Haiti: Arriving in Gonaives

Pulling into Gonaives on our bone-rattling Pumpkin- bus was like entering a maze. We turned down dirt roads walled by concrete, single lanes where we could see a home rising block by block just above the wall. All I could think was whether this home, one day, would collapse on someone.

The single-lane dirt road turns and twists back on itself, barely wide enough for our bus to make a corner. Every lot in town that can has a wall facing the road, even if the wall is only careful stacks of broken blocks.

Our bus driver is a man given to flat-faced silences broken by mono-syllabic answers, even to his colleagues. Unless he gets riled about something. Then his voice raises and his intonation begins to trumpet, hands dancing up to snap and flip, a whole-body jazz riff of emotion.

And boy, is he riled now. We crane around in our seats, unable to see what he issue is for the piled-high bags of medical supplies blocking all the rows and windows. Over the next 20 minutes, it becomes painfully obvious what the issue is: at the end of a jarring, hot, stress-dense, dust-filled ear-assaulting journey, our driver now begins a 54-point turn, trying to get an entire domed school bus into a space barely big enough for a SmartCar. His job? To turn us, using one gravel-slipping dirt lane bounded by a six-foot drainage -ditch drop off on either side, so he can BACK into a metal-gated driveway that only easily fit a Honda.

His sinewy forearms grind the should-high gear-stick over and over. Sweat pours as he wrestles the body-wide steering wheel. Back and forth, inch by gravel-pinging inch. He has to back us over a concrete bridge and it is all too easy to imagine a rear wheel dropping off into space, the undercarriage broken, the bus totaled by a parking job.

Men line the edges of the alley, shouting instructions. Random strangers dart to the back. A hand whaps the back to get the driver to stop- when there’s barely space for the hand to dart into the gap. Our driver is not just parking, he is being critiqued. Parking is a sport, with audience participation and high stakes. My heart is in my throat as we ease our way back over the “bridge.” There is literally less than four inches on either side and we scrape and snap finger-thick branches off a tree. When we make it, our driver doesn’t turn the engine off. He stands, as if he cannot wait another moment to get off his bus, one long stride to the permanently-open fold-back door. But he stops, one foot down in the step-well, his head bent down as he shyly smiles, not making eye contact. Because we, silly Americans that we are, are clapping and whooping and yelling our applause.

Eventually, still not looking up, but smiling wider, he gives a sharp nod and exits. As I stand to stretch my sweat-soaked achy back, I see just a glimpse of the men who had been shouting instructions, our new neighbors, dispersing – walking off and shaking their heads with a small smile a universal eye-roll, as if to say , “aid workers – what do you expect?”

That was when I realized that, hey, it was, to them, a bit like if we’d wildly whooped and cheered our awe over finding an Inner Sunset parking space in the Andronico’s lot.

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