Tap-taps, Edith Piaf and Assez de la Misere

Every day I spend countless minutes watching Haitians in the back of tap-taps.

Tap-taps are the predominant public transport here; creaking pick up trucks with a bench on either side, mounted by a jury rigged plastic or metal roof, which squeeze in 10-12 people.

Every developing country has its version of the tap-tap. In Kenya, where I lived for five years, it was the matatu: mad mini-buses that menaced the highways in swarms. Those matatus were deeply unpopular, and always entrenched in some great battle with either the public or the authorities – neither of which could do without them.

I remember having a small altercation with a matatu; my fault entirely. But everyone on the street, all the witnesses who could have implicated me, unanimously declared the matatu driver to be the culprit. Coward that I was, I did not protest.

Anyhow, in Haiti it is the tap-tap. Often a nondescript white, but as likely to bear garish paint jobs proclaiming Jesus’ love, gaudy decorative flourishes bequeathing striking individual identities. One I spotted had large metal hands sticking menacingly from its sides – no doubt to force other road users to keep their distance. Good idea.

Merci Jesus... the ride is almost over

Marie-Rose, who helps clean at our house, tells me they cost from 5-10 gourdes (25c) for a ride. There are some proper buses (the one from Petionville into town is known as the ‘Obama’), but these simply aren’t sufficient to meet demand, she explains, and for the most part the tap-tap is the only option.

I excuse myself for not showing solidarity by taking the tap tap because of my children, but I know deep down I would have avoided them anyway. I certainly shunned matatus in Kenya. Tap-taps are miserable bone-jarring affairs. If you are unlucky enough to find yourself stuck at the end of the bench, you face long minutes sweating beneath the blazing sunshine, breathing diesel fumes, and generally – I suspect – praying for the damn traffic to get a move on.

[UPDATE: I draw your attention to Ansel’s comment below. By its nature this is an impressionistic blog, fueled by biases both conscious and unconscious, and I have a lot to learn. I am always happy to be corrected.]

Yet I can’t help watching the tap-tap and their passengers. I always seem to be stuck behind one in Haiti’s eternal traffic jam. I am transfixed. They stop and start erratically, diving in and out of curbs (so much for the ‘arrete tap-tap’ signs) and pose a constant hazard. (Add that to potholes, mad truck drivers, and hordes of people walking in the road at every point, and every drive in Port au Prince becomes an adrenaline fuelled obstacle course.)

I feel like a denizen of Versailles, venturing out in his gilded carriage, hypnotized by the sights without. I want to take more photos – tap-taps would make a great essay, I think – but for the most part I can’t bear to do so. Snapping pics of transport hell from my air-conditioned 4×4 of others’ public transport hell feels dirty.

Tap-tap passengers often carry a blank, distant gaze, no doubt dreaming of elsewhere, willing the ride to be over. I wonder what the rules of eye contact are? Some people chat; some stare fixedly into space.

It is impossible to stay poised in a tap tap. Occasionally passengers catch my eye, quickly look away. There is no dignity in being watched in a tap-tap. (I am struck by Marie-Rose’s lack of complaint at her own tap-tap rides, which must be gruelling. She works for two families. It is what it is, I guess. Today, I discovered her uncomplainingly washing herself in a bucket in our back yard and felt awful. I told her she should really use the spare bathroom upstairs. I was shamed by how grateful she was.)

Surreal musical accompaniments drift over the car radio. One moment it is Edith Piaff – ‘les trois cloches’ – warbling French chanson, instant nostalgia that fits surprisingly well with the ambiance. Then a jaunty jingle: “assez, assez, assez… assez de la misere”.

School bus?

I listen to one academic, in love with his own diction, railing against the UN. “Le Minustah, les Nations Unis, Mr Annabi, Ban Ki-Moon… excusez moi l’expression, mais c’est toute la meme merde.” He stresses each “i” in the series. An occupation without vision, he calls it. The interviewer politely suggests that the UN is there to provide security while Haitians provide the vision. The academic blusters. It’s not as much fun having to blame yourself.

All the while, I conduct a constant chit-chat with Dorian in the back of the car, who quizzes me relentlessly about this or that sight. The world of money is beginning to dawn in his four-year old mind.

Why is the road so broken? Haiti has no money. Why does it have no money? It’s complicated. Do we have money? Yes, some money. Can I buy a car for my birthday?” and so on…

At one junction, young children start tapping on the window asking for cash. Dorian starts to press down the electric window button to say hi to his new friends. I tell him to put the window back up (feeling a bit of a heel, but protection of my kids comes first).

Dorian asks me why I didn’t let him play with them. “They want to take your money,” I said. He looks rather sad, almost weepy.

“But I don’t want them to take my Mummy.”

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3 responses to “Tap-taps, Edith Piaf and Assez de la Misere

  1. Or perhaps a novel. There is no Graham Greene writing today. But there is still intrigue and plotting.

  2. Before assuming riding a tap-tap is a miserable experience, you might try taking one or several? Yes, the traffic is usually tiresome, but people often talk, laugh and joke together – far more, in my experience, than on public transportation in the States. They’re certainly not all cramped, sweaty affairs either. I’ve relied almost exclusively on tap-taps to get around for the past two months and I rather enjoy them.

    • I appreciate your comment – and yes, I accept that as someone who has not taken tap-taps yet, as I ferry my children around, I probably have little right to comment. I am making assumptions, and writing impressions. This is a learning process. Very happy to be guided.

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