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Lynn Hummel: Wrong taxi in Port Au Prince

Jeff and I, headed to Haiti to work on a project there, arrived at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port au Prince at 2:30 p.m. on March 9. The last time I had been there was in August, 2010, when the terminal showed serious damage from the January 10 earthquake. Jeff has been there three times. It was hot and crowded in 2010 and the terminal looked like a big warehouse. It had been “repaired” in November, 2012 and this time it looked like a hot (the temperature was already 95° — the nearest air conditioning seemingly being in Fort Lauderdale, our last stop before Haiti), newly “repaired” warehouse, but still a warehouse. On the wall was a poster with a big, smiling picture of the handsome president of Haiti, Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly. The poster read “Victory for the People! The airport has been repaired. Tet Kale.” Martelly, popular in Haiti because he was a well-known entertainer and singer, had just been sworn in as president on May 15, 2012. Accepting the presidential sash he shouted “This is a new Haiti! A new Haiti open for business now.”

We pushed our way through the main terminal building, just a few of the white faces among the thousands there. Then we were taken by a bus to another warehouse near the terminal for customs and processing. It all took time and when we finally got outside, an hour and a half had passed since we landed. And outside — it had to be close to 100° (humidity near the same level) and there was no shade.

The scene was total chaos. We were in a passenger pickup area — cars, vans and taxis all over the place. Some of the drivers held signs — “Coca Cola Group,” “Mercy Hospital” or “Raul Cedras.” In our case, we were supposed to be picked up by a driver named Philippe. But we had no idea how to identify him. All over the area there were drivers offering to carry our luggage and take us where we were going. Finally a young man with a big smile approached us and said, in broken English, “I’m here to pick you up.” “Is your name Philippe?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “I’m Philippe.” So he loaded our two little bags in his beat up Toyota mini-van and we took off.

I thought he knew where we were supposed to go, but he said he’d forgotten to bring the address so we gave him the address. The late afternoon traffic was heavy and the streets looked just slightly better than 2010 when they were filled with pits, potholes, sinkholes, ruts and what looked like bomb craters. There was no way to drive in a straight line or stay on the right side of the street while dodging and avoiding those hazards. The van had no air conditioning, so we were driving with the windows open, picking up the heat, smoke, smells and noise of the streets.

It seemed as though we were driving forever. “Why is it taking so long?” I asked him. (I didn’t want to say what my kids always said — “when are we gonna get there?”) “Lots of detours” was his brusque answer. No more smiles from Philippe.

Jeff looked at me and I looked at him. This ride with Philippe didn’t feel right. There are giant slums around Port au Prince — places where visitors are advised never to go. Dangerous places. One of them, known as Cite’ Soleil, is so notorious that even the United Nations peacekeeping troops stationed in Haiti don’t dare go there. From what we could tell, that’s where we might be — more tents, lean-tos and rubble than signs of solid buildings.

In Haiti there is almost no twilight time. It seems like when it’s about the hour for the sun to go down, it just drops and it’s dark. That’s what happened while we were riding with “Philippe.” By now Jeff and I realized this wasn’t Philippe at all, and how stupid I had been to conveniently give him a name he could adopt to pick us up.

We had no idea where we were — the streets all had French or Creole names and they just

added to our confusion. Finally we stopped in front of what looked like an abandoned factory building. “Hey,” Jeff said “We’re supposed to be at an elementary school.” “Well, we’re stopping here,” grunted “Philippe.”  About that time we noticed four or five scary guys on the curb. It looked like they were waiting for us.

There is a history in Haiti of folks being kidnapped and held for ransom. After all, when faced with extreme poverty, people often resort to drastic measures.

I’ll make a long story short. How did Jeff and I get out of that pickle? Did we have to pay a ransom? No, simple, it never happened. April Fool.