By Richard Ammon
Updated July 2006
A couple of years ago I took several taxi rides in various Japanese cities. The cars were newer models–virtually all white Toyotas–spotless inside and out; the seat backs had doilies and the drivers wore white gloves and neckties. Air conditioning was a standard amenity and the cars were clearly marked with lighted roof signs–yellow for engaged and blue for vacant. When they weren’t driving a customer the owners, in clean white shirts, dusted off their cars with soft feather brushes. Of course all this polish did not come cheaply; even the shortest ride could be seven dollars for a short lift downtown but the comfort and ease was worth it.
The antithesis of these Asian comfort cars is to be found in Haiti. Taking a taxi here is what might be called a high-risk sport not for the faint of heart.
First you have to figure out what a taxi looks like but this does not take long because undoubtedly a well-used vehicle will stop in front of you with a grinning or grumpy driver (and maybe a hand printed ‘taxi’ sign on a torn piece of cardboard on the dashboard). "Taxi?" he will say. It’s the only way to tell. There is no meter, no roof sign, no posted rates. Since there is no other option as all taxis are thus ‘invisible’.
A quick glance at the vehicle you are about to enter might remind you of a time ago when, as a resourceful teenager, you made a trip to the nearest junk yard looking for a used rear-view mirror for your ’73 Camaro or Falcon. The taxis here have that particular reminiscent appearance–junkers dropped off from a passing truck on its way south of the border. But Haitian taxi drivers see these vehicles as gold mines.
The vast majority of these scraps on wheels have been remodeled–crinkled fenders, bent bumpers, missing headlights, broken tail lights and, like individual fingerprints, spidery cracked windshields that no one would think of replacing. Not to mention the spots, stains and smears on the windows through which you have to squint ahead. Sometimes I try to take photos through the windshield. If I did that here my image would have a surrealistic blur or split or streak across it.
Also obscuring the view forward is the peeling layer of plastic sun tint as well as a license sticker or two or three. The lights may or may not work. You may see the road passing by through a hole in the floor. One headlight on my taxi one night was aimed upward and askew like a searchlight scanning the sky. They could have used it at the airport.
Now, as you get into these mechanical junk drawers, it’s likely you will first reach for the door handle–if there is one. Then you risk banging your head on the dangling sun visor as you drop onto the springless seat disturbing the layer of dust that has settled since the last customer; the fetid fumes and grit of the streets covers every surface.
Facing forward you may or may not see dashboard instruments. It’s not unusual to have empty sockets and compartments oozing wires where should be dashboard controls. Perhaps a radio if you are lucky–unless he turns it on. Then there is only one volume setting–very loud. The speaker is only two feet away and the passenger-oblivious driver feels he has to make his contribution to the already hapless music cacophony blaring from a dozen other sources in the neighborhood–other taxis, music shops, a balcony, private cars and–most penetrating–from the circus-colored ‘tap-tap’ pick-up truck/buses that ply the streets picking up and dropping off passengers for a few cents.
There are also thousands of these buses wildly painted with primary colors and scenes of the Bible or Rocky or Jesus or Mary or Marley or John the Baptist. You can learn your Sunday school lessons just standing on a street corner. These buses seem propelled by the force of their radio sounds as much as by gasoline; a trip in one of these (or near one) can frazzle the auditory nerves.
Meanwhile, back in the rattling and shaking taxi, the driver may stop to pick another person, then another, then another. Remember the old college prank of stuffing bodies into a telephone booth? I think they invented it here: three or four in the front seat and five in the back seat of a straining old Toyota sedan seems to be common. But I did notice a deference to white faces and I was not wine-pressed in with others in the front seat–only three.
And so it goes, all day every day up and down the hills and across Port au Prince’s jammed streets packed with pedestrians and unused vehicles (or parts of them, abandoned for years) parked helter-skelter obstructing the sidewalks. New (rare) SUV drivers feel they can park anywhere regardless of their effect on traffic flow. So the thousands of walkers, hawkers, hustlers, housewives, students and tourist ‘guides’ (who will attach themselves like suckers to you if you are alone and white) are forced to walk in the streets and play dodge-em with the vehicles whose drivers see pedestrians as targets at best and invisible at worst. I came within inches of being crushed by a semi cargo truck blasting it way through the maze with its ear-splitting air horn.
And if your taxi breaks down, to no one’s surprise, the driver does not call AAA (which in Haiti could mean Absurd Automobile Association). He gets out his wrench and wires and, voila, in a minute of jiggling, banging, twisting or torquing, you (and the other sardines in the back seat) are on your way to the next stop or breakdown. As for the cars behind being blocked by the repair, well they just wait, honk and rail–the language of the streets.
But I haven’t mentioned the humanitarian part of the taxi experience–haggling over the price. To put it mildly, these guys see white faces as resembling Andrew Jackson (on the $20 bill) or Hamilton (on the $10) and they charge accordingly: $5 (Lincoln–who looks like that!?) for a very short trip of less than half a kilometer or $20 for a longer trip up the hill (where the ‘rich’ people live in suburb of Petionville); then $20 back down; or $20 to the airport or most points outside the city center. They will start higher and you are forced to argue for what you know is a reasonable price anywhere else in the world. It’s demeaning since the passenger doesn’t want to get ripped off but knows the driver is wretchedly poor and the driver knows the tourist is rich and feels justified in ripping him off.
If the driver gives in for a couple of dollars he will then grumble all the way about the high cost of gasoline here. (Curiously when they go to a gas station they only buy a gallon at a time; the price has doubled in the past two years thanks to the inept and corrupt government.) The interminable snail’s pace of the traffic is maddening so never be in a hurry–no one else is or can be. It’s jammed most of the way–‘chock-a-block’, as the Brits say. The average speed of a taxi is about the walking pace of an arthritic camel.
Nor have they yet discovered the one-way street in Port au Prince. No, instead they have unbelievably irrational ‘four-way’ narrow streets–traffic crawling in two directions and herds of pedestrians crossing the paths of cars, not to mention the carts and cargo stacked on the sidewalks which force trucks and buses to the middle where they may or may not squeeze past each other. There are perhaps half a dozen traffic lights that work in the downtown chaos, but these are considered mere suggestions and most people ignore them unless police are standing by.
I suggest a separate budget for taxi travel in this dirty crowded city. Unless of course you have a car and driver supplied by a bloated UN agency or a profitable NGO organization–then you can ride in air-conditioned comfort in a spiffy late-model SUV through the dense traffic–as slowly as everyone else–to your destination with tinted glass separating you from the sordid scene outside.
So, the experience of a taxi in Port at Prince is a memorable one, from the moment of despair at having to enter one of these wrinkled wonders to the irritating custom of being ripped off. Welcome to a country born out of slavery, abused by European colonists and impoverished by the brutal corruption of its own governments.
But I look forward to my return there. Despite the poverty and chaos these people struggle and survive. Their taxis are mutilated monuments to their endurance and their buses, like their paintings, are defiant color-filled shouts of vital spirit.