Just in case you're wondering, they're called, almost lovingly, "tap-taps" because if you want to ride along--that's actually something of a city bus you're looking at--you "tap, tap" on some inch or two of cartoon color if you dare to even touch all that flamboyant artistry.
That's all there is to it: you tap on the side, pay your fare, and join the throng inside, where, almost always, there's wall-to-colorful-wall people. This one says "Welcome to Haiti," at the top, as if it's trying to pick up tourists, of which there are few, and few of those few are ever likely to climb aboard the dungeon inside.
Tap-taps are all over the streets of Port au Prince, a thousand kaleidoscopes on wheels. Eventually, I would imagine, you get used to them; but anyone who, like me, spends but a few days hanging around the city can't get enough of them. South Africa has thousands of combis--VW vans similarly packed with passengers. But combis are just people movers. Haiti's the only country on earth whose public transit is mind-bendingly psychedelic.
It's almost impossible to guess what kind of fun artists have dreaming up designs to festoon these things. Who sat down and determined that what this truck really needed was a belt of multi-colored balloons around its middle, or Tom and Jerry ("Jerry and Tom") on its jubilant thorax? Are those guys high when they do it? Look at those windows and the visionary doves welded to the sides?
If you like romance novels or soap operas, here's your choice of a tap-tap chariot. Look at the chest on the babe on the rear fender. Must be, as advertised, a "full-love" ride. Must have passengers because that guy with the cardboard box is doing good business.
A ton of tap-taps sloganeer with wildly Christian themes, so many that the downtown streets seem to preach Christ and God's love in a continuous sermon. Honestly, I wondered why missionaries even bothered Haitians because downtown, at least, Jesus is everywhere. There's more divine signage in Port au Prince than there is in Colorado Springs.
Then again, some taps-taps offer a customer a bouquet of choices--a little rock star, a little someone who who at least looks like Mother Mary, and there on the back, what looks like a little something from Voodoo. I'm not at all sure what's being preached or loved or lauded.
Look, tap-taps make you smile in Haiti. They really do. And now I've got to be careful because to say what I want to say is more than a bit precarious. Foreigners who spend years in Haiti are often skeptical of visitors like me going on about the buoyant spirit of the poor, how good Christian white folks from Iowa or Oklahoma can take a lesson from a people who sing hymns louder and more passionately than any crowd of lily-whites, anywhere in North America.
Veteran Haiti visitors are agin' such merry-making because saying things like that is it's own kind of bigotry, and operates as just another means to marginalize. Saying such things is an attempt to tie pink ribbons on wooden shoes, to make us feel better about what we've noted.
Besides, such comments give us a gracious way to leave, as if our time in Haiti was really worth it because we got more than we paid for.
None of these pictures are mine. They're all googled. I took just one picture in Haiti--that's it. Shooting people felt like shooting people. Others can and have and will; but this time around, I didn't.
And the paragraphs that follow aren't mine either. I found them in a book from a writer who has spent lots of her years in Haiti, before and after the earthquake and hurricanes, Amy Wilentz, who wrote Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti. And the words that follow aren't even hers. She's quoting her friend Sabina Carlson, who, in an e-mail note to Wilentz described the blessings of Haiti, a "failed state," this way:
Haiti is incredibly raw, blunt, and in some ways vulnerable. If you are comparing life in Haiti with life in the States, life in Haiti is more real in some strange way, more vibrant and raw. More colors. Very little is hidden here. People bathe in the street, they beat their kids in the street, they march in the street, they sell plantains in the street. If you’re fat, people call you fat. If you’re skinny, people call you skinny. If you’re missing a tooth people call you toothless. It is what it is. Lavi-a bel, lavi-a dwol. Life is beautiful and funny.
I suppose for Americans, who are brought up with the idea that the U.S. is the land of the free but who somehow end up as slaves to the paycheck and their own social class, Haiti, or their experience of it, represents true freedom, with all of its positives and negatives. My Haitian friend was beaten up in the street with no justice to follow; a friend of mine said, “This country is free, so free that someone is free to beat up someone else just like that. If you like freedom, you swallow all of it. The good and the bad.”
But also, Haiti is a functioning chaos. There is order in Haitian disorder. Haiti functions not despite but because of its chaos, including the earthquake. So I would say that Haiti is that perfect intersection between chaos and order— where this crazy system somehow works every day—the tap-taps, the mabi merchants , the kids going to school , the gangsters, the papadap men , the Papa Docs, the whole of it somehow works. People make it work. Even cholera and an earthquake didn’t knock this country too off track. Haiti is the most organized disorder you can find.I don't know the place like she does, and those are not my thoughts. But I like what Ms. Carlson says, and I think I know at least a bit of what she's explaining because wherever you look on the streets of the city, there are taps-taps.
They're everywhere, and you just can't help but smile.
Wilentz, Amy (2013-01-08). Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti (pp. 211-212). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.