Haitian Commute

Photograph Source: WILLPOWER STUDIOS – CC BY 2.0

I closed my eyes and listened to the quick muffled sounds of  nurses’ sensible shoes rushing through empty halls, the hissing and buzzing of harsh neon lights, clanging of metal pans as they’re scurried away on trollies after morning meals. Those banal and reassuring sounds familiar in hospitals everywhere.

My heart was still pounding, but the panic had finally subsided. We waited for news of her condition. She’d been shot. One of the bullets that pierced through the car had gone straight through her seat and hit her, where exactly we didn’t know. I closed my eyes and waited. “Was it a decade ago, or was it all just this morning?” My mind was a jumble … racing … blood rushing….

“Earlier? Yeah …ah … we were on our way into the city…. commuting from the beach…. Yeah, that’s it.”

We always left at five am; this morning all was quiet. The island’s political unrest often incited Monday morning roadblocks with burning tires and unpredictable, agitated mobs. I’d been traveling into the city with Henri and Manon for some months. Henri was a former soldier in the French army who later did mercenary work in Africa. Now he owned a private security company. The fact that he and his Toyota 4×4 were always armed meant, these days, I might be safer travelling with them.

Henri had the radio on a local radio station forewarning events on the road, what road to take, and what to watch out for.

We turned onto “la rue Américaine”, our usual shortcut. The road was built by the American military core of engineers as a gesture of aid to this “developing” country. Since it had been left unfinished the islanders named it the American Road as an acknowledgement of their relationship with the United States. For this roadway came to an unceremonious halt, a cul-de-sac in the middle of nowhere obliging you to turn a wicked left and take a narrow dirt road – a large path really – for a couple of miles before reaching a safer main artery into town.

Henri was driving, Manon sat beside him. I was crumpled in the back seat with Danielle, their 19-year-old daughter, and Joseph, a trusted employee. Everyone was glued to the radio making the odd comment on the morning news while the air-conditioner blasted away. Leaning against the window wearing earphones I listened to a very mellow J.J. Cale on my iPod, mentally bracing myself for a difficult day. Although deep in thought, I noticed that the road was unusually empty, actually it was deserted; not a straggler, not even a stray dog. The sick feeling in the pit of my stomach I had earlier this morning, came back. I straightened up, seized by an overwhelming sense of foreboding. I knew we needed to get off this road before reaching the cul-de-sac. I began to say something when I saw it. The others were still deeply involved in discussing radio comments.

On the right side of the road just as la rue Américaine’s asphalt came to its abrupt break off I spotted a clump of men huddled together their backs turned to us. I pushed forward on the edge of my seat. In the next few moments my mind slowed to a crawl, my emotions struggled to process the intensity and horror of it all, for I knew our lives were now poised on a tightrope balancing between life and death.

As the man-cluster turned I saw a lineup of military grade automatic weapons. I shouted out, “Machine-guns! Machine-guns!” Henri understood and within seconds the car swirled sharply to the left cutting the curb and landing brusquely onto the small side road, the dirt path that promised to take us a couple of miles to safety. Approaching us from behind, however, were seven or eight young men running fully armed spraying bullets like water from high-powered hoses. The car tore down the path for another quarter of a mile then was forced to a dead stop. The road before us was walled off with large burnt car parts and bound on each side by a row of ghost cottages hastily abandoned! “Oh God! They’d been waiting for us!”

I jumped out of the car, kicked off my silly pretty-little-red-mules and ran bare footedfor the wall of metal. Danielle did the same. Together grabbing huge auto parts and dragging them onto the side of the road we handled scraps of metal I never would’ve been able to budge in any other circumstance. We moved as one.

Joseph stayed in the car frozen in terror. His face buried in his hands. The spray of bullets came closer as the young men ran toward us, shouting the cries of warriors, undeterred by the power of our chariot nor our crazed resolve to survive.

Danielle and I finally burrowed enough space for the vehicle to move through then jumped back into the car. Henri blasted forward. The killers were nearly upon us. The gunfire hit the car from all sides, piercing metal like butter. Manon let out a yelp. Henri slammed on the gas-peddle and the car flew. I turned and looked back into the cold hard face of a 10-year-old boy who glared at me and with calm resolve brought his weapon to life.


Dr. Paul Jean was a portly gentleman with hazelnut colored skin and a head capped with snow. Standing before Henri he said, “The bullet grazed your wife, monsieur. Mme. Gestor was very lucky. A couple of centimeters to the left and it would have severed her spine.”

We let out a collective sigh of relief. Henri let himself drop into a chair. Danielle did the same. ‘Thank God!’ was the palatable sentiment of everyone in the room. For all of us, however, those devastating injuries of the spirit would take more time to heal. In the meantime, Henri, Manon and Danielle would be staying a while in the city. I had to find another way to get to town.

I had never learnt to drive. And living on the beach I didn’t want to saddle myself with a car. This meant once again, it was time I took public transportation as I had done throughout the years. Public passage on the island was always an appealing adventure and the best way to truly get to know the country.

So, I got up earlier than any cockcrow to take a Tap-Tap into town. And it worked for a bit. Tap-Taps are colorfully painted camionettes or pick-up trucks that take-in as many people as the imagination will allow and more bodies, packages and animals than are physically possible. But now well-organized gangs growing in power were taking over most roads into town. I, a bourgeoise vulnerable to kidnapping, became a liability to public transportation. Which meant Tap-Tap drivers I had known for years no longer would pick me up.

I then hitched rides in Mack trucks. I figured the intimidating size was safer. And for a while it worked, so I tried to make this my regular way in. However, one day upon entering the city we were stopped by a make shift barrier across the road. Armed highway robbers looking for things to steal, people to kidnap.

Four thugs made a three-minute search of the back of the truck filled with fruits, veggies and market women, it felt interminable. Meanwhile the truck driver and two other men sitting with me in the front cab adjusted themselves to hide me from the gangsters. No one gave me away. I was moved and truly grateful for that. Back on the road, tensions dropped, but the driver conceded I was putting them in danger and it was time I found another means of transportation. So, I did.

One Monday, I found a car and driver for hire. Thursday a gang of armed young men closed down a neighborhood we typically drove through in the city. They blocked all roads in and out by erecting ramparts, holding the residents of the neighborhood hostage and locked in their homes; hunting anyone else who entered the area. They were flushing out their prey. We, unfortunately, entered just as they closed the neighborhood down around us. The only ones in the streets besides ourselves were young men carrying military grade weapons. Some faces were hidden with bandanas others wore colorful scarves on their heads as badges of courage. It was an eerie almost cinematic portrait of a city under siege. The strange thing was, this island for the longest time was ruled by a dictatorship and like all dictatorships only the military and police carried guns to insure government control. What happened? Where did all these guns come from? Anyway ….

Residents hid, homes were barricaded, all was quiet, ghostly. The air, despite the blistering heat, smelt like cold death. Our car crawled ever so slowly, hesitantly through the dusty deserted streets toward the ambush, its motor’s purr echoing through the coarse cement buildings. My driver turned to me terrified and asked, “What should we do?” I could only respond the very obvious, “Whatever you need to do. Just make sure we live!” My words seemed to shift some resolve within. His body straightened, he stared at me intently for a moment, then turned feral eyes forward on to the street, his arms rapaciously clutching the wheel – then I heard the car’s low purr turn into a ferocious roar as we tore down the street. My driver hunkered down doing some seriously crazy driving to get us out of that hell hole. He, I his lookout, and Zorro my little dachshund huddling under my seat, pulled through out of sheer single-mindedness to live. It took two months after our escapade for armed tanks to finally pierce through the barriers and reclaim that neighborhood.

My driver, a good man, was kidnapped two weeks later on his way to pick me up. He survived the ordeal but I never saw him again. I took on a second driver. As it turned out he wasn’t to be trusted. I had to take my security guard along with us in order to get into the city safely, leaving my home unprotected that day. After that I gave up cars and drivers for hire.

Later … I bought a car and hired a driver. Safer? … Maybe.

It was another late Monday afternoon the car swerved making a sharp right, dropped off the asphalt, dragged itself through the course gravel, and then veered up again back unto the road. We’d just missed him. He turned and lifted his weapon but it was too late we had woven through the traffic and were well beyond his cross hairs. I had the music blurting-out Freddie Mercury’s “Another one bites the dust.” It seemed appropriate. And besides, after the shooting on the American Road and a series of other distresses over the last several months Freddie gave me the courage to still make this route every morning just before dawn and back again at dusk.

“He and his gang will just have to find another target” I thought. “And, for now, we’ll have to make sure no other kidnappers come after us a few miles up the road.”

We were on our way home to the beach, my sanctuary; my driver, his handgun, and I. We’d just ended another day in that hot, dusty and volatile city. Mondays were always the beginning of yet another long week of deferrals, endless arguments, and the usual paralytic disruptions. I leaned over and fiddled with my iPod. We were out of the city now, the sun was low, the humidity unmoved. A breeze from the mountains gently swayed the neem and palm trees that attended the northern road. Tiny houses beyond the trees were lit with the warm glow of oil lamps and the intimate outdoor fires where families prepared the one meal of the day.

“Our nerves need comforting” I grumbled to myself. “Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington’s slow sultry sounds will do just the thing, at least for tonight.” There was no closing my eyes, no rest, I had to keep watch, so their music soothed my unquiet soul.

The sun stepped into the cool darkened sea and slowly slid its blistering inferno into the depths of quiet. As the sky darkened, trees lined up along the road like toy soldiers guiding us on our way. Bumps and holes forced our car to dance the merengue, tires like the beat of bongos the crunching sands beneath us their accompanying cha-chas. The road’s unintended music helped the weight of my muscles finally give way to gravity, slowly my breath deepened, my heart softened, and although vigilant, at last I let go.

A couple of hours later the car slowed to a near stop then turned left to stand before a tangle of trees and bushes. Behind the trees was an old sun-bleached wooden wall. Actually, it was a gate, my gate. I encouraged it to mimic its tangled environment so no one would notice it from the road. Being the only bourgeoise residing alone in a rural part of the country at this time, I thought it best to live discreetly.

The gate creaked open and a barefooted young man in kaki shorts and a white t-shirt stepped out tugging and prodding the weighty cumbersome doors to give in to his will. In time they did and the car crept into its familiar crèche. Then my driver bid me good evening, slipped through the gate, and disappeared into the silent night.

The torches were already lit around the garden and by the steps leading to the beach. My short-legged little companions, dachshunds Kiwi and Zorro flew in like frenzied torpedoes, jumping and dancing with unbridled joy. Yvon nodded good evening taking my packages and battered canvas case from the back seat, then lead us all to the house. Shadowed by my little fellows I ran up to my bedroom, ripped off my clothes, jumped into my swimsuit, then tore down the stairs out through the garden. Barreling down the steps to the beach I found the sea’s edge and pushed through the heavy silent waters until I could finally let my body drop without care or thought.

“Ahhhh!” The cool heavy Caribbean blanket swallowed me whole. Thoughts dissolved, emotions evaporated, aches faded, and fears melted away, — for now. All that was left was stillness, darkness, a light breeze floating through the coconut and eucalyptus trees, water softly tickling the sands, the pure crystalline bell of the gecko’s call, and a profound sense of peace. Nothing mattered anymore. I lay on my back facing the infinite, entranced as my soul gave in to the great nothingness.

In the morning before dawn, once again I’ll walk down to the beach with my little sea mates and sit at a table that Yvon setup for me by the water’s edge. There I’ll have a breakfast of eggs or oatmeal with a tall glass of freshly squeezed passion fruit or soursop while watching a breathtaking view of a sun emerging from the sea and ascending into a glorious magenta then periwinkle sky. All the while mentally preparing myself for the city with its terrors and frustrations — steeling myself to perform that particularly perilous dance, the commute, all over again.

Caveat: Commutes to the beaches north or south of the capital are no longer possible; criminal gangs now control all roads and surrounding lands. Haiti.

Michèle D. Sterling is a Haitian-American writer living in San Francisco.