A View of Three Continents from the back of a Motorcycle

The sensory experience of road-culture.

There are no traffic rules in Haiti. Walking through the streets of Port-au-Prince was always an exercise in both daring and trust. And then we got on a pair of Moto-Taxi’s, and we reached a whole new understanding of the free market of the road. Hailing a Moto-Taxi involves standing on a street corner and waving over anyone on a motorcycle. Then you negotiate your price, explain your destination, and two people squeeze on to the back behind the driver.

These reckless, young Moto-Taxi drivers will get you where you want to go quickly and cheaply, as long as you’re not too invested in your health or safety. For ten minutes we darted in and out of traffic, ignoring stop signs and red lights, driving on sidewalks and in the on-coming lane, basically driving like it was illegal to stop.

When a gigantic dump truck decided to perform the classic 16-point Haitian U-turn, this lack of rules became a problem. Seeing the truck, the driver of the second Moto-Taxi (carrying our friends) accelerated, thinking to go around the front, but there wasn’t time. We watched helplessly as the driver swerved, braked, and skidded the motorcycle’s wheels into the truck’s front tire. By the time we’d frantically dismounted and joined our frazzled friends, the truck driver had driven away (the beauty of lawlessness) and a swarm of people surrounded the three dusty victims.

Our friends were shaken, but unharmed. The driver was also shaken, but it was difficult to assess his condition over all the voices chastising him. Fifteen or twenty people had come out of nearby houses and businesses, asking if we needed help, a hospital, a driver, anything, and criticizing our driver for his recklessness. Strangers made sure we were okay and had a way home before they started dispersing, and we got back on our Moto’s to return to our hotel.

As we whipped back through the streets we had just left behind, I marveled at the community we had just experienced. Arriving back at the hotel, we evaluated injuries and our general wellbeing, and found that, despite everything, we were pretty much fine. Nothing a little physical therapy (administered by a Haitian friend who had learned it from an aid worker after the earthquake) couldn’t put right.

Since that first Moto ride in Haiti, I’ve ridden motorbikes on three continents. Whether I was threading in and out of Indian rickshaws and dodging the odd cow or ox cart behind my host dad in Pune or feeling the cool Burkinabé air as we found our way to a hidden restaurant or obscure movie theater with our new friends in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, the world you see from the back of a Moto is unlike any other.

Unlike motorcycles in the US; the gas-, parking-, and traffic-saving Moto’s of the developing world are not the play things of hobbyists flying down highways at 70 mph. Moto’s are vehicles that don’t cut you off from the world around you like cars do, there are no windows to roll up, no radio to blast to drown the sounds of the outside world. If you want to give someone a ride or hitch one with a friend, you can’t hop in the passengers seat of a bike, you have to sit within close physical proximity of each other, and if you plan on taking something with you, you’ll probably need to hold it.

At first, these seem like limitations, but in reality, there are few more liberating experiences than hopping on a Moto. The temptation to partake in road rage disappears when other drivers are literally within arms reach. Suddenly the sounds of traffic, of life that exists on sidewalks and near streets metamorphoses into a calming refrain that you not only hear, but are part of.

Your understanding of closeness and intimacy is transformed when you’re asked to hold on to a stranger, but not nearly as much as your sense of friendship changes when you are asked to trust a friend with your life as they take to the messy streets of the developing world. Navigating your environment is no longer a simple and passive activity you experience through a windshield but a mentally challenging, physically taxing, and emotionally transformative journey that adds value not only to the journey but to the destination too.

On my walk to school one morning in India, I saw two men on a Moto, the driver, who carried a giant potted fern that was at least a meter tall (that surely must have fully obstructed his view of the road), and the passenger, who carried two baby goats, one flung over each of his legs and facing backwards. I could see the goats’ expressions of mild consternation until the bike turned and disappeared from sight.

I learned a very important lesson from this odd sighting. On average, we need very little, and a Moto is a fine vehicle to carry us and everything we need through life. And when life requires us to carry some less conventional cargo, with your trusty bike and a trusted friend, nothing, not traffic rules nor the laws of physics, and not even Haitian dump trucks, will stand in the way of getting where you need to go.

Usually, I write and report on food, ag, and rural issues. I wrote this story while doing research on agriculture, sustainability, and entrepreneurship in India, Haiti, and Burkina Faso. If you’re curious about other projects that are being fueled not by foreign aid dollars, but by innovative folks in the developing world, check out my post ag innovation in Burkina Faso. Sarah Mock



Author of Farm (and Other F Words), pre-order now: https://bit.ly/2JTY90i. Rural issues and agriculture writer/researcher. Not a cheerleader, not the enemy.

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Sarah Mock

Author of Farm (and Other F Words), pre-order now: https://bit.ly/2JTY90i. Rural issues and agriculture writer/researcher. Not a cheerleader, not the enemy.