Saturday, January 26, 2013

Moto ride through Port Au Prince

I'm bouncing along on the back of the moto, passing scenes that are repeatedly different, exotic, and unforgettable. We ride on the dirt roads for a little while, where last night's rain created huge puddles that we creep through and still get splashed anyway. We pass pigs feeding on piles of garbage, lots of tiny little houses made of mud or corrugated tin, and a tiny little brown puppy trying rip the last few crumbs of food out of a bit of foil packaging. We mount to the top of a hill and see all of Port-au-Prince stretching out before us, and the distant mountains towering over all.

Eventually we make it on to the paved roads, where houses are built of cinder blocks without facade and people are bringing their things to market and men are making kissy-lips at me when I pass.

I have realized that my initial impression that there were no stores in Haiti was wrong--it's just that I didn't know where to look. Suddenly it dawned on me that the store is the street. Instead of aisles, sidewalks. Instead of parking your car and walking in, you just drive down the street until you see what you want, stop the car, roll down the window, ask for what you want, hand over the money, and drive on. We bought diapers out of a wheelbarrow in this way the other day. It's like a huge drive-through. Each person has about as much for sale as one can carry on his or her head, and each person has a different kind of product.

I called the moto because all I wanted to do was get some money at an ATM. At home, this would be a 15-minute affair. Pop out to the nearest bank, card in, money out, remove card, go home. Not so in Haiti. I'm discovering that everything takes longer here. Not just a little longer, but prohibitively longer.

The nearest bank is across town, and traffic is heavy. We weave in and out of the traffic, going through roundabouts at a perpendicular angle to the direction the cars are traveling. My knees pass inches away from  moving dump truck tires and car bumpers and the ubiquitous tap-taps. My driver honks his horn at pedestrians who weave in and out, trying to cross the street or hop onto a tap-tap. I see one man running along with a slow-moving car, wiping it down with a rag in exchange for a few goudes.

Half an hour later, we arrive at the bank and I dismount. I scan the outside of the bank. No ATM. I check the other wall. No ATM there, either. So... maybe it's inside? But there's a line of about 100 people stretching out the door. What in the world? I go up to the front of the line and poke my head in to ask the security guard if there's an ATM inside and if I can go inside to use it without waiting in line. He says there is none, and says, "56."

"56?" I repeat with a blank look on my face.

"56," he repeats. "Five, six."

"Five, six," I echo, still clueless.

"56 Delmas," he says. That sounds like an address. I go hop back on the moto and repeat that to the driver. He nods and we take off.

At 56 Delmas we stop at a different bank. I get off and scope this one out. Still no ATM. I ask the guard. "52," he says. I figure that is an address just like the 56. The moto driver seems to think so, and he takes off.

At the third bank, the guard outside says the ATM is inside. Finally! I go inside, and a guard there tells me that the ATM is for Haitians only and that I must go to the counter.

I go to the counter. "5,000 gourdes, please," I say to the woman.

"No," she says. "100 dollars."

I shrug. 5,000 gourdes would be 125 dollars, but I'll settle for $100, which would be about 4,000 gourdes. I figure that this is the bank's clever racket. If I put my card into the ATM and ask for 4,000 gourdes, it will spit out gourdes at the "official" exchange rate, but if the bank runs my credit card for $100, then they can give me gourdes at their own rate, taking their own cut out of the percentage they set for exchange.

She scans my credit card and driver's license and makes a printout, causing me to be very nervous with the possibility of identity theft. This is a bank, presumably a professional institution, but this is also Haiti. Why couldn't I just use the ATM? I think. That would be a lot easier; a lot safer; a lot quicker.

Then she makes me sign a paper and take it over to another counter.

I am the 5th person in line at this counter, but I count 35 people in line for the other counter, so I'm very grateful for the fact that I don't have to be in that line. Why does it have to be so difficult just to go to the bank?

I finally get up to the counter and hand my paper to the teller. He hands me back a $100 bill in US money. I look at it. "What?" I say. "No, I wanted gourdes."

"Well this paper says you wanted $100," he says.

"I asked the lady over there for gourdes, and she made me change it to dollars," I said. I really couldn't use a $100 bill. How would I ever break it? Fortunately, I had seen a woman two people ahead of me in line with a $100 bill in her hand, and I had seen them give her Haitian currency for it.

I handed the bill back to the teller. "Can you just change this for gourdes?" I asked.

He looked at it as if he was making a huge concession for me, being a hero and getting me out of my difficulty. He filled out another paper, made me sign it, and counted out the money. I got back 4120 gourdes, which, according to today's rate at, should have been 4215 gourdes. So they did get their cut after all, about 100 gourdes, or $2.50, which would be 2.5% of my $100.

I ask the teller, "Am I really not allowed to use the ATM?"

"No, you have to come to this counter," he says.

"Hmmm," I reply, silently vowing to find another ATM somewhere. If they have one in Saint Marc, they must have one here somewhere. This is Port-au-Prince, after all.

Finally, I leave the bank and hop back on the moto. We start back towards where we came from. Despite the fact that this is the middle of January, the sun is blazing hot (today's high was 86), and I can feel my face and my arms starting to burn. Dust flying in the air has already caked my hair with a grimy layer.

We drive by people digging ditches, a funeral procession that has traffic backed up for miles in the other direction, and some children who wave when they see a white woman on the back of a motorcycle. I wave back.

The moto driver stops at the gas station and puts 100 gourdes worth in the tank. That gives him half a gallon, making gas approximately $5.00 a gallon. Not nearly as bad as the UK!

By the time we get to our starting point, two and a half hours have passed. I am exhausted and thirsty from my trek, even though the moto has done all the work. I am toasted pink all over on every bit of exposed skin from the sun.

But there is a little smile playing on my lips and a little excitement leaping up in my heart at the fact that this is where I am and these are the kinds of things I get to do and see and experience.

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