Can’t quite believe it, but tomorrow my plane takes off and I head off to college. I think one of the things I’ll miss most about Haiti is how many choices I have – about where I want to go, what I want to buy, and who I want to spend time with, plus how I react to everything. Compared to my life as a teenager in the suburbs, things here are cheap, convenient, and fresh. To give you an idea of what I’ll be missing when I leave, here’s a summary of how I spent my last full day in Haiti.
The story of today should actually start the night before. Last night, I stayed up until 11:30 or so with a bunch of the orphanage boys. Between 12 and 15, they’re old enough to take care of themselves for the most part but young enough that they don’t have to go get a job over the summers. They’re the perfect group to mess around with the computers, basically. Perched on a bunkbed, installing software, trying to load webpages, and taking photos, with all these boys crowded around me, I felt a little like Wendy in the Peter Pan movie that was on television earlier that day.
Anyway, this morning I wake up at 7:30, which is late here – the day starts as soon as it’s bright enough to start cooking breakfast. The kids give me time to eat and bathe, but then they’re ready to get started on some laptop repair – some of the cameras don’t seem to be working, and I want to try reconnecting the cables. Everyone clusters around when I bring out the screwdriver. “She’s doing an operation on it,” they say. One kid, Hansley, helps me out, handing me screws and holding down different components. I hand over the screwdriver to him and have him do the next two machines.
Then I’m off to a school in Croix-des-Bouquets to surprise Ruben, who’s teaching there. On my way from the station, I attempt to buy a drink. Suddenly a police car pulls up and all the street vendors start packing their things up before a guard can come out and harass them. “Give me the money quickly!” the woman says. I’m amused – I haven’t ever had anyone tell me something like that before.
As I follow her through the crowd to collect my change, I see another vendor who’s got a gold bottle with a black top in his bucket. I get my money back and buy from him instead, since this is the elusive “Gold Ragaman.” Regular Ragaman is one of my favorite drinks: full of caffeine and sugar, sweetened with ginseng. Ever since I found out “Gold Ragaman” existed, I’ve been looking for it, but until today I’d never gotten the chance to try it. Turns out the gold version has a delicious citrus tang to it. I quickly conclude that it’s kind of the best thing ever, and definitely worth the hunt.
Turns out I misinterpreted a text message and there’s no class today anyway, so I head back to the station. When I arrive, I immediately get the sense that something’s off. Maybe it’s just the fact that the corner is clear of merchants – no cell phone guys with all the fancy gadgets laid out, no fried plaintain women sizzling the next batch, no guys balancing sacks of water on their heads. There’s lots of police around. I pause for a moment but everyone else is just going about their business, so I go ahead and cross the street to find a taptap.
A couple of bottles come flying over a wall and smash on the street. Everyone who’s standing around waiting for a taptap runs between some nearby buildings. I try to ask what’s going on. People tell me the police made all the street vendors go away. I ask if this happens often and they say yes. No one seems really alarmed but they moved here fast and they’re giggling.
Everything seems clear so we come out again and resume standing around waiting for transportation. But, when we try to signal empty taptaps to stop and pick us up, they just drive right past. Everyone moves further down, out of sight of the gas station, but suddenly no taptaps are coming anymore. “Shit,” the guy next to me mumbles.
Finally, a box truck rolls up – this is a big truck with benches along the edges, ropes to hold on to in the middle, and holes cut out for ventilation. No one really likes riding in them, but we all know it’s our only choice so we hop on. A guy sitting near me stands up and starts urging people to accept Jesus. The guy next to me tunes in, saying “Amen” at the appropriate times, but most people ignore the sermon.
I arrive at the next station and walk to Jeanide’s house without incident. Every smashed bottle I see in the street makes me wonder, but I’m not too worried, or I wouldn’t be walking down the street with 5 solar panels in my arms. I do notice that there are more police out on the road, and when turning a corner I see a parade of guys blowing plastic horns and holding up signs going down another street. I can’t tell if it’s a rara celebration or a protest.
“I knew from the news there would be protest,” Jeanide tells me when I show up. A former president, Aristide, has been on trial and it’s got everyone on edge. Plus, 300 criminals escaped from a prison recently, making the police look bad. Everything’s connected, obviously. I can’t just leave the house in the morning and hop on a bus and expect everything to always go normally. It’s one of the things I’ve always loved about Haiti: the fact that actions can have such an impact. Haitians put a lot of thought into what it means to be Haitian – you hear it in every song, on every advertisement, in the conversations on the bus.
I go to the orphanage in Ti Plas Cazeau next, to drop off some items and check up on their server. Turns out everything’s working – it just wasn’t powered on. I meet with Dyna, the teacher we’re appointing as director of the laptop program for the schoolyear that’s coming, and we talk about the new opportunities that are available now that Internet-in-a-Box is finally working.
After that I try to go to MSC+, the largest hardware store here, so I can check up on what charge controllers are available: the one in Ansapit broke yesterday. There’s a traffic jam, though, so I don’t make it before closing time. Instead, I stay on the taptap and ride all the way to end of its route, and then I take another, and another. I want to try to find a school my boss was telling me about. I remember seeing a sign for it going down the road.
I keep my eyes peeled, but I don’t see the sign – either it’s already been painted over or it’s just blocked by a gate or a parked car or something. The guy sitting next to me strikes up a conversation, practicing his English by asking me questions about where I’m from and what I’m up to. I try to avoid his not-too-subtle requests for my contact information. Sometimes, I wish a conversation on the bus could really just be a conversation on the bus, and didn’t necessarily have to lead to getting my phone number. But, that’s another thing I love about Haiti: the fact that people actually talk to each other on public transportation, when there’s something worth talking about.
I get Fefe to meet me on the road and take me to his house for a visit. I meet his father, talk about the future, and help him edit a brochure for his tourism business. By then it’s already getting dark, so I end up jumping into the cab of a truck. The driver asks me to pay 15 goud for the ride, which is probably too much, but I give it to him anyway because night is coming and that’s the time when you start running out of options for getting from place to place.
I start thinking about where I’m going to spend the night. Jeanide’s place is closer, only one taptap ride away. But I figure I’ll see her tomorrow anyway, passing through on the way to the airport, and I’ve got some business to finish up at the orphanage. I find a taptap to take me to the closest station, even though I have to wait a little longer for it to fill up with people. From the station, the taptap I grab ends up crammed with bodies – everyone’s headed home, and this might be the last taptap of the night. I can’t see past the people and I end up missing my stop, which is embarrassing – you think you always know exactly where you’re going, but sometimes at night things change.
I get off and start walking – I’m about 15 minutes away. Along the way, I buy some fried food and munch on it. A 50 goud bill fell out of my pocket somewhere along the way, so buying the food ends up taking the last of my small change. I only have 1000 goud notes in my wallet – the equivalent of $25 USD, and much too large to buy anything. I try asking a drink shop for change anyway. The woman in charge exclaims, “Oh no! That’s much too big!” She’s shocked at the very thought. The woman sitting next to her asks me where I’m from and informs me that she herself lives in Boston and is here visiting family. She introduces me to her son. We talk a little and then I start walking away. They call me back. “Are you thirsty?” They give me a bottle of water, even though I have no way of paying for it.
By the time I finally arrive back at the orphanage, everyone’s already asleep, but Silar’s wife hears me slip in and sits up. “We left some food on the table for you,” she says. I’m still pretty hungry – the fried stuff was the first thing I remembered to eat since breakfast.
As you can see, over the course of just a day I make tons of mistakes and bad decisions, but I’m also trying to adapt really quickly and hopefully not repeat those same errors again. I can only hope each day of college will be just as educational as a day in Haiti.