One of the things I love about Kreyòl is the whole dictionary that could be made of answers to the question, “How are you?” or Kijan ou ye? Of course, you have the benign positive answers, anfòm, meaning great, or byen, meaning fine. But then there is a whole list of other options of a slightly darker variety. Of course, these are used frequently in a nonchalant way to say, “I’m okay.” But when you listen to the words and hear the actual meaning of them, it points to a reality that is more strained. The words communicate the difficulty of life. You can hear the intonations of the ongoing fight for survival. The words, first used by 18th century slaves who crafted this language, don’t whitewash over harsh realities.
M ap boule piti piti – Literally, I’m burning up little by little, i.e., I’m getting along
M ap kenbe – I’m hanging on
M la – literally, I’m here, i.e., I survived one more day
Pa pi mal – No worse
One particular answer to this question of “How are you?” has been resonating in my own mind these last couple of days. M ap gade san pran. Literally, I’m looking without taking, it’s a semi-humorous way to say “I’m hanging in there.” But it seems to point to something more—I’m on the outside looking in. It’s like seeing a feast of a picnic across a park, but knowing it’s not for you. It’s the feeling of being told told, “You can look, but don’t touch.” It’s the tears of the kid on the playground who has just been excluded from the group of classmates playing together.
For me, the experience of landing in a new country and culture has a bit of this same feeling mixed in to the variety of other emotions vying for space within me. M ap gade san pran. Perhaps this is my tendency toward introversion or my self-consciousness talking, but I’m keenly aware of the ways in which I’m on the outside looking in. I can see people on the street chatting and laughing, but how do I join the conversation? I can hear the hymns from the church across the street, but I wonder if I’d be welcome to come in to join the singing. I can see the tap taps driving past, but I can’t even figure out where they are going, let alone the unwritten system of riding them.
There is so much of how to do daily life and here that remains shrouded and mysterious to me, and leaves me with an acute awareness of “otherness.” Thankfully, every once in a while there is a conversation or experience that illuminates one tiny aspect of this pulsating city, and opens up a little inroad into daily life here. In one such conversation today, I received a few answers about the colorful and over-packed tap taps, the converted pick-up trucks that serve as the primary mode of public transportation here in the capital.
So, here’s how it works. Each tap tap runs the same route every day, often going up and down a main street from point A to point B. The name of the destination is sometimes painted on the side, among the names and images of Vodou spirits, lwa, or Catholic icons, or Bible verses. Of course, the name of the last stop is often abbreviated, so you still have to be among the initiated in order to figure out where the little bus is going. For example, the up-scale suburb of Petyonvil is shortened to PV. Other acronyms make less sense. Often, even these initials are not painted onto the side of the truck, so the driver or his helper yell out the destination as they pause to pick up passengers at the curb. Apparently, every once in a while, the destination is neither painted on nor called out, leaving a passenger to guess about whether or not she’s heading in the right direction.
So, once a person identifies the right tap tap, he just gets right on board, loading in the bed of the truck through the back. It seems that women usually get priority seating on one of the boards rigged up as seats down each side of the truck, and that men sometimes end up hanging off the back if there isn’t room inside, standing up on the bumper with a firm grip on the iron cover.
When the passenger arrives at their destination, they signal the driver to stop. Sometimes, it’s as simple as saying “Thank you,” mèsi, to the driver. Other times, the rider will knock on the back window of the truck cab, with a “tap tap” or ask someone who’s closer to tap for them. Sometimes, there’s a little buzzer to use instead of knocking.
The person gets off the truck and comes back to the front to pay the driver. It’s 5 goud for a short ride and 10 goud for a long ride, which is roughly 12 cents and 25 cents, respectively. When the gas prices went up last spring, the drivers went on strike, demanding higher fares in order to cover their extra costs. The government complied and raised the official rates to 7 goud and 15 goud, depending on the distance travelled. Since then, gas prices have gone back down, but the government has made no re-adjustment back to the original lower fares. Of course, the tap tap drivers want to continue to receive the higher rates. But the masses feel they’re being ripped off. There are often heated exchanges when it comes time to pay, and the actual payment given varies. It may sound like a small difference, but even 2 goud (5 cents) adds up, especially if you’re trying to make ends meet on just a couple bucks a day.
This whole description of the public transport may seem like an unimportant detail in the grand scheme of things. But here, it’s a huge part of daily life for so many people who spend hours commuting on tap taps every day. For me, it probably won’t be a huge part of life—after all, my commute consists of walking down some stairs and to the next building. But, it’s a little piece of how things work that helps make this big city seem a little more understandable. A small corner of the veil has been lifted, if only a millimeter. And as I think back on the day, it helps me shake, just a tiny bit, that gnawing feeling of m ap gade san pran.