News / Americas

Sweet Micky's Wild Ride

Former Haitian pop-star-turned-president Michele Martelly abruptly canceled our TV interview. As a consolation, he invited VOA TV Correspondent Carolyn Presutti to join him in one of his presidential vehicles as part of a motorcade. They called it "a rare opportunity for a journalist." But it turned out to be "Sweet Micky's Wild Ride."

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REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

7:00 AM
- We are scheduled to interview President Martelly on Wednesday (October 5) but his PR person says he will be too tired and instead gives us the opportunity to ride in a presidential car as part of his motorcade. The interview is rescheduled for the next day.  

As soon as my cameraman Mike Burke and I settle into the back seat of the white SUV, we know we are in for the ride of our lives. As we greet our driver, it is obvious he is only expecting one person.  So he whisks about 20 backpacks out of the back seat and puts them in the trunk. (Remember these backpacks, because they play a role later).

We were in a race to get to the president's house to join the motorcade. It feels like we're going 90 MPH down alleys and narrow streets of Port-au-Prince - dodging pedestrians, animals, trucks, bicycles and more.  The radio is blaring Haitian music - the driver takes his hands off the wheel, clapping to the radio. Then he flips a switch and a siren starts blaring,
with flashing lights on the roof. He drives on the left side of the road and honks when someone arrives head-on and makes THEM move to the wrong side of the street so he can get by (on the wrong side) where there are fewer potholes - more like craters in Haiti.

Another time, the driver forces a truck to back up into a sidestreet, so he can pass. At another intersection, he hangs out the window and starts berating a motorcycle driver who won't move over far enough. We are a motorcade of one. All of a sudden, he screeches to a stop and picks up the "real driver." Then he yells, "Seatbelts everyone!" (Ummmm you mean we didn't need them before?) These are the only words of English spoken to us because neither driver speaks much English and they don't seem to like my French.

This new driver continues with the siren blaring, but also adds honking - at the poor woman with a huge wheelbarrow of ice cubes. At top speed, we pass a United Nations truck, a Red Cross truck and several police cars. And we never miss a pothole on this gravel and dirt road. People start to stare, mostly out of disgust that this one car is making so much noise with no consideration for others. We pass four more U.N. cars, a U.N. tank and a police car. We are entering Peguyville, where the houses are painted pink and white in support of President Martelly (the official colors of his organization even before becoming president.) He lives here.

Entrance to President Michel Martelly's house in Peguyville, Haiti
Entrance to President Michel Martelly's house in Peguyville, Haiti

We go through two security checkpoints before we reach the official steel gate painted .....you guessed it.....pink. His house is behind that gate.  We park outside of the gate and join about 50 police: MINUSTAH (the U.N. police) the national Haitian police UNITY security guards, and Martelly's personal bodyguards. One of the men we're with starts to go through
the first gate into the presidential residence, and I start to follow. But he turns around and says, "No." Apparently President Martelly has invited me to join his motorcade, but not his breakfast coffee.

Abruptly, Martelly's personal secretary Eman opens my door and is shocked to see me there.  She climbs in.  We are now three in the back, along with a big TV camera.  Someone yells, "Hurry, hurry, hurry."  Everyone runs to their cars.  But we don't move.  We sit and wait 20 minutes. (what are we waiting for? who knows?) I later discover the President's black land cruiser still needed to be washed.  

The driver looks at Mike's two bottles of water and points at one.  Mike says "Well, that's really all I have for the whole day as my food." The driver stares at Mike in disbelief so Mike gives him one.  Minutes later, Mike looks outside the car window and sees the driver downing orange juice and a muffin.

9:30 AM:
We leave 90 minutes late. We've already been in the car three hours and we're still in the same city. There are 27 cars in the motorcade and they act like teenagers. They each jockey ahead to guard the president, their lights flashing, sirens blaring. The motorcade careens past everyone and everything - huge semis are forced to pull over as we speed/zoom/fly by.

After an hour, all hell breaks loose.  The "teenagers" start yelling out the windows.  We brake.  The secretary gets out and jumps into another car. The two in the front seat yell at us "Get out!" But the other car screeches away.  Suddenly our driver does a U turn and we start heading back to downtown Port au Prince.  Hello?  Um -  The motorcade is going the other way.  

Remember the backpacks?  They are about to add hours to our "Wild Ride." We have to drive them back downtown to the first lady who is using them for an event.  And....they couldn't put us in another of the other 26 motorcade cars, rather than us driving two hours out of our way?  Or, another car couldn't have met us halfway???   

It's unimaginable that we have been in the car five hours and are still in Port au Prince!  I translate on my iPhone into French, "If you don't slow down on the way back down the hill, we are going to get sick."  But did he understand?  Could he read?  

The Wild Ride speeds on.  Our one-car motorcade plays chicken with a police car - dueling with flashing lights. We win.

Out of town, we start climbing a huge mountain.  The holes are so big, they have truck tires in them, emerging about 12 inches over the top, so the driver goes around the tire and not in the hole.  

The mountain edge drops off inches from our window. I put in my earbuds in and press "shuffle" and Christian music starts playing. Irony not lost, a white dove (never saw one before in Haiti and never saw one again!) lands in the dirt in front of a house.  Coincidence or divine intervention?          

The motorcade passes a woman riding a donkey on the side of the road

The motorcade passes a woman riding a donkey

Here is a different kind of poverty from the Capital.  Our blaring sirens don't instill fear, but signal opportunity and people look us right in the eye.  One lady holds out her straw hat, the other holds a plastic takeout container, imploring the powerful for money.  Haitian peasants travel mainly on donkeys or on foot.  They bathe and wash clothes in muddy rivers. Not $50,000 SUV's.

Six hours after we leave the hotel, We finally arrive in Hinche. We missed the president. He has already moved onto his next stop.  Finally we catch up and run from classroom to classroom.  One fourth grade girl sings for the president.  He kisses her forehead, wishes her good luck this year in school.

School children greet President Michel Martelly
School children greet President Michel Martelly

Mike and I jump ahead of the president to move to the back of the room before the president walks in.  But, as soon as we walk into a room ahead of the president, the students all stand up and recite, "Bonjour mes cherie"!  After another classroom, everyone runs to the cars....the motorcade takes off again.  Our next stop is an hour away.  

Halfway through the next school program, I start asking the president's people, "Where does a lady go to the bathroom around here?"  One man who's with the presidential protocol says he will take me.  His wearing a smart black suit with a white shirt.  It's 98 degrees but he's not sweating.  

We get into his SUV - he tells me the next presidential stop has indoor plumbing.  But first, the police car in front of him refuses to move to let us out.  Once we get that taken care of, his wheels get stuck in the mud and we need a push.  

What on earth can happen next?

On the way to the bathroom, he says, "You okay to ride with animals?"  His question seriously takes me aback. I've witnessed mistreatment of dogs and I haven't seen a single cat.  I'm thinking, "He's in the presidential motorcade and he brings his dog to work?"  Not quite.....We pop through some huge potholes and I hear a cry from the hatchback.  He says he'll show me what's back there after I use the bathroom.  

Sister Nellie stands in front of the hospital
Sister Nellie stands in front of the hospital

He brings me to a tiny Catholic hospital.  The cleanest place I've seen in my week here.  Immaculate. Sister Nelli greets us and shows me where to go and says the bidet is in another room.  A bidet in Haiti?  Turns out its a primitive drain with a bucket and no water anywhere.

I go back outside and he motions me to the back, opens the hatchback and - staring at me is a goat and six chicken, sitting around his spare tire.  He says he bought them at the first stop in Hinche with the president.  He loves animals.

A goat and chicken in the trunk
A goat and several chickens in the trunk

I say, "love them like pets or love them on a dinner plate?"  He says he will love them until his birthday next July.  

Then, they will be part of the celebration.

At the location, there are about 400-500 people and elementary students gathered in a school courtyard. The president is on the stage speaking.  

The final stop is at the convent for lunch, where I get to see Sister Nelli again.  She takes care of Mike and me and finds us two bottled waters.  

So, back to Port au Prince.  A much smoother ride because the SUV has to follow the others. Eventually, an open highway.  

Paved.  It's a beautiful nearly setting sun.    

A stop on the highway to fix a flat tire
A stop on the highway to fix a flat tire

But that's not the end of today's adventure.  We are second to last in the motorcade when the car in front of us gets a flat.  The driver stops.  The rest of the convoy whizzes by - and with them all the police, their guns, their radios, their U.N. officers at every intersection.  

On Haitian time, with Haitian manpower they change the tire.  Eight man.  But the one time I turn back in my seat to check progress, I see all of them peeing over the side of the hill.

It's dusk.  Our Haitian VOA driver has warned us it's not safe for a white woman to be seen outside after dark. We are in the middle of nowhere.  Two hours from our hotel.   

We finally arrive in Port au Prince.  But the driver stops the car in the middle of the street. Both men leave the car running, with us in the backseat.  Then the driver opens the door and says, "Get out!" He moves us to an oversized white van for the rest of the way and asks, "Where's your hotel?"  We don't know!  We've always had our Haitian VOA driver lead the way!  The Wild Ride ends when we see the sign, "Le Plaza Hotel."

For tonight, give thanks for indoor plumbing and big men who like goats and chickens......Tomorrow is my interview with President Martelly,,,or is it "Sweet Micky on his Wild Ride"?


Carolyn Presutti

Carolyn Presutti is an award-winning television reporter who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters.  She has won an Emmy, many Associated Press awards, and a Clarion for her coverage of Haiti,  national politics, the southern economy, and the 9/11 bombing anniversary.  In 2013, Carolyn aired exclusive stories on the Syrian medical crisis and the Asiana plane crash, and was VOA’s chief reporter from the Boston Marathon bombing.

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