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Story Publication logo July 26, 2017

The Secret Car Horn Language Of Port-Au-Prince

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After the 2010 earthquake, NGOs dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage at the end of the Port-au-Prince city landfill, which borders the sea and is not lined with an impermeable material. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.
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A plan to build sewage treatment plants all over Haiti after the 2010 earthquake has stalled...

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Elide Jean Petrus, 46, drives a truck through traffic in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Image by Marie Arago. Haiti, 2017.
Elide Jean Petrus, 46, drives a truck through traffic in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Image by Marie Arago. Haiti, 2017.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, we have your morning traffic report about the traffic in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which has apocalyptic traffic. Part of the problem is no reliable electricity for traffic lights. So drivers are using a kind of secret car-horn language. Rebecca Hersher reports.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: We're stuck.

ANDRE PAULTRE: We're stuck.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

HERSHER: Professional driver Andre Paultre is behind the wheel. That honk means, hey, move into that opening between the truck and the motorcycle.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

HERSHER: This is not downtown-at-rush-hour-when-there's-also-a-baseball-game traffic. Port-au-Prince gridlock feels lawless. So if you're going to drive, you need to know what the different horns mean.

PAULTRE: If I just want to say hello...

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

HERSHER: That's hello.

PAULTRE: That's hello.

HERSHER: Or if you want to say, my truck's brakes don't work that well and I'm coming down the hill anyway...

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

HERSHER: Or thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

HERSHER: Or for oblivious people, stop chatting in the middle of the street.

PAULTRE: If - in Haiti, the drivers - they don't follow the rules. So I will stop by like...

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

PAULTRE: One. If you don't pay attention, you're still talking, then I'll be like...

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

PAULTRE: Two. And now after two warnings like this, I will go, and I will hold it 40 seconds, 60 seconds. I don't mind.

HERSHER: It can all get pretty serious pretty quickly. A lot of people are injured or killed in car crashes. Ambulances can't get through. And Port-au-Prince has a carjacking problem. But the horns do help with the gridlock. People use them so much and replace their vehicles so seldom that they use up their horns. Yeah, I didn't even know that was possible. Andre Paultre has two sets of horns.

PAULTRE: Like one for nasty people...

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

PAULTRE: ...And a very gentle one. One is low, and one is high. So currently, my high-tone is dead. I guess maybe I've been using it too much.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

HERSHER: For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Hersher.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUANTIC'S "THE 5TH EXOTIC")

INSKEEP: Her story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUANTIC'S "THE 5TH EXOTIC")

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