I want to try to convey, in words, one of the most surreal places I’ve ever been: It’s the gas station closest to the Haitian border in the Dominican town of Jimanai. I think of this place often – since returning from Haiti. It is one of those places that is perfectly and completely what it is. It exists totally in its own reality – and just half a step away from mine.
We were there with the small but effective security group who brought us from Santo Domingo to the border. We had a couple of hours to kill because between the time change and the transportation issues – our Haitian vehicles weren’t there to pick us up yet.
It is, perhaps, 11am. We are at an equatorial gas station in the low mountains of a large island. The icy hot sun bears down from overhead.
Caribbean steel drum music floats over this whole scene. Loud, pumping, techno-steel drum. Loud enough to be a live band – but coming from speakers surrounding an empty concrete dance floor under a tin roof. It is not clear that anyone ever dances on that floor.
There is a small store where you can buy candy bars, beer, cokes, chips, olives, rum, and a few other random things. They take Dominican, US, and Haitian money interchangeably. If the calculator says that they owe you small change, they give you a couple small pieces of candy to settle up.
On the far side from the dance floor, there is a chicken restaurant – but it’s not open yet. Perhaps half a dozen men are there, already drunk – not talking much – but too loud when they do. Watching the time pass. I think that they do this every day.
There are other aid groups here. The Italian search and rescue team travelling in a school bus. The half-hippie christians with two pickup trucks and no clue. Some are serious and disciplined. Others ragged and off center. Most of them buy cokes and candy bars.
Chickens and the occasional cow wander through. We sit on chairs borrowed from the restaurant. We talk. We listen to the music. Shields are up – we are on serious business – we are going to Haiti after the earthquake.
It is a truly odd scene.
When we return, after ten days in post-earthquake Haiti – we declare the gas station to be the single safest place on earth, embrace our small but effective band of security providers, and buy beers for the road back to Santo Domingo.