methow grist 2011-2014 archive

Jungles of Haiti

An excerpt from Bill Hottell's unpublished memoir
Haitians turned a truck into a public bus, which they crammed with passengers both inside and on the roof, which is where Bill and Diana rode. Freight was included: they shared the rooftop with turtles, ducks and bedsprings. Grand Central Station of Port Au prince was a muddy dirt field with an easy-going, jovial and communal atmosphere, decorated by the beautiful paintings on the sides of the buses.
In December of 1974 Diana and I flew to Haiti, by far the poorest country in the western hemisphere, where Jean Claude “Basket-head” Duvalier was ruling as “President for Life.” The capital city, Port au Prince, has an enormous mile-long street market which looks exactly like a West African city moved bodily to a Caribbean island.

After a few days in Port au Prince, we decided to take the rugged journey through the jungle and down to the south coast of Haiti to Jacmel, a colorful beach town and former haven for pirates.

The “bus station” was a vast open field with dozens of trucks brightly decorated with paintings in the “primitivist style.” We slogged around to a dozen drivers and asked in French, “Where is this bus going?” The trucks were all open-air with solid roof-tops where overflow cargo and passengers could be loaded.

The nine-hour drive for ninety miles was the most exciting and most unpleasant trip by public bus that I have ever taken. This dirt road, or rather, dirt track, cut through thick jungle over large rocks and through huge potholes. The truck was so heavily packed with passengers that, at one stop, Diana and I decided to climb up onto the roof for the rest of the trip. We sat on the roof crammed between other passengers as well as cages of ducks and chickens.

The main street of Jacmel, Haiti boasted French colonial architecture and a history that included being a pirate's nest for about a century. The history remains, but last year's devastating earthquake changed the town, and travelers must visit New Orleans, Hanoi, Martinique or other French colonial towns to see such architecture.
As the “bus” lumbered along jerking violently to the left and right, I grasped onto the roof rack for dear life. I felt exactly like a Brahma bull rider in the rodeo, except this bull ride lasted for hours.

Diana and I both like traveling third class in the third world because you have to keep alert all the time. It makes me feel really alive! Riding on the roof of a jolting truck, a person could be thrown off and be injured or even killed. But what an exhilarating feeling to be hanging onto a roof rack and brushing against tree branches where I could reach out and touch grapefruits. This was the feeling of pure freedom! This was the feeling of being really alive!

On that dirt road between Port au Prince and Jacmel there were no bridges at all, so the “bus” had to drive across rivers many times, perhaps eighty times. In one place we drove down a bank and into the river, turned downstream and drove right down the middle of the riverbed for a hundred yards, up another bank and back onto the jungle road.

It was a great relief to finally drive out of the jungle and into the French colonial town of Jacmel. The town stands on sandy beaches of the Caribbean coastline, but its buildings were decaying in the tropical humidity. It was startling to discover a remnant of the French colonial empire here in the West Indies. The 18th and 19th century buildings were elegant with wrought iron balconies that made Jacmel look like other French colonial towns around the world: Algiers, Dakar, Saigon and Phnom Penh, Cayenne and Devil’s Island, the French Quarter in New Orleans.

On the beach, typical Haitian boys were having a good time in the eternal summer of the Caribbean.

After the wild ride through the jungle we could now kick back and enjoy swimming on the gold sand beaches. Christmas morning held a startling surprise for us: we got out of bed, strolled to the beach and found the body of a dead man lying on the sand. A reminder that we were in the third world. But now we had several days to explore the elegant old town of Jacmel, an 18th century outpost of the French Empire as well as a major nest of Caribbean pirates.

This time the Tom Sawyer spirit had drawn me into adventures in French-flavored towns and jungles in the West Indies.


December 1974