We got up at 4 a.m. It was a shit show.
Crammed into a gua-gua, the big kind, but it wasn’t big enough. The doorman stuck us in the cocina, the “galley,” the backmost seat where they put gringos. The seat fits three, and there were five of us. Jessica on one side of me, a one-eyed man on the other.
Thus began our voyage to Haiti.
We’d come to the pueblo of Pedernales, a Dominican mining town just meters from the Haitian border, with a simple plan: cross over and go to Port au Prince. Thing is, there’s no route to Port au Prince from there, unless you count an 8 hour nighttime sea voyage on a cargo ship along the coast.
Jessica informed me that was not an option.
So we thought maybe, maybe, we could hire a driver to take us up along the border, to the next major town: Jimaní, gateway to Haiti. There are roads on every map—even Google—but those roads don’t exist yet. Only donkeys can get through. So, we backtracked.
That’s why we started so early, and why we were crammed into the hurdy gurdy of the gua-gua going back the way we came. Back three hours, then change buses to head to Jimaní.
By 3 p.m. we were at the border.
The border station on the Dominican side is an outpost of fried chicken shacks, moto taxis, fast talkers and money changers. We fell victim quickly: demands for our passports in appropriately authoritative tone of voice led to a RD $1600 fee that still stings. We tried to buy a Haitian SIM card for our phone, too, with no success—we’d be going it analog until Port au Prince.
And so we did. We had a car waiting for us in a suburb (“suburb”!) called Croix du Bouquet. None of the buses on the Dominican side were headed there, and instead of waiting we chose to cross over—on foot.
This was not my first time crossing a border on foot. In fact, we’d done it unofficially not long before, by following a beach a little too far. But while that was an easy, exhilarating experience, this was a literal barricade: a fence with a metal gate, guarded by men with machine guns.
“May we pass?” we asked in Spanish.
“Sure,” they shrugged.
So we went through, and clang! they shut the gate behind us. And I realized: we had permission to leave the Dominican Republic, not necessarily to enter it. We may have no way back.
We were assaulted by a wave of moto drivers, all talking in Kreyol, some in broken Spanish. I can sing 62 songs in Haitian Kreyol but I don’t know how to ask for a bus. Jess waved them away, but they were more insistent here.
Our choices were this: try to re-enter Dominican Republic; walk on in a haze; or jump into a tap-tap, the giant hand-welded transport trucks that pass for public buses in Haiti. We consulted in whispered English and hopped aboard.
“Croix du Bouquet?” I asked the market lady next to me.
“Oui, sa a tap-tap ale nan Croix du Bouquet.”
We confirmed with several other market ladies, while we settled our backpacks on bags of corn meal, jugs of gasoline and giant boxes of bananas. This would take us to the right place—eventually.
As the tap-tap pulled away I looked up at the Dominican flag waving proud beyond the fence. For two months this country had been our host, and the flag with its white cross looked inspiring and hopeful. In just three days, when I saw it again, I would feel an unexpected wave of patriotism. In the Dominican Republic nothing quite works, but in a kind of funny way. In Haiti nothing works, full stop, bon chance.
The Haitian flag, one color sunk beneath another color with an inscrutable symbol in the middle, seems somehow less heartening. It flies over a tiny border station where, we’d later learn, we should have had our passports stamped. But we were in a truck full of market ladies, and market ladies don’t have passports. We went past the station without ever knowing it.
The Haitian border at Malpasse is beautiful: white stone mountains, a lake the color of green eyes, and one dusty and garbage-covered road along its edge. In the distance the border gate got smaller, it disappeared behind us.
It was then we felt how alone we were. It hit me for one minute: André, you came to a country that killed all its white people.
I looked at everyone around me. We were at their mercy.
“Want some water?” I asked, and shared my bottle.