Haitian Time Zone ( HTZ ): A Journey in Haïti
June 1, 2017 | 7h36PM ET
By Jaury Jean-Enard
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- After more than a decade living in the land of the free and home of the brave, I finally mustered up the courage to take my real freedom and return to the pearl of the islands, Ayiti. The land of high mountains. In a constant on-the go, always connected, always online, hustle-bustle reality of America, one never really gets the time to be free, to think clearly, hit the pause button or breathe easy. Really! Just pause for a second and slowly inhale the deepest breath you ever have before. Hold it a few seconds. Then let it flow and exhale. How did that make you feel? Now imagine 24 hours like this.
I landed at Port-au-Prince, capital of Haiti, around 1:00 p.m. I collected my luggage and exited the airport where someone was picking me up. If you're not used to airports in Haiti, the scene can be quite shocking. You'll find three groups of people:
- The taxi drivers
- Those waiting for their guests with a small signage carrying their names
- And the opportunists or advantage-takers
The taxi drivers are easy to spot. They scream 'taxi taxi taxi' three times every three seconds. And they'll charge you different prices depending on if you're a local or a non-local. Members of the diaspora, expats, tourists and foreigners all fall under non-locals.
The opportunists will instantly carry your luggage for you the minute they lay eyes on you; and if you don't take it from them, you'll have to tip them. I almost fell for that.
I had a driver waiting for me with a signage from my uncle's rental car company. I spotted the company logo, smiled to the guy, confirmed my uncle sent him and we fist bumped. He also confirmed by saying my name. As we walked besides each other toward the car, we had already began the usual narrating of each other's experiences and telling jokes which tend to lead to Haitian Time Zone (HTZ). I started explaining the life I left behind in America and why; he told me similar stories of his life, and already we were talking like buddies. Within the context of Haitian storytelling, everything is narrated with humor and some exaggeration. This alone makes it easy to get caught up in laughing at different accounts of what happened yesterday at the party, the school or at the airport, and hence the reality of Haitian Time Zone.
We got to the trunk of the car and before I could lift my luggage inside I hear someone say: "ban m' edow." (Creole for: 'let me help you.'). I don't know where the guy came from and how he got so close to me despite my constant looking around and alertness.
"Is this guy with you?" I asked the driver. "Oh c'mon bro," he responded. That's code word for "no." As I look at the guy who put my bag in the trunk, I second the driver with another "c'mon bro!" and quickly jumped in the car with windows up. The danger in tipping one person is that if another person sees that, here comes everyone else asking you for money.
I was supposed to travel with a friend coming to Haiti for the first time, but when we got to the airport he noticed that his passport was expired. He immediately started panicking and freaking out. This was his first time traveling to Haiti, where his parents grew up. I, having traveled on an expired passport several times, knew exactly what to tell him to say at the counter. I managed to get him checked in with the expired passport and now we're in the lounge drinking coffee and waiting to board the plane. The entire time my friend is still panicking, feeling like Harold from Harold and Kumar. He's afraid that his expired passport will pose a problem upon his return. Worthy of mention, my friend is a US citizen with a US passport, so there is little to no chance that he would be kept from returning to his homeland.
Ahead of me I spotted the former Prime Minister of Haiti, Laurent Lamothe, to whom I explained the situation in an attempt to reassure my friend that he'll be fine. Lamothe, having misunderstood the facts of the situation (or I misrepresented them) said that the Haiti airport will not let him return to the U.S. By then my friend is dreading the trip and decides that he no longer wants to travel.
"C'mon bro if they let you out of the country with an expired passport, getting back to your home country is a no brainer. You're coming back home plus you already have a return flight," I pleaded with him. And although he's taller than me, sounding like Kevin Hart in Laugh at My Pain, he said, "No, I don't wanna go, no, please no. I have a business to operate. No."
The Prime Minister's calm but quick answer traumatized him and he decided not to travel. As I boarded the plane alone, the Prime Minister already in his seat, looked at me and said with a sense of relief how happy I must be that we saved my friend from being stranded in Haiti. I smiled and responded in agreement, but inside I wanted to tell him to take a long walk off a short pier.
Upon arrival at the hotel, I called a few friends and family to announce my arrival. I met with a lawyer-friend and she ended up inviting me to a sports bar grill where I have never been - Barak. Frankly I'm fairly new to Port-au-Prince which has a feel of NYC in that everything from politics to business and everything in between is concentrated in the capital. I grew up in Cap-Haitian, which is somewhat more like the Fort Myers of Haiti. At Barak, I could've easily mistaken the environment for Angola, Cuba or Dominican Republic. Each night has a dance theme and that night the patrons danced to Kizomba, Salsa, Bachata and some Kompa. The bar felt like a scene in a Heineken commercial as I was being introduced to the nicest people who showed their [white] pearls all night long, laughed, and hugged as if they knew me for years. We danced to that which we knew and didn't know. No one said no to an offer to dance. No one sat down for more than one minute before being asked to dance. And the drinks kept coming one after another. We danced the night away, forgetting about the worries of the day, leaving them all behind.
Within a few days I travelled to Cap-Haitian (northern city) where I grew up and where Haitian Time Zone syndrome is really widespread. Cap-Haitian is a small pedestrian city where everyone walks from one end of the city to the other on any given day. It is often quicker to walk from one place to another in order to avoid traffic on narrow streets and little parking spaces. People are constantly on the streets, walking, selling, talking, because there is not much to do indoors.
In Haiti rent is paid annually, not monthly. Power electricity and running water are not available 24/7. Believe it or not, this forces people to enjoy life and find meaning in daily encounters differently than how it's done in the States. Despite technology, a Haitian for the most part can initiate and hold a conversation. In fact, all they want to do at times is talk to you. Rent being paid annually means you're not constantly stressed with one of the biggest expenses of a household. Since power (electricity) is not available 24/7, people do not usually stay indoors. Therefore people are constantly outdoors meeting with friends, acquaintances and family members. And a lack of running water means that nearly every Haitian household has drums of water.
In Haiti, a country where it is believed that most people live on less than $2 US a day, the people live from more than just $2 US. As it is said in scripture, man lives not of bread alone, but from every word that come out of the Lord's mouth. Similarly, Haitians live not of $2 US alone, but of everything they see, smell, hear and touch. Everything is an opportunity to laugh or turn a simple story into a dramatized version. Every joke and story told is a temporary escape from reality. It is an escape from all of the country's misery, lack of basic infrastructure and boredom. Haiti is surely a place that will teach you the value of friendship and cherishing the presence of another. They talk about everything and anything. Conversation, jokes and story-telling are the people's opium and getaway. Living in Haiti will surely make you a great storyteller. Haitians are often known as intelligent beau-parleurs (smooth talkers). This is because they will never miss an opportunity to speak on any current events, whether it be politics and government, education, business, society or something else. So within a few minutes of conversation, you're easily sucked into narration that sounds as if the speaker should be on a podium with a microphone and speakers all around him. Stories are always told with a spectacular theatrical reproduction of the actual events. And since there is no power back home, you really don't have anything better to do than chill, listen, be entertained and let Haitian Time Zone dictate the agenda.
Here in Haiti, the minute goes a little slower and the people follow along.
Haitians are huge soccer fans. Soccer is to Haitians what football is to Americans. But 10 times more because there isn't much else to do here. Recently I walked into a barber shop during a Real Madrid and Monaco game. There were about twelve people sitting in the shop, but no one was there to get a haircut. They were all there to watch the game, argue and socialize. It is not advised to set up appointments when major soccer teams are scheduled to play. The appointment will surely go unattended.
The entire environment in Cap-Haitian is inviting to a conversation, and a stop and chill moment. Green and tall trees are all around you. High mountains as far as your eyes can see. Antique colonial French and Spanish style houses with gardens inside. A gentle West Indies breeze comes around every now and again and will never desert you beyond a few minutes whether day or night. The skies are always blue with scattered cloud. And the sun is always out.
At any given time you will hear various sounds such as a generator, a barking dog, or a person laughing belligerently out loud. This can happen next to a university, church or in the middle of nowhere. Your favorite music plays loud from the top of houses built on the mountains reaching down to the city at all times. The mountains introduced me to two song that I listen to nearly every day now: one is called Incroyable by Harmonick and the other I'm still struggling to find someone to identify. These are the sounds of Haiti; and they are inviting to take a pause and relax.
After my haircut, I walked from street 22 D to 16 L about ten blocks but just one mile. Nearly every street corner, designed checkerboard tile style, has a radio broadcasting the soccer game and they are all on the same station. You cannot miss one part of the game even if you tried. It's a phenomenon to experience. With every little step you take, you hear the radio commentator so zealously narrating the game.
I got into a cab and the same radio is on reporting the game. We drove for about 20 minutes to Vertières, home of the last battle which led to the country's independence. During the entire ride the driver was cheering in support of his team while occasionally sticking his head out the window to taunt an opponent, whether it be a friend or a stranger. The cab was on fire!
"Watchout! Ronaldo receives a pass near the danger zone; throws it in with his head and GOAL!!!"
All five passengers from the driver's seat to the four of us crunched up in the back were cheering in support. I couldn't tell you for which team I was cheering, but I was cheering. And I was for the winning team. A few minutes later one of the passengers arrived at his destination and left the cab so excited you would think he just got into a fight with another passenger. With both hands on top of his head, he screamed (whoop, there it is). Then he twirled and danced while he crossed the street with joy.
I got home electrified with excitement and looking for another adventure. If I had an appointment, I probably would have missed it because by then I just wanted to relax and sink into the taxi cab experience. This is the Haitian Time Zone experience. It is when there is nothing to do, but you find something to do - something exciting. And in the thrill of the moment, you may just forget all concept of time, place and matter. It is where nearly everyone and anyone will stop and have a conversation with you about anything and everything. And whether a stranger or a friend, a conversation is always appreciated and welcomed in Haiti.
Like the Haitian ethnographer and writer Jean-Price Mars said, "The Haitian people is a people who sings and who suffer, who pains and laughs."