(Cross posted at petermarina.com)
Slowly flying over Puerto Rico, the plane made its way toward the dual country island of Hispaniola where the cosmopolitan and sprawling city of Santo Domingo – with its first-world-like infrastructure and green countryside — sits juxtaposed to the deep, third-world hectic city of Port-au-Prince and the poorer countryside of Haiti on the western half of the island. I arrived to Santo Domingo at 1:45 pm determined not to pay for a 35 USD taxi ride from the airport to Santo Domingo. The airport Las Americas International sits 20 km east of Santo Domingo and offers no bus service to the capital. I grew confident in my abilities to make everything I wanted to happen, happen. I believed it was possible to get to Santo Domingo for next to nothing. I walked out of the airport onto the main highway where I figured sooner or later there would be a bus, collective, or a motorist willing to give me a ride. After fifteen minutes of walking and offers to take the very informal and cheap motorcycle rides to the capital, two men in a big empty bus decided to scoop me up and take me to the outskirts to Zona Colonial. I hopped off the bus after twenty minutes of conversation in my broken Spanish and headed towards a place where a dirt-cheap hostel offered rooms for the economical traveler.
Unlike the sleepy Sundays of the English speaking Caribbean, Santo Domingo was bursting with salsa music and people dancing on the streets. The city was alive and the people were moving to the beats of their deep and rich culture that blends a pure joy for life with the resiliency of a people impacted with the challenges of being in America’s “little back yard.” After weeks of eating the foods of the lesser Antilles, the cuisine of the culturally rich Spanish Caribbean was a welcome. I sat in a coffee shop eating a Cuban sandwich and drinking Cuban coffee before the switch to the beer of the Dominican Republic called Presidente. My thoughts soon left the magical music and passionate dancing of a culture that is more my home than any American city outside of my New Orleans. I thought about taking the bus to Haiti not knowing what to expect. Would I make it to Saut d’ Eau (Sodo)? How? I was completely unprepared, and worse, I knew nothing of Patois. I did not know where to stay in Port-au-Price, or how I would get there from the bus station miles from the city.
The bus from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince takes about eight hours. They provide a sandwich, bottle of water, and a small carton of fruit juice. After a few hours, the relatively smoothly paved roads soon turned to complete ruble nearing the Haitian border. The pocked road and area nearing towards the border looks like a war zone, a war zone after many years of warfare. A huge market on this long road bursts with commerce as people buy and sell foods of seemingly every possible variety. Some trucks – colorful, beat-up, old trucks that hobble along the road maxed to full capacity carry packages of food and humans to and from the borders. Stepping out of the bus on to the road to check in with a dilapidated building where immigration agents stamp passports, children and elder people tug on your clothes begging for money. This is Haiti where pulverizing poverty is reality.
In the Santo Domingo bus station, the employees take your bus money and hold your passport until you get to the immigration station on the Haitian border. I objected to their taking my passport but defiance was futile. Let them take my passport or no bus. Once all papers and documents where in check, we boarded the bus to continue down the ruble road for miles until we hit another slightly better paved road all the way to the bus station on the outskirts near Port-au-Price.
It was this last stretch of bus ride where I made the acquaintance of two photo journalists, a Chilean and Dominican, living in the Dominican Republic who work for the Spanish Newspaper Agencia EFE de Espana. As it turns out, they hired a chauffeur to pick them up from the bus station and bring them to Saut d’Eau in central Haiti about 60 km north of Port-au-Prince and back again on both Tuesday July 15 and Wednesday July 16. We agreed to split the price of the total cost three ways. This way they saved money and I was assured safe and easy travel to the Voudoo and Christian pilgrimage of Saut d’Eau (Sodo). Although they already had a place to stay, we looked for and found reasonable accommodations for me near their hotel.
Much of my description and observations, as well as theoretical ideas on this pilgrimage will be included in my book Chasing Religion in the Caribbean: Ethnographic Journeys from Trinidad to Haiti so it is omitted here.
That night prior to going out for a night of drinks with my photo journalist friends, I realized that I needed an ATM machine for bus and tax money back to Santo Domingo. I was leaving for the Dominican Republic early in the morning before either the store with the ATM machine or bank opens. The ATM machine had no more money. I had no more money for a bus ticket home. I hoped that the bus station accepts credit cards and that my credit card would work in Haiti. That morning we took a mototaxi through the chaotic streets of Port-au-Price to the bus station next to the American embassy. I approached the station agent to inquire about the 8am bus and credit card payments. The 8am bus was filled to capacity but the 10am bus still had seats available, and they took credit cards. I waited for an hour to buy my 10am bus ticket. I gave the agent my credit card and she asked for cash as well. It turns out that they (the bus company) accepts credit card but the Haitian government only accepts cash to get out of the country.
I pleaded my case.
I explained how the ATM machines do not work, that I need to go back to Santo Domingo, and so on. She explained that I do not have the cash to pay the tact to leave the country, that I was stuck until I can somehow find the money. That was it. I seemed stuck in Haiti with no bus leaving until the next day, one that I could get if the ATM starts working again.
A young woman at the window next to me overheard my conversation with the station agent. She looked at me and handed me a ten-dollar American bill to cover my cost. She handed it to me and walked away expecting nothing in return. I later found out that she is a Pentecostal. A Pentecostal saved me.
I returned to the Dominican Republic on Thursday July 17 and found an affordable air-conditioned apartment in the heart of Zona Colonial. Sitting outside a restaurant on a cobble stone street, I ate steak and drank beers reflecting on Haiti, on all my travels, on all the things these eyes have seen, on my former life in Wisconsin that seems so far away, about growing up in the New Orleans working class neighborhood of Gentilly, about my family history in Cuba that is so close I can almost reach out and touch the land right over the horizon through the Caribbean, about the bone crushing poverty and inequality witnessed, about how Haiti is a microcosm of the past 500 years of colonial terrorism – the genocide, importation of slavery, suck zones of railroads and transportation systems sending raw materials, natural resources, human life from the African and Caribbean ports and on to the fat European countries robbing the innocent of their resources and dignity, about this view I have that I share with the birds, about the sadness, tragedy, destruction, and resiliency of human life and how precarious, horrible, and beautiful it all is. And how, in the end, it is worth saving and fighting for, to the death if necessary.
Now I’m left with what’s next? What now? What will happen next?