Why Haitian Bus Owners Spend So Much On Murals

A man walks down a bus that has a painting on its back of Israel's King David in Port-au-Prince, Tuesday, March 30, 2010. The Haitian government will be seeking about $3.8 billion at a United Nations donors conference Wednesday to help the country recover from its Jan. 12 earthquake.
A man walks down a bus that has a painting on its back of Israel's King David in Port-au-Prince, Tuesday, March 30, 2010. The Haitian government will be seeking about $3.8 billion at a United Nations donors conference Wednesday to help the country recover from its Jan. 12 earthquake. AP Photo

There's an economic puzzle buried in the artistry: The elaborate paint jobs can cost twice as much as an average Haitian makes in a year. But bus owners say spending the money may be a smart business decision.

Some buses in Haiti are painted with giant figures — portraits of Jesus, rapper Tupac Shakur, a naked woman in ecstasy. Others depict American Airlines planes (the fastest way from Haiti to Miami) or Voodoo imagery.

If you stand on any corner in Port-au-Prince and watch the buses go by, you feel like you can get direct access to the Haitian subconscious.

But there's an economic puzzle buried in all the artistry.

All of this painting is really expensive, and Haiti is a very poor country. How can it make any economic sense for the owners of these buses to spend so much money on something that seems economically frivolous?

"If you don't paint it like that, people will not get on it," says bus driver Patrick Francois.

He says he pays about $1,200 to have his bus painted at least once a year. That's more than double the average income in Haiti.

At bus stops, painted buses arrive, fill up with passengers in a few quick minutes and take off. Meanwhile, a handful of plain, unpainted buses sit there, waiting for passengers who never show up.

Patrick Telusma, a law school dropout who now drives an unpainted bus, has a theory.

"When your [bus] is painted, you get a good reputation," Telusma says.

Fresh painting sends potential passengers a signal: Whoever owns this bus spends a lot of money taking care of it, at least on the outside. That suggests he's taking care of the hidden stuff — the brakes, the transmission, that sort of thing.

There aren't bus inspectors in Haiti. So passengers have to decide on their own which bus is likely to get them where they're going. The safest bet: Get on the one with all the fancy paintings.

This story was co-produced with Frontline. The Quake, a documentary about the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, airs tonight on PBS stations.

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio.

To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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