The next day, when we exited the airport and piled into the Hospice St. Joseph van, we were greeted by Matthieu. He and Domond would become the mainstays of transportation in the days, months, and years ahead. There is a cliché: Traffic was a nightmare. I always associated it with driving on an Interstate during a holiday weekend. In fact, that kind of driving is a dream compared to driving in Haiti.
For most of us, driving assumes roads and roads that are in pretty fair condition. Haiti lacks most areas of infrastructure that First World Countries take for granted—starting with paved highways. Even country roads in the United States are decently maintained. In Haiti, the best road connects Port-au-Prince and Jacmel—at least it did until a recent hurricane wiped out the main bridge. Other highways, including the main one that runs the length of the country between Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien, are a series of massive potholes each one worse than the last.
Everyone drives at breakneck speed while attempting to swerve around the holes. That means traffic seldom stays in the lanes intended for it. Signals for variance are a cacophony of horns and semaphoric arm waving. The horns are so omnipresent that, in fact, they just blend into the general noise—almost like background conversations in a large room.
Vehicles of all descriptions and sizes clog the roads. Large farm-type trucks with tall slatted sides serve as long-range buses—where passengers stand, grasping longitudinally placed boards above their heads for stability; pick-up trucks that have undergone serious surgery and are painted in brilliant colors rush up and down streets in something approaching routes. These vehicles, called tap-taps, are the usual transportation of the cities. Each tap-tap has a name, usually referencing God or a saint, across the front and across the rear. Add to this mix private cars in various states of disrepair, flat bed carts (the size of pick-up truck beds) carried on two wheels that support huge loads of items such as bags of charcoal and pulled by a single man, and assorted chickens, goats, and large pigs in groups and singly and that is the scenic description of a normal street or road. This is the traffic we entered when we left the airport. And, we did not enter it slowly.
From the moment we had exited the plane and entered the van, we were in sensory overload—assailed by the noise, color, movement, heat, sweat, and smell. The smell! It enveloped the body as thoroughly as the heat. The atmosphere was a soup of diesel vapors, body smells, gasoline and oil fumes, garbage stink, animal odors, and sewage stench. It assailed the nose and mouth—stuffing them as the uninvited vehicle of the necessary oxygen. The whole experience was physically stunning and, accompanied by the ricocheting van, thoroughly disorienting. Somehow or other in a sort of time dilation, we reached the Hospice St. Joseph.