Stop, thief!

If you’d asked me what was the safest street in Port-au-Prince, this one would probably have made the list.

Right after you turn out of the airport, you go around this roundabout. In the center, there’s a statue of three hands holding up the world. It’s called “Three Hands” and when the tap-tap drivers are announcing it as a destination, sometimes they just hold up three fingers and then the other hand.

For those of you who don’t know what a tap-tap is: it’s public transportation in the city. They take a pick-up truck, and they install benches in the back, build a cover over the whole thing (arched prairie-wagon style), take out the piece in the back and replace it with a step. Your typical tap-tap generally contains about 15 people who are paying (6 or 7 per bench in the back, with one bench on each side. Two in the front cab with the driver – generally, women who are dressed nicely get offered this favored seat. One guy – typically male – standing on the back step, holding on to a ridge on the roof). Then there’s the driver – person number 16 – and the guy who helps out the driver by collecting money from passengers when you get close to your destination – person number 17.

After dropping Aidan off at the airport, Zhane and I got on the first tap-tap we could find that had two seats and was headed for Carrefour Ayewopo, which is straight down the road, about five to ten minutes away depending on traffic.

Like I said, in my opinion it seems like one of the safest roads in Haiti. It’s wide and paved, with a median in the middle that has flowers growing on it. The businesses lining the side are banks, hardware stores, office supplies, and car places – places you go when you’ve got a lot of money to spend or a big job to do. There are billboards over the road advertising Internet and energy drinks, plus another that I took forever to figure out. It says “Male pa gen klaxon” and features a picture of kids playing in a park in one and a family sitting in canoes in the other. For the longest time, I thought the translation was “Male has no horns” and they were advertising some sort of national park where you could get away from the traffic of the city. Then, upon closer inspection, I noticed that the family is canoeing in their flooded living room, and the kids in the park are very close to falling out of the tree they’re climbing in. Turns out the billboard actually means “Misfortune doesn’t have a horn to warn you when it’s coming” and they’re advertising insurance.

Anyway, Zhane and I are perched on the “point” of the taptap – that’s the part that juts out from under the cover, extending out from the back of the pick-up truck. There’s a railing so you don’t fall off. You’re supposed to not like sitting there, but I enjoy it. I like the sun and the wind, and I especially like seeing and being seen. Plus, when you’re trying to snag the first taptap that comes by, you don’t have much of a choice of where to sit.

Anyway, I’m on my phone, looking up the map to the place we’re going next, and there’s a guy next to me, standing on the step and holding on to the taptap cover, because there’s no place left for him to sit. We slow down a little, because of the traffic, and he takes my phone out of my hand, gets down off the taptap, and casually saunters away, pausing at a roadside stand to talk to his friend there.

I immediately start yelling “Stop, thief!” and telling the driver to stop. I’m very confused about why the guy isn’t running, but I’m happy because it means we can probably catch him. The other passengers in the taptap aren’t doing anything, not even knocking on the window to tell the driver to stop. The taptap keeps moving. I look around at everyone and ask, “What am I supposed to do?”

A woman in the taptap starts telling us in very good English, “Hey, you lost all your contacts, but you didn’t lose your life. This is a red zone.” I’m not smart enough to realize that she might have a good reason to talk in English, and I reply in Creole, “What do you mean, a red zone?” “The police can’t do anything here,” she says. “If you’re a police, or if you’re white like you, they’ll kill you. That guy has a lot of friends. You should never have your phone out in a taptap.”

And that’s the reaction I get from a lot of my Haitian friends, when I tell them the story. “Were you sitting on the point? You shouldn’t sit there.” “How many times have I told you not to take your phone out on a taptap? Isn’t this the second time it’s been stolen?” “You need to learn where the bad places are in the city, and be extra careful there.” “You should be happy he didn’t take your bag with all your money in it, too.”

They’re all right, of course. The only defensive detail I can really add when I tell the story is that it doesn’t look like a bad neighborhood where gangs would hang out. But I guess bad neighborhoods don’t always look the same in Haiti as they do back at home. And it’s not like I know much about what bad neighborhoods look like back at home, anyway – growing up in the suburbs, you don’t have to develop many street smarts. Looking back on it now, it actually makes a lot of sense that that would be a dangerous area. There’s lots of people to target, because if you’re coming from the airport, leaving the bank, or shopping for solar panels at a hardware store, you probably have a lot of cash or valuables on you. It’s a business area, not a residential area, so there aren’t many concerned citizens sitting around watching you (and anyway, I guess residential areas can have their fair share of gangs, too).

From now on, I’m going to do the Haitian thing, where you have one crappy dumb phone for calls and text messages on the go, and you pull out your smartphone for Internet or photos once you’re in a safe place. I guess what gets to me is that now, all of a sudden, tap-taps aren’t a safe place.

Normally, when people ask me whether or not Haiti’s dangerous, I tell them that you can depend on the people around you to watch for you. Most of the help I receive actually comes from my fellow passengers on the taptap. I tell people that the taptap drivers can never cheat me, because everyone else is watching how much money I handed them and how much I got back in change. Whenever I’m lost, I can ask someone for directions. When I have a heavy bag, they help me lift it. And I guess in the back of my head, I just assume that if I got sick or someone tried to hurt me, they would help out in that circumstance, too.

But in this situation, the guy could have had a gun or a knife on him. No one’s going to put their life at risk for my cell phone, and they shouldn’t have to. I’m annoyed that he was able to just walk away so casually. In my mind, if you want to steal something, you should have to run. A few of my friends made comments along those lines. “Did you remember to yell ‘Stop, thief’?” “Was the taptap mostly empty?” But when I explained that the other people there were probably too scared to do anything, my friends just shrugged and agreed, “In Port-au-Prince, sitting still would be right reaction.”

Most people who come to Haiti don’t do what I do. You hire a private driver, or you have a Haitian friend accompany you (if I’d had a Haitian friend with me, they would have made me put my phone away). You just don’t try to cross the city by yourself. Even if you think you know exactly where you’re going, and you speak the language so you think you know what’s going on, you’re going to make mistakes that a Haitian wouldn’t make.

I used to be able to tell people, when they asked, “I’ve never been stolen from, even though I take public transportation all the time.” Then, I had to admit, “Well, I’ve been stolen from, but it was someone picking my pocket. If I’d been able to catch them doing it, they wouldn’t have gotten away with it.” Now, I’ve got to say: “Yes, I’ve been stolen from. Someone snatched my phone right out of my hand and walked away with it, and there wasn’t anything anyone could do, because it was a gang-controlled area.”

It’s going to be a long time before I’m running the kind of operation that merits spending the money for a private driver. In the meantime, I’ve got to be more realistic about the risks.

I asked my friend the other day whether Haiti’s getting more dangerous or I’m just getting less naïve. They said it’s probably a combination of both, but Haiti is definitely rougher these days than it used to be. For one thing, inflation has gone insane. When I was here in January, it was 47 gourdes to a dollar, up from 45 last year. Nowadays, it’s 50, and every day it seems to get higher. At the supermarket, they’ll actually give you 51 gourdes. They’re willing to pay you 1 gourde for your dollar. They must be stockpiling for when things get even worse in the future. It’s scary.

I don’t hear much talk about the elections, but I’m sure those are part of it, too. Presidents, senators, and deputies all have elections in August (president = U.S. president, senator = U.S. senator, deputy = U.S. congressperson). There’s also the crisis with the Dominican. The status of Haitian migrants and Dominican-born Haitians has always been pretty shaky. Now, the Dominican’s announcing that they plan to deport all the Haitians who went there to work and don’t have documents. The number changes depending on who you talk to, but it’s supposedly 100,000 or 200,000 people who will be arriving at the border with little more than the clothes on their back. They’re being referred to as refugees, and people are talking about how they could have all manner of diseases and how they’ll probably steal in order to survive. In my opinion, a lot of the returnees have family back here in Haiti that they could stay with. Many of them went to the Dominican to study or work in technical jobs like electricity or plumbing, so it’s not like they lack useful skills that can help them integrate here (assuming the work is available, of course). I tend to remind people, “During the earthquake, didn’t you give your family members from the city a place to stay when theirs collapsed? How is a human-caused disaster any different from a natural disaster?” But of course a human disaster is different from a natural disaster, so the reactions take a different tone.

I’ve still got my head on my shoulders. Life goes on, and you recover. Trouble doesn’t come with a horn to warn you, but there are obviously methods to minimize it, and I’ll have to be even more alert about those from now on. Eventually, I suppose playing it safe becomes a habit, and the idea that you might want to look up something on your phone while going down the street in a taptap stops making sense. It’s just one other thing I have to learn how to adapt to here.


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