My name is Lauren McRaven and I’m honored to be taking over the position of In-Country Coordinator, Guesthouse Manager in Leogane, Haiti. Since many of you visit this blog for stories about life in Haiti, I figured (by way of introduction) I’ll jump right in and tell the story of my first, altogether uneventful moto ride. It’s a story of fresh air, sunshine, cultural paradigms, and curtains.
Now there’s nothing all that special about a ride on a moto in Haiti. It’s a typical mode of transportation; like riding your bike, hailing a cab, or jumping a trolley back home. But if you Google images of “moto Haiti” you’ll see crazy pictures. The images that attract eager photographers are the ones with live stock, a half dozen people piled on, or oversized or incongruously delicate cargo. And those certainly happen and sometimes they can be pretty amusing. It’s part of a cultural paradigm that is so foreign to most of us that we tend to blow it up into something weighty. I’ve even seen “Riding a moto for the glory of God” on team t-shirts (that’s a whole other post). But in this culture, it’s just a way of getting around. That being said, as far as my story goes, I think my first time on a motorcycle is worth a few minutes of reflection especially considering the dread with which I was anticipating it. I’m sharing my stories with you here on this blog because sharing other people’s stories is tricky; in any situation. And when you’re working cross-culturally, it’s all too easy to sensationalize, glorify, or pity. So for now, I will stick with my own tales and hope that from the specifics of my experience, you will be able to read the broader story.
Anyway, back to my altogether uneventful moto ride and the events that led up to ripping that band-aid. Jocelyne, our lovely housekeeper, and I were on a mission: to brighten up the common room at the FHM Guesthouse. We decided to start with new curtains and tablecloths. Jumping into a job managing a team of people who are older and know their jobs better than you is a challenge any time. Add to that the language and cultural barriers, and getting to know and trust your co-workers can be a long process. So, when I decided to do some nesting upon my arrival at the Guesthouse, I figured it could be a good bonding opportunity. I enlisted Jocelyne’s help. I had a general idea of what I wanted but I had no idea how to accomplish it in Leogane (and I need affirmation when making big decisions, like choosing curtains). The first thing she did was take me to the open air market in Leogane. It was only the second time I had driven in-country (which is also a whole other post) and she had me squeezing the truck down aisles where trucks had no business going. People where moving their tables to let me through and they did it as if it was perfectly normal (which apparently it is). Cultural paradigms are fascinating.
The fabric vendor had an open air shed in front of an old shipping container. She had everything from bright red lace to gingham in every size and pastel color you could ever hope to find. We chose our colors and measured them out with a stick of wood that was neither a yard nor a meter long, brought the fabric home to wash, measure, and cut, and then took it out to a friend of hers’ house to get it sewn. We were planning on heading out to pick up our new goodies at the end of the week but the truck had to go into the shop. I told Jocelyne I had no intention of getting on a moto because I was scared and that we would have to wait until the next week when I got the truck back. She said she understood and could call her “chofè”, which means driver. In my mind driver means car. So I agreed. And then I realized “chofè” just means any old driver of any old type of conveyance and in fact I had just agreed to go for my first moto ride.
The chofè was warned by Jocelyne that he was to take things slow because this was my first time. He complied and allowed me to keep a death grip on his shoulders. As I grew more comfortable with the motion of the bike, I released the death grip and began to enjoy the wind and the scenery. We took a narrow moto path along the river that wove its way between rock outcroppings and around mud puddles. It was a lovely and commonly described scene. A thousand other tourists, expats, missionaries, and journalists have done better and worse jobs describing it. I read an article about Haiti just the other day, with a mediocre description; emaciated horses, half naked women, dirty water, etc. And while I believe in celebrating the every-day, there is that fine line to be walked when telling someone else’s story. I’m sure a photojournalist, a film maker, or a poet could paint it with just the right balance of truth and dignity, but I am none of the above.
We arrived safely at our destination and I got off carefully (important note my friends told me ahead of time: always get off the left side of the moto to avoid burns from the muffler) and was ushered to a chair on the patio. Jocelyne’s friend brought out the bag of curtains and we looked them over. They weren’t perfectly sewn but they would do the job. I asked Jocelyne what she thought of them and, with her approval; I paid the remaining balance, thanked the lady, and headed back out onto the street.
We loaded back up on the moto and went to drop Jocelyne off. As we drove she asked me if I was going to come in to her house when we arrived. I wasn’t sure if it was a question or an invitation so I said “si ou vle” (if you want.) She invited me in and showed me around her home. It is two rooms with a courtyard out front and a tiled open air bathroom in the back. It is tidy and well cared for with colorful curtains billowing between rooms and an enviable collection of potted plants in the enclosed courtyard area. She introduced me to her daughter and gave me some coffee flavored candy she had on a tray of goods to sell. She saw me back onto the moto and sent me on my way with strict instructions to call when I arrived home safely.
The chofè again took things nice and slow and I managed to sit comfortably behind him (death gripping only when we forded the river.) As we passed those emaciated horses he asked if I’d ever ridden one of them. It had been many years but yes, I used to do a little riding. He said it’s just like that, no need to be afraid, he would take it slow. In fact he took it so slow that we were still 100 yards from the Guesthouse when Jocelyne called to see if we had made it back and why I hadn’t called. He dropped me off and I paid him a bit extra as a thank you for taking care of me.
And that was the end of my altogether uneventful, normal, everyday moto ride. I put up the curtains and was satisfied with my interior design and decided the band-aid of this adventure has been ripped off. I am no longer terrified to get on a moto! The curtains are up and table clothes are down. I hope you’ll all come for a visit and see what Jocelyne and I have done with the place. And if you need to take a moto, I know a chofè who will take good care of you.