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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Like so many visitors to Haiti, Adam Davidson of NPR's Planet Money team found himself captivated by a common sight: wildly painted buses carrying passengers through the streets of Port-au-Prince.

ADAM DAVIDSON: The first thing you notice: the colors. Each bus is unique, its own design, but they do share this: every inch of every painted bus has the same palette of bright, vivid colors. Then, you notice all the painted figures: giant portraits of Jesus, Tupac Shakur, a naked woman in ecstasy, some famous Haitian musicians, the wife of the bus driver, mixed in all sorts of iconography important to Haitians: American Airlines planes, that's the fastest way from Haiti to Miami. You've also got roosters, goats, snakes and other voodoo imagery.

Everything is rendered in that shiny latex paint that bounces the sunlight. You feel like you can stand on any corner in Port-au-Prince, watch the buses go by and get direct access to the Haitian subconscious.

I cover economics not art, so I am puzzled by something else. All this painting is really expensive, and Haiti is, of course, a very poor country. How can it make any economic sense for the owners of these buses to spend so much on something that is delightful but, it seems, economically frivolous? I asked one driver.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: That's the way it was ever since I was born. I always knew the cars would be in this color, like, you know, colorful like that.

DAVIDSON: It's always been done that way? That is not a satisfying answer. I asked Patrick Francois who drives his own bus to tell me how much the painting costs.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in foreign language)

Mr. PATRICK FRANCOIS (Bus Driver): (Speaking in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: With the artist? It's about $10,000.

DAVIDSON: That's a lot of money.

Mr. FRANCOIS: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, it costs a lot of money.

DAVIDSON: That's about 1,200 bucks, U.S., well more than double the average annual income in Haiti. Francois says he gets his bus painted at least once a year, sometimes twice. And he says it's not because of tradition, it's not because everyone has always done it. It's simple business.

Mr. FRANCOIS: (Speaking in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: If I don't paint it like that, people will not get on it.

DAVIDSON: Is that true, people won't get on the buses if you don't paint them? I watched, and Francois is right, the painted buses arrive, fill up with passengers in a few quick minutes and then take off. A handful of unpainted ones just sit there for a long time, no passengers. Patrick Telusma, a law school dropout who now drives an unpainted bus has a theory, which he has time to tell me because he has no customers.

Mr. PATRICK TELUSMA (Bus Driver): (Speaking in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: It's true when your car is painted and you get a good reputation.

DAVIDSON: He says people just have more trust in drivers of painted buses. I asked a customer getting on a painted one if that's right.

Unidentified Man #3: (Speaking in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: If the owner or, you know, a driver has a bus and no one is taking that bus, nobody wants to - is not going to want to drive in it.

DAVIDSON: This is the key, I realized. 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, the stuff you can see. And that makes it more likely that he's also taken care of the hidden stuff - the brakes and transmission.

There are no bus inspectors in Haiti, making sure each one is in good working order. So passengers have to decide in a second which is likely to get them where they're going and which one might just break down on the side of the road. Safest bet? Get on the one with all the fancy painting.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

NORRIS: And you can see a video version of Adam's story in the PBS Frontline documentary "The Quake." It airs tonight.

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