all the time, and the back of taptap is filled to the brim with Haitians with most inbelievable density.

And finally after a few hours we enter Cap-Haïtien.

/to be continued in the next post/

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