I’ve spent countless hours thinking about the accident. The NGO for which I volunteer is moving out of the unfinished night club that has served as my home for each of the last two summers, and I did not want the last memory I had here to be one of death. Each of my past two departures has been exactly that. Conquering, or at least moving past, those haunting feelings is surely a large part of why I’m here.
In July 2010, I shared a ride to the Toussaint airport in an SUV with two colleagues: Sibella, a cheery, 20-something ginger from Australia; and Ray, a greying-haired chain smoker from the States whose heart of gold is kept underneath his gruff, hairy exterior.
Ray sat in the front of the sluggish, dust-laden SUV, next to our Haitian driver. I sat behind Ray, squished next to Sibella and our shared luggage.
To ensure each of us made our flights, we left Leogane just as the sun was breaking, around 6 a.m. Vehicle travel in Haiti — like most things in this country — is unpredictable. Earthquake-damaged roads, flooding and the prospects of “bloquis” mean even trips of small distances can often turn into multi-hour adventures. So, you allow for traffic.
We took the highway east, cruising along at a rather rapid clip until reaching the outskirts of Port Au Prince. Congestion, closed roads and stalled cars brought our progress to a halt.
By this point, the sun was shining brightly. That Haitian sun. It’s why you need sunscreen even at nine in the morning. It felt like the temperature had already reaching triple-digits. A dry heat, little humidity. All our windows were rolled down. I put on my sunglasses, which served a two-fold purpose by also blocking the omnipresent grit and dust. Vendors with mangos and plastic bottled sodas, and “pharmacists” toting plastic baskets on their shoulders filled with colorful blister packs of pills, walked without caution between the creeping cars, looking for a sale.
Pedestrians everywhere. I could reach out and touch the passers-by.
Three blans in a vehicle — if you count Ray as white (he’s closer to brown) — garnered the attention of quite a few pedestrians. I offered a few Bonjous to the gawkers.
Our driver turned onto a divided four-lane highway, where the median had been transformed into residential real estate: Shacks assembled from tarps, corrugated metal and plywood scraps butted up against each other and spilled onto the street. It narrowed to one lane each way, our car now creeping slower than the neighboring foot traffic.
And then there he was. On the right side of the street, splayed out on his back, lay a wiry Haitian man. He was wearing stained, chocolate brown pants and a plaid, short-sleeved shirt. Collared.
He was right outside my window.
Blood poured out of his head. It ran in an ambling fashion away from his skull, pooling in a spot a few feet away.
The pedestrians, they didn’t pay him any mind. Nobody even looked at him. If you can call him a “him” at that point. I don’t know at what point a person stops being a him and starts being a dead person. They nonchalantly walked by, avoiding the mess created by this recently human just like you would dog’s mess on carpet. In an uncomfortable way, it made perfect sense. If somehow he wasn’t dead yet, he surely was close to it. What was the point? There’s no ambulance to call.
The scene seemed so fantastic it couldn’t possibly be real. Like theater. I felt numb. Unsettled.
I was glad I was wearing sunglasses.
Conversation in our SUV had stopped, abruptly, as each of observed, and then processed the scene. Maybe the silence was out of respect or maybe it was just out of shock.
In between deep drags of a red pack Haitian smokes, Ray broke the uncomfortable calm: “Haiti can be so sweet to you when you’re here, and so rough to you when you go.”
We drove on and made our flights. We left.