Carlos insisted that, in order to get to Cap-Haïtien by the afternoon, he and I had to leave at 4:30 the following morning. On the map the distance looked to be only a couple hundred miles or so, not even; that would make for less than half a day’s drive. I was assuming first-world roads, time, bureaucracies. I had never been to Haiti.
I asked Carlos in our common French, “Pourquoi aussi tôt?”—Why so early?
Perhaps sensing my ignorance, he responded only to say the time was absolutely necessary for the journey.
So I was a little put out when he pulled up at my AirBnB substantially past the rendezvous time. Light was starting to pink the eastern sky. We were headed to Haiti’s second city, which lies forty miles west of the border from the Dominican Republic—“the Dee-Arr”, in the loping tones of the American tourist, to whose rolls I was adding my name for the first time with this trip.
Carlos is Carlos Burgos, a taxi driver who told me he had just launched his own business, on credit, his fleet a single, beat-up van. Carlos lived in Cabarete, a somnolent beach town on the DR’s northern coast, where I had booked the off-season, aforementioned AirBnB for a few days. The driver came recommended from Jean-Henri, a snaggle-toothed Belgian who was funding his retirement—like so many other Europeans were doing in the DR—by renting out his Cabarete condo.
Carlos is from Haiti. He has lived across the border under his adopted, false, Hispanified name for years. Such identity-scrubbing measures are obligatory, the cost of survival, given the countries’ long record of antipathy and episodic violence. Jean-Henri recommended Carlos to me because, the Belgian said, he gives a good service; speaks French, Spanish, and Haitian Creole (but not English); stands like a bouncer at 6 foot 3; and knows the human circus that is the border crossing from Dajabón, on the DR side, into Ouanaminthe (“Wanna MANT?”), Haiti’s border-town counterpart. Dajabón and Ouanaminthe are both slums, but there are reasons why it was the Haitians—many from hours away—lining up to cross over, and why far fewer Dominicans tried to enter Ouanaminthe.
After an hour Carlos and I stopped for breakfast in the half-dark village of Navarrete, at a roadside stand he appeared to know well. A male attendant, drawing a Styrofoam plate from a suspended plastic sack, piled up sausage, bacon, fried manioc, and another kind of sausage. A second male attendant handed over a plastic cup of equal parts coffee and cane sugar. The meal was a rude delight in the fatigue of the too-early morning. Carlos and I ate quickly, thanked the men, and resumed the drive.
We passed other towns, now under watery illumination: Esperanza, Marizal, Laguna Salada. Carlos told me that he is the proud, if unintended, father of nine children, as assisted by the fecundities of three separate women.
I congratulated him, for the nine-children part. I didn’t know what else to say. “Félicitations!”
“C’est trop!” he countered, smiling. It’s too many!
The road flattened out. At Jaibón vistas of rice paddies spread from the roadsides. The nearby houses didn’t rise higher than a single story. Guayubín added rows of date palm trees, trenches dug four feet deep around the trunks.
After a couple of hours the landscape shifted, approximating semi-desert California. The ground became arid and dotted with scrub. At Monte Christi, on the coast at the bend in Highway 45 that drives straight south, the land looked just as dry. We jolted along the terrible road, averaging maybe 20 miles per hour among the potholes and the dust. The town of Carbonera, as if obligated by its name, smelled of smoke, and fainter notes of roasting chicken.
Dajabón had more low buildings, in bright shades of cheap paint, the structures all crouched as if anticipating the day’s punishing sun. Dominican women shopped from Haitian ones, the latter sitting knees-up among their vegetables and made-in-China plastic household tools. Long lines of Haitians strained, chest-to-shoulders, through an iron gate flanked by Dominican soldiers. Motorbike taxi drivers, dozens of them, looked for fares. Touts wheeled everywhere, offering to haul border-crossers’ bags on their backs.
Carlos and I hit trouble at the Dajabón customs grounds. Carlos parked where one soldier told him to. I let Carlos deal with the border guards. That was his job, not mine. I needed a passport stamp.
At the customs window I rendered my passport, paid, and barely had time to admire the still-wet stamp outside when Carlos told me he couldn’t drive any further. Any Haitian driving an empty van into Haiti and back made the Dominican border force very nervous.
“They won’t let me”, he said. “They have concerns. ‘Security’, they said.”
“I need to get to Cap-Haïtien!” I nearly shouted, afraid that he had me in mid-scam.
“You will”, Carlos said. “Let’s go to the bridge.”
A tout encrusted himself to us, with what I observed was Carlos’ assent after a few Creole words between them. We pushed as far as the gate of the bridge over the Masacre River, so named after an early bloodbath—there have been several—that transpired there between Haitians and Dominicans.
Crossing the crowded bridge, fending off other touts, I saw garbage drifting in the river below. Women dried their laundry on the rocks, just above the waterborne litter. It was blistering-bright and humid on that concrete bridge, cacophonous at nine o’clock in the morning.
Carlos found a moneychanger for his Dominican pesos. He needed Haitian gourdes (rhymes with ‘food’, even the plural).
“I’m paying to get you to Cap-Haïtien”, he told me. “Out of my own pocket. I’ll come back here later, on my way home.”
“Well, it’s your van!”
Carlos tried to level with me. “If I don’t get you there, and I don’t call my boss from Cap-Haïtien to say I got you there safely, I could lose my job”, Carlos said.
“I thought you worked for yourself.”
“We all work for somebody. The van isn’t paid for yet.”
Fair enough, I thought.
Carlos having received his cash—in tattered, filthy bills of gourdes—he and I moved to the people-processing tent of the International Organization for Migration, a division of the UN. The OIM operated here in the absence of certain basic trappings of the Haitian government. A thousand aid groups did likewise, all over Haiti.
The lady asked my name and business in Haiti. I answered: “Tourisme.” She had me plunge my thumb deep into a blue inkpad and stand aside for the person behind me. The lady finished with him and told me I could proceed to Haitian customs. I wondered why she’d made me stand there, my thumb soaked in gratuitous blue, as I smeared it onto a napkin from our Navarrete breakfast.
We crossed a wide, crumbling parking lot. A Haitian customs lady spoke from behind scratched plate glass that bore extravagant smears of its own.
“Seventeen dollars, please.” She said they took only US dollars.
But I didn’t have any dollars, I told Carlos, whining. Only pesos. He issued a loud command to the tout, who understood the problem instantly and disappeared towards a solution. The Haitian state may run a neat little hard-currency racket, but it didn’t help the traveler any. From what had been the tout’s blasé aspect across the potholed lot, and his instant understanding of Carlos’ signal, it seemed this was routine. Even banal. Another day at the border.
Carlos stepped aside to make a phone call. Perhaps it had been too early to call before, whoever it was.
The tout returned with greenbacks as dirty as Carlos’ gourdes. We paid the lady and stepped outside to a swarm of mototaxi drivers. They looked hungry for work. They looked hungry, period.
Carlos finagled a deal from two of them. He told me to go with one driver; that driver and I, and Carlos and his driver, would ride into Cap-Haïtien, two guys to a bike. If the roads were much like the pavement in the lot, forty miles might take two hours, I realized.
One driver plopped my oversized rucksack between his bike’s handles, the top angled up, like a ship’s maiden figurehead. The butt of the bag he parked firmly in his crotch.
Carlos straddled the other bike, mounting behind the driver. He nodded to me to do the same on my bike. Never in my life had I ridden on a motorcycle. But what choice did I have? Carlos’ van was impounded across the river, in a different country. I curled my fingers around the bars of the luggage rack behind my seat.
We pulled out of Haitian customs, through an unattended gate, into Ouanaminthe. Into Haiti, my maiden voyage in the country and on a motorbike.
We had pushed three minutes into the town’s pungent crush when Carlos saw a cousin of his on the street.
“I have to say hi!” Carlos shouted to me. “Let’s stop.”
Carlos bounded up, over an open gutter, into the dusty, fenced courtyard of his relative’s house.
A rooster, in glorious black and green plumage, strutted by, pumping his neck. I took a photo with my phone, not seeing, behind the bird, the squatting, ancient, toothless woman cooking a stew on the sidewalk.
She uttered curses as lurid as the gutter at her feet. I begged her pardon, once, and again, in French; after a moment of more spewed bile, Carlos’ driver rebuked her, in Creole words close to French.
“He said he was sorry”, the young man said.
Two boys came by, loitering around me, the white stranger on their street. I was a curiosity; they were curious. They smiled bashfully in the mode of adolescents everywhere.
“Bonjour”, I called, the word sounding painfully French in my ears. They responded with a murmured Creole hello—“BON-joo.”
I offered each of them a stick of chewing gum. I hoped the show of goodwill might curry favor, or temper some of the crone’s menace, while we waited out Carlos’ impromptu family reunion. The boys thanked me and faded down the street.
Carlos emerged from the shade, laughing, and hugged his cousin once more. He threw his trunk of a leg over the bike. “Let’s go”, he said to the drivers, as if he’d been waiting on them.
Ouanaminthe dissipated into countryside as we gained speed. Churning down Highway 6, we passed a gas station, crammed to combustible with cars and bikes vying for the last drops of gasoline.
“Trop peu de pétrole”, my driver called back to me, nodding to the motorists stuck in line. He assured me he had plenty of fuel.
The roadsides bore impressive strata of garbage, as if ground into layers there deliberately, as a substitute for asphalt. More people and more litter lined the road in parallel columns. More scattered garbage bled into the green-and-brown fields on either side. Palm trees poked here and there like decorations. The sky’s few clouds had teased out like wool above our heads.
In lieu of stop signs, or the higher luxury of traffic lights, the road lay barred every half-mile or so with a modest speedbump that was formed with cheap cohesive and handfuls of rocks. On each end the bump was chipped away, the better to let a motorbike glide through unhindered. Bikers ahead of us marked the way, shifting in concert towards the gaps. I marveled at the crude attempt at road safety, and the even cruder efforts to defeat it—chipped-out sections, perhaps with a hammer and crowbar, the work of villagers who would benefit most from slower drivers.
The four of us weaved through the gaps in long curves for an hour. The towns had free-association names, lacking all sense or geographic description: The Cat, Jesus, Standing-Up, Lemonade. We had entered a land between cloud-misted, very green mountains on our left, to the south, with the Caribbean Sea coast a long mile to our right. This was the northern coast of Hispaniola, the island binding the DR to Haiti as permanent, bitter neighbors. Columbus came to this stretch of coast in 1492, not his first landfall in the New World, but one of them. His Santa Maria sank near here.
We were sailing through tropical pastureland, not quite so harsh as the sensory assault of dusty Ouanaminthe, when a pair of Haitian border guards, unaccountably far from the border, shouted from the shade of their roadside post for a passport check.
The senior officer commanded something of me in Spanish. He might have assumed I was a white Dominican, traveling with three Haitian hired men, worlds from my home country. That was all true but the Dominican part.
The man softened when I addressed him politely in French and drew my passport.
He passed the book back and smiled when I offered a handshake. The other guard wanted to shake my hand also.
In a half-hour we decelerated into the outer fringe of Cap-Haïtien’s shantytowns. Spreading before us for long miles was the Shada, its name the acronym of a failed mid-century agricultural reform on this land—which land-needy Haitians had totally re-appropriated, homesteading in shack after beige concrete shack. A main road grew a thousand crooked side roads, like a millipede’s body and legs, and just as ugly. In each natural depression ran streams of sewage and more trash. Unclaimed animals—dogs, goats, even pigs—picked through it all. Car horns blared through the dust. Music played from crammed minibuses. People everywhere trucked in the pettiest commerce wherever traffic flowed. And there were people, everywhere.
The Shada was a zone of movement, in that sense. It was also a place of capitalism’s roughest outcomes. People and animals sweated and screamed for a scrap of food, or a sale, or a trade of any kind in their favor. All of them hustled constantly, yet nothing and no one got ahead—except the motorists like us, just passing through.
The road ran both ways, but lanes were a subtler concept altogether. Motorbike drivers swung wide to pass a cement mixer, or a group of schoolkids, all uniformed, in the Catholic tradition. The coral tones of their school colours flared in heartstopping contrast to their dark arms, heads, faces. The girls wore their hair in white ribbons or pastel barrettes. These young ones seemed preternaturally beautiful, as if Haiti produced no such thing as a plain child. Their handsomeness was more poignant for the dangers of the roads they walked. Vehicles of all sizes passed them at full speed, within inches sometimes. Every Shada Haitian was a crack driver, but that didn’t preclude accidents if a soccer ball or a chicken skittered out from an alley.
The final mile to the Habitation des Lauriers, my gardened hotel that perched on a cliff above the city, crammed the four of us into a throng of a hundred thousand parts, some human, some animal, others machine, all moving. More minibuses squealed through. Motorbikes leaned around their obstacles. More children filed on, more pastels against more dark skin.
One cluster of boys wore little matching getups of brown button-up shirts and brown shorts, brown socks, and black sneakers. They looked like tiny UPS drivers.
On our bikes we scaled the hill, or tried to. At the base of the street to where the hotel stands on its cliff, the bikes couldn’t take the incline. The pavement lay slick. A rain had just spritzed the neighborhood. The drivers tried to climb, the wheels gripping before spinning, the bikes sinking back in a crescent as the barrio’s residents hopped out of the way, unfazed. It was now past noon, and the fatigue of the over-full morning, conspiring with the bike and its driver, threatened to take me under. I dismounted and started walking. My driver assured me he could climb as far as the hotel entrance. I wished him good luck.
I marched higher, stopping for breath, the final two hundred yards, at what was likely a thirty-five-degree gradient, on the uneven wet cement. I wondered if my driver would take off with my rucksack, if he guessed, correctly, that its contents were worth more than the fare.
But the driver was sitting there dutifully, my bag still in his crotch, as I plodded up through the gates of the Habitation. Carlos and the other driver had made it to the top as well. Theirs was a Haitian aptitude for sweating through difficulties, for climbing the mountains of their mountain-strewn country, in the national striving way.
We were greeted, in the differentials of human respect that remain normal on Hispaniola, by a rarified Latina named Brenda. This was the Brenda, star of a hundred Booking.com reviews. Brenda would tell me she was born in Honduras; educated in Canada, where she married a fellow student (a Haitian, and a fellow Catholic); then relocated to Cap-Haïtien, her husband’s hometown. Brenda’s cliffside hotel, to leave aside her background and tone of palest criollo Spanish skin, set her apart from the city at her feet.
The view from the balcony over the east-facing bay—a vast ring of green water, cement buildings in jagged squares below, the slope of the northern hill, the muted roar of humanity—warranted every minute of fatigue and confusion and stress on the road that had begun before dawn in Cabarete, in another country, that very long day.
That evening, I heard shouts in Creole from a deeply charismatic church above the hotel.
“ALL-LEH-LOO-YA GLWAH! ALL-LEH-LOO-YA GLWAH!” they screamed, the microphones and speakers tumbling the sound towards the sea. Glory glory, hallelujah!
Brenda passed the balcony bar as I finished my last beer for the night.
“I’m sorry for the noise”, she said, pointing up the hill with a head-jerk. “I’m Catholic. We don’t pray like that.”
Earlier that afternoon, when Carlos had followed me in to the open-air hotel lobby, Brenda had barked at him in rough Creole to remain outside. He blinked, then responded in gracious French, and almost bowed a little. He absented himself to wait, standing, on the sidewalk. Only later did Brenda ask me, after I spoke more fairly to Carlos, “He is with you?”
After check-in I paid Carlos, in Dominican pesos. He paid the drivers. The men vanished, resuming the suicidal wet cement path on their bikes—but rolling down it this time, cash in their pockets, obeying the twin pulls of gravity and home. I heard Carlos call his boss, reporting in Spanish that his fare was at the hotel, checked in and everything. Job done; van saved.
Carlos switched to French and told me he needed to be on his way. He had a long haul back to Cabarete.
Something shifted in my mind. Was that why he had insisted on starting so early? Had Carlos known he’d ge tripped up at the border, would have to leave his van, and need to beat a track to my hotel and his payment, only halfway through a journey of his own?
I turned to ask, but Carlos had already begun ambling down the hill, one heavy foot in front of the other, towards the hotel gate and his return leg. I imagined him negotiating a between-Haitians mototaxi price, for much less than half of what a two-bike, long-distance fare for a white foreign tourist would bring. Spending the night someplace would cost Carlos more than he likely had to spare. He had nine children to feed, and three women. Maybe Carlos would stay for free with his cousin. Was that who he had called, while waiting for US dollars outside the customs office? People tend to know where their cousins live. Maybe that was the reason for the profligate warmth in Ouanaminthe.
The hotel gate looked empty with Carlos now beyond it, out of sight. Questions of concern, of care, came to me: Would the inland guards stop Carlos again? Would his moto driver wait for hours in line for fuel?
This evening, if Carlos was lucky, he would be another Haitian trying to cross the border, beyond the Masacre River. He would recover his debt-funded van, grind for another several dark hours on the road from Dajabón, and at last rejoin his family. He did this all the time. Carlos’ road was harder than I may ever know.