A Rush Hour Realization: On the Road in Haiti

A BMW in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Dusk begins to fall like a sign of relief after a long day’s work; blood, sweat and tears in its most literal sense. A stagnant line of vehicles is evidence of the journey home for many. Hues of pastel paint the sky, a thick coat of smog masking the silhouette of the mountains in the distant background. Paradoxical beauty abounds. 

Some travel by foot on the side of the busy road; others straddle the back of motorcycle taxis. This is blue hour, the brief sliver of daylight left after the sun has sunk beneath the horizon. This, too, is rush hour, but nothing is rushed about it. 

My favorite time of day. 

I sit in the passenger seat of a Kia pickup, the windows rolled halfway down to provide some relief from the stuffy cabin air. The AC hasn’t worked for months and, honestly, might not ever again. It’s just one of those things you get used to, both the heat and the unresolved mechanical issues. 

But I take it all in, the sights, the sounds and yes, even the smells. It’s all too familiar and yet new all at once. Three years ago, I whispered profanities under my breath as I impatiently idled in this kind of traffic for hours on end. Now, I’m savoring it. I chuckle as I also choke back tears. How can that be?

It’s true what they say. You don’t remember the bad stuff, only the good. And suddenly, the nostalgia overwhelms me. I have been traveling back and forth to Haiti for so long. I can’t even remember what my life looked like before I had ties to this country, before I was tethered to relational bonds with these people. 

So much has changed since I moved back to the States at the tail end of 2017. Corruption, instability and foreign interference have created a tumultuous environment for all in the years since I left. And here I am, wanting to stay in this place but knowing I can’t, to sit in this painfully crippling traffic while my friends want to leave. I cannot deny the privilege I hold in the form of a passport, a small booklet with so much power simply because the gold emblem on the front says so. 

I lean slightly out of the window to snap a photo because I want to remember this. The last light. The last time I will ride this road this year. Maybe the next too. When will I be back? I wonder to myself, both rhetorically, knowing the hard truth that it could be a long time but also earnestly, not wanting to believe it. 

I observe the image on the back screen of my camera and my eyes are immediately drawn to the left side of the frame, to the white BMW. Tattered and worn by years spent navigating gravel roads, dodged attempts of pot holes and tight traffic lanes, the 3-series model looks just like the 1983 white 320is my dad had when I was kid, the one he flew out to California to drive cross-country with my late Papaw. I can still see it now. Parked in front of the gate that separated our driveway on Lexington Circle from Miami Avenue, this 1983 car is like a Pandora’s box of memories. 

I am immediately transported back in time to when I was about twelve years old. I’m in the driver’s seat of a 1987 red 325es. My dad sits beside me. It’s time to learn to drive a manual, a right of passage for the Neal lineage. Unfortunately, my dad lacked what most teachers must require: patience (sorry, dad). Lift your left foot from the clutch as you accelerate with your right, he explained. Like running a relay and passing off the baton to your teammate, an analogy all too familiar to me, it was a very smooth yet precise exchange. 

But I was neither smooth nor precise. As we slowly skirted around our isolated cul-de-sac, stopping and starting, my dad’s temper shortened with each stall. Eventually we abandoned what we thought would make for a fun bonding experience — the only thing we both shared in common that afternoon was our frustration. It wouldn’t be until years later, in 2015, when I finally learned to drive a stick shift in the traffic of Haiti. The irony. 

In 2008, four years after that memorable lesson, I finally got my driver’s license and along with it, a ‘new-to-me’ ’95 forest green, two-door 325is. Another right of passage. Somehow, out of all my friends, I became the go-to driver of our group despite the size of my car. Everyone would cram into the sedan’s small space. We’d roll down the windows, open up the sun roof and blast a playlist comprised of a diverse range of artists including Kings of Leon, the Fugees, Snoop Dog and Bon Iver, to name just a few, as we cruised down the school drive. We really thought we were living. To be sixteen again.

Eventually, I outgrew that beloved car and upgraded to one with four doors before my sophomore year of college. To say I was thrilled would be an understatement of emotion. 

And then, there was my second BMW, one that closely resembled the first — a ’98 red, two-door 328is, imported from Puerto Rico and in pristine condition for its age. I purchased it a few months following my return to the States in the spring of 2018 and it was not prepared for the midwest winter. On several occasions, I went to unlock the door only to find it frozen shut, frantically trying to find ways to thaw it so I wasn’t late for work. But isn’t that what makes a car memorable? 

I also specifically recall one afternoon I pulled up to the gym and parked next to a brand new black 3-series model. Its owner just so happened to be approaching his car at the same time as I was getting out of mine. He stopped and I watched as his eyes scanned the bright paint. What a beautiful car, he said to me. I must have revealed my expression of shock and confusion at the sight of his own luxury vehicle because he reassured me this was a timeless treasure. I mean, I’m no car connoisseur. I just happened to grow up with two of them. 

But perhaps my favorite memory is that of my dad washing all of the family cars each Sunday evening. With thoughtful intention, he shines them to near perfection, admiring the intricacies and unique qualities only a BMW possesses, as if it’s more than just a car. As if it’s a piece of art. 

Over the years, the German make has been more than just a means of transportation in my family. The Bimmer is a symbol of passion and joy. If you spend more than five minutes with my dad or my brother, you will quickly learn the influence BMW’s have had on our family. My dad will tell stories of his experience on the Audubon in Germany when he was in his early 20s and though he may not say much, you will see the stains of oil on my brother’s hands from the ones he’s worked on that day.

It’s now been nearly a year since I photographed this view. I imagine for a majority of people, this is just another average street scene in just another country of the world. But for me, it’s so much more because two very different yet significant parts of my life are illustrated in one simple yet personally profound frame. 

Haiti and a BMW. Isn’t fascinating how even the most seemingly isolated parts of our lives can merge to write the grander story of us?


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