Journey of a Tap-Tap
Updated: Jan 11, 2022
The streets of Port-au-Prince are full of tap-taps. Many Haitians use them every day as their only way to get from point A to point B. They are usually a Toyota or Isuzu pickup, often '90's models or early 2000's, with a raised metal frame on the sides of the bed, then a camper top Then there are the wooden benches that hold 7 people on each side. Lots of drivers paint their pickups bright red, with pictures of things like singers or soccer players, sometimes religious sayings like "Tout Glwa Pou Bon Dye" (All the Glory is for God) and "Kris Kapap" (Jesus Can), and other sayings.... a common one is "Lavi a Pa Fasil" (Life Isn't Easy).
Why are they called tap-taps? Each pickup has either a wired bell system, or more traditionally, a piece of wire on a string. When the passenger wants off, they use the wire to hit the back window... tap-tap-tap.
Tap-tap drivers like to have someone with them, usually a younger boy, to take money from passengers and make sure everyone pays the right amount and doesn't sneak off without paying. This guy also comes in handy at the station. His job is to beat on the back of the truck, hollering, "FLERIYO, FLERIYO, TOUT MOUN POU FLERIYO! AN ALE! AN ALE!" (Basically this means, "Everyone that wants to go to Fleriyo, let's go!")
Zeze drove tap-tap now and then for his Uncle Samuel, who died quite a few years ago. So, when he heard that the same old tap-tap was for sale, he couldn't resist it. The body was completely rusted, but the engine seemed to be mostly fine yet. We found and bought a different body, and in early February, the work started when my friends brought a fuel injection pump from the US. It was sometimes a frustrating journey... of course there were unknown problems to be discovered, and parts and good mechanics are hard to find here. We had a good friend that helped out when his work was slow, or I don't think we would have accomplished it. Finally they drove it for the very first time, and a few weeks after that, it came back with the metal frame and camper topper on, ready to hit the road.
Four weeks ago, we touched the first money, as Haitians always say. (It cracks me up how we always say we touch money over here because it's so accurate. You touch it and before you know it, it's gone and your hands are empty again!) It was a Saturday evening, and we were taking Zeze's brothers back home from helping with car wash. People were flagging Zeze down at the intersection so we happily picked them up and went in and proudly showed the money to his mom. When we were ready to leave tho, we had a small problem. It refused to start. Someone had "fixed" the faulty alternator, but unfortunately things weren't quite all good under the hood.
The boys pushed us a bit and we got it started. As we went down the road it started sprinkling, so the windshield wipers were running.
All of the sudden the wipers started going slower and s-l-o-w-e-r. And the lights started getting dimmer and d-i-m-m-e-r.
And we lurched to a stop in the middle of the road. At night. In the rain. Quickly we locked the doors and made sure the lights on our phone weren't shining cuz this is Port au Prince and you do not exactly want to be in the dark with a broken down car and no idea what to do. Someone finally stopped, and they pushed us again and got it started.
"Surely," we thought, "we can get home!" We turned the corner at Cazeau... only a little ways further and we would be home. Then the lights dimmed again, and pretty soon everything was dead.
This time Zeze called the mechanic who had helped us with the project. He is also our neighbor, so he came and saved our bacon and we got home safe. Sure was a let down feeling tho!
The alternator is fixed now, and our tap-tap been in the streets about 3 weeks. One week we had a driver, because a friend's tap tap was broken down. He came and got it early in the morning, and in the evening he brought it back full of gas and gave us a set amount of money. The rest of what he made that day was his to keep.
Since our friend's tap-tap is back in business, Zeze has been leaving as soon as it gets light every morning, driving for awhile before work, and then driving again after work until 4 or 5. He can make a bit more money that way, and also since he owns the vehicle, he'll take better care of it.
Interesting facts about the tap-tap driver life:
- You have to pay the bandits!!! Ok, maybe not exactly. But there are these guys that stand by the station "directing" everything yelling at people telling them where each car is going, helping direct traffic, etc and many more etc. Each time before you leave you are "obliged" to hand over 10 goudes for "security." If you don't, it could happen that they would call the bandits when you leave a station, especially if you were going past one of their bases, and you would soon be the victim of a nicely executed carjacking.
- Your tap-tap is never safe. Everyone says you never should be out after dark. Last Sunday we left church and Zeze wanted to show me how it was going, and it got dark on us. As we were driving along he nicely explained to me how it worked. Two bandits get on as passengers, guns hidden. They signal to the driver that they want to get off, and come to the window to pay. You reach out your hand to take the money, and instead there is a gun pointed at you. You look over at the other side, and another guy has appeared, his gun also pointed at you. You realize your life as the owner of this tap-tap has come to an end, and you sadly watch them drive away with your vehicle, cash, and phone. A bit morbid, eh?
-Tap taps often come up in Sunday School discussions! The year I worked at the orphanage, we went everywhere on tap-tap, and wow, do you ever see and hear interesting things! People jump on selling terrible looking syrups that supposedly cure everything. One time a guy was passing out samples! I passed! Some just have earbuds in, some would always talk about us thinking we didn't know Kreyol. Some would fight over having to pay extra if they were carrying extra stuff, and I remember one extremely large lady that they were trying to force to pay double because apparently she took up two seats! One tap-tap we were in had a young girl starting labor, obviously in pain, and she got a lot of interesting suggestions. So... people talk about things they see and hear on public transportation all the time! And they realize it's a place where your patience can be tested, and you can also be a witness to these 13 strangers that you're smashed in the back of a pickup with while you wait out a traffic jam.
This tap-tap project has been so rewarding so far. It feels like the first really big thing we've accomplished together (not that I really did anything except as questions and be supportive). I told Zeze a long time ago that we had to celebrate and go to the pool with the first money it made. We didn't do exactly that, but last Friday evening we went out to a little pool/restaurant. The pool was surrounded by a jungle of bamboo and so many other tropical plants. We were the only ones there for a good long while, and we swam and then ate the best ever fried chicken and fried plantains. It was definitely one of those evenings where you forget everything else and just have fun together.
Today we took the tap-tap on an outing of a different sort. Blanchard has a women's Bible Study group that has a service every week, and they wanted to go clear to Titanye where our minister lives. So our alarm rang at 5:30 this morning. When we got to Blanchard to pick everyone up, the ladies were a bit nervous because they had heard bad reports about the roads yesterday. (The bandit base where we were robbed is out there.) But soon they started up singing, and I kinda wished I was back there instead of in front with my husband and our cousin. We got to Titanye just fine. The house was up a steep road in a hilly area... desert on one side and ocean on the other. They have a beautiful house. Let me tell you... these services are long! Lots of songs and prayers, two ladies chose Psalms to read, and one preaches. I'm just amazed how long they can talk, and they don't seem to be nervous. One thing that's cool is they pray a special benediction on the house... it was really special to hear that when they had service at our house. I think there's a lot of power in that. After the service ended it was about 10:30, and the minister's wife had breakfast for us: macaroni cooked with hot dogs served with boiled eggs and bananas, and a big jug of tamarind juice. We got home around noon, and I know it means a lot to Zeze and me also to be able to use our tap-tap to help in a church activity like that.
Stay strong everyone! I have 3 weeks of school left, and then my life is going to have a big change again. But I'm so excited. My sunflowers and zinnias are blooming, it's mango season and we're loving juice made with mangoes, lime, and ginger, and I put up new twinkle lights on our bedroom curtains, so every night I turn them on and our room is filled with this soft orange glow. Life is good! Keep praying for Haiti tho... There are so many people that are living a completely different, and much harder life than us!