Let It Spill: Getting Real in Haiti

I stand, mouth slightly agape, a look of confusion and terror undoubtedly mixing upon my face, as I survey the swarming scene before me. I attempt to comb my nerves into a tidy state of order and respectability, desiring the appearance of confidence, as I step hesitantly forward into the chaos of Haitian travel.  

“Bon swa! Hello!” a man says aggressively, “You go Jacmel?” “Oui” I say, and before I know I’ve agreed to go along, my bag is being lifted from my back as I am invited (with a light shove) onto an ecstatically-bright painted Tap-Tap (a converted pickup truck that functions as the main form of transportation in most of Haiti). So much for remaining cool and aloof, I think, as hands pass me along and I stumble over the legs of those seated, until quick words and eager pushing from behind guide me to my own spot on the bench.

I’m half sitting on a ladies lap to my left, and am completely squished up to the man on my right. In fact, limbs are everywhere entangled, overlapped and pressed against one another. Not only are the seats piled beyond capacity, but the aisle is filled in with yet more bodies, all seemingly shouting in the expressive Haitian Creole.

I do not like to be touched. At least, I never thought so. I come from a culture of polite distance and sheltered emotions. Here, they don’t have the luxury of modesty and space. Privacy doesn’t even exist, with 10 people living out of a one or two room dirt-floor house and one family’s living space spilling into the next.

I often feel uncomfortable by the way lives are lived out in the open here. A common sight strolling through town is a violent shouting match in the middle of the road, or people bathing in their yards, their nakedness barely hidden (if at all) behind makeshift fences. With personal lives exposed for all the world, it’s impossible not to eavesdrop or trespass.

Yet everywhere, my senses are trespassed upon–from the loud music pumping out of every yard speaker system, the donkeys that bray through the night, the hopelessly skinny animals, the endless trash–and the physicality! The way local travel includes plenty of kicking (actual kicking) and shoving for a spot, only to be followed by a kindly pat on the knee or an offer of a shoulder to rest your head upon. It’s like family. With everybody.

Somehow, I’m the one exposed. Because, the concepts of eavesdropping and trespassing do not even exist here, and I’m being exposed to a way of living that is so unabashedly human.

This is Haiti: A culture so alive and bright, unafraid and expressive, that there is no room for nervousness, hesitation or shyness. I can not hold myself at a distance. I have to get real and get messy.

As my senses fill, my sense of self recedes–I haven’t even seen my own reflection in 2 months (except once in a glass window across the border). My hyper self awareness is beginning to fade away as the relentless self expression of Haiti’s fiercely vibrant spirit enters me and takes hold, the way a lwa possesses a participant at a Vodou ritual, sending their body into a wild, gyrating frenzy.

Back on the Tap-Tap, the last 5 or 6 people leap into their places, swinging off the back of the truck and we jerk into motion. To signal the journey is underway, the driver cranks up the volume of the hyperactive island music known as Kompa to a deafening volume. I have the impression that I’m pressed up next to a speaker at a concert, surrounded by sweaty bodies, as opposed to merely cabbing down the road.

Yet here I am, snuggling in the heat with a couple dozen strangers, all of us jostling together, as we zip along the ocean en route to Jacmel. And in this intimate heap of humanity, a sudden wave of joy wells up in me. Joy as inescapable as the music that pounds into my head filling any potential for thought or the ubiquitous smell of burning trash that fills the air. Joy as inescapable as the human contact that I’m alarmed to discover I find not just comforting, but exciting.

My senses have been hijacked and so abundantly filled, that all I can do is spill. Before I know it, I am laughing out loud. It tumbles out of me, pure and uninhibited. I have thrust myself into the breathing, sweating, loud, raw heart of Haiti–and Haiti has thrust right back. And I like it. An old woman looks at me, responding to my public display of random laughter with a bright, easy smile.