For former Marketplace editor, Haiti required special training, and courage
Within minutes of getting into a vehicle at the Port-au-Prince airport I realized I was in a time warp, driving-wise.
It was the first of several visits I would make to Haiti, and our first exposure to a genuinely low income country.
My wife Millie and I were picked up by colleague Ron Braun, then leader of MEDA’s Haiti program, and one of the five smartest people I’ve ever known. A swash- buckling blend of erudition, compassion and cool, he reminded me of Harrison Ford without the iconic fedora. He was Indiana Braun.
The airport was not exactly a picture of orderly traffic, so it seemed perfectly natural for Ron to make a safe but verboten U-turn. It caught, however, the attention of a policeman who flagged us down, scolded Ron in Creole and wrote out a citation.
Then the officer demanded Ron’s driver’s licence, which he surrendered with surprising calm.
As we drove off, Ron explained that they often took your licence and you would supposedly get it back when you came in to pay the fine. In many cases, though, they wouldn’t be able to find it so you’d have to apply for a new one in your home jurisdiction.
So why was Ron so casual about handing his over?
Despite his fondness and re- spect for Haitians, he kept expired Manitoba licences handy just in case. One year, in desperation, he surrendered his old university library card, complete with student photo. It looked official enough to work. From then on, I retained a couple of expired licences in a special pocket of my wallet. I never needed them.
A few days later we were driving on a rural road in Ron’s SUV. A bridge was out, but Ron was not deterred. He put the vehicle into 4WD, pulled off the road and headed straight for the river. It was shallow, and he made it across easily. He smiled, as if to say, “Welcome to the back country.”
On one trip to a cocoa coopera tive we were stopped by soldiers wearing fatigues and brandishing carbines. The air was thick with implied menace as they demanded a donation of five dollars to their “youth project.” I nearly herniated a lumbar disc reaching for my wallet to comply, but Ron argued with them.
“Too much,” he said. They settled for two and I peeled off a pair of American singles. I was too shaken to be grateful for having saved three bucks. For Indiana Braun, it was all in a day’s driving.
When on a later visit I was given an Isuzu Trooper to drive to Cap Haitien, our local manager issued a stern alert. “There’s a lot of foot traffic along that highway. They sometimes forget about people like you and stray off the narrow shoulder. If you happen to hit someone, don’t — I repeat don’t — stop as you would back home. Keep going and try to find a police station and turn yourself in.”
The issue was vigilante justice. Hit someone with your vehicle and it’s your fault. People appear out of the woods with rocks. You could get stoned, literally.
One day we were in a crew cab on the way to a microfinance project. Up ahead there was a commotion. A vehicle had crashed and the driver, unconscious, apparently suffered inter- nal injuries. Could we take him to the hospital?
We loaded the man into the box of the crew cab and drove to the nearest hospital, where we were instructed to deposit him at a make- shift annex, a free-standing structure a bit bigger than a typical garage back home.
We were invited to stand outside the unscreened window where we could watch his surgery — our reward for having brought him in. None of us did.
We swallowed the horror that engulfed us at sev- eral levels and went on our way. We never heard what happened to him.
That was driving in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. It was a long way from Winnipeg where my biggest driving challenge was dodging potholes in the pavement.