A couple of times today, we drove through the smell of human feces on our way to a private beach south of Port-au-Prince (Pótoprens en Kreyol). No one said anything. I said, “Shit,” one of the few times in my life that I meant it literally, and my mate in the back seat with me, also a journalist, said, “Yeah.”
People standing shoulder-to-shoulder and behind them, bright blue-tarped and grayish-blue plastic tents, lined both sides of what would ordinarily be considered a main thoroughfare just outside the central city. Along one stretch, portable homes made of rusted corrugated tin, about the width of an outstretched human body, formed a median in the road. I saw a naked leg sprawled on a mattress inside one of them, cooking. It had to have been 95 degrees today. We drove for a long while. The sea that we came to was the color of the tents. It was very pretty.
Today is my first full day in Haiti. I chose to begin this post with the smell of shit and the private beach because my first impression, since arriving yesterday, is that uncomfortable contrasts will be one of the defining features of Haiti.
Yesterday, when I asked if she was happy to be home, the little girl sitting across from me on the plane from New York grinned and nearly nodded off her head. It was her first day back since dad shipped her out after the earthquake. For her and many others, regardless of the rubble piled on the side of the streets and tents made from scavenged sticks, cement chunks and plastic, people still hawk mangoes, personal-sized bags of water that you suck on like a cow’s teat, plastic slippers, TV antennas, toiletries. Sidewalks here are like one long flea market. Traffic still jams. Compas still plays. Life rolls on.
The other feature that jumps out, and what I didn’t expect, is that Pótoprens is a walled city. My Caribbean is not a place of walls (but then, Barbados is a dot in the ocean compared to Trinidad, Jamaica and Haiti, which have much larger populations and higher crime rates). In villages or poorer neighborhoods, a well-worn path and custom separate house spots. Long driveways and fences formed out of trees, creeping plants and stone ridges wall off plantations or wealthy homes. Middle class housing developments are bounded by walls and typically gated but they’re all scalable with a good jump.
In Pótoprens however, the norm appears to be 10-foot high walls with sliding iron gates with an iron door inset. And, depending on the neighborhood,upturned broken glass bottles are glued on the ledges of some walls to deter determined burglars. Even the entrance to the beach–a poor man’s luxury as the fee was 100 gourdes (about US$2) compared to US$20 for others–was walled in the same way. Other foreigners will notice some other feature about Pótoprens but for me the walls, the extraordinary need for protection from (the general public?), stick out most. The owners of many of these walled homes would most likely be middle-class by United States standards, not wealthy.
I’ll aim to post on the site, daily or at least once every two days while in Haiti–internet access and connection speed not withstanding. Of course, my own experiences and values color how I see Haiti so I’ll try very hard to make those plain so readers can judge what I’m describing (and me) for themselves. For example, I hesitated to take pictures of the poverty I saw today because I witnessed it from the backseat of a moving car–which explains why while I describe poverty in this post, I don’t show it. Drive-by shootings aren’t really my thing.
I don’t speak Kreyol or French so it appears I’m at a disadvantage. However, greetings, plus curiosity and an eagerness to learn goes a long way with many people. I have a feeling that not knowing Kreyol may turn out to be a plus.
I brought a couple of books with me on this trip but I’ve begun with Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. I’m in Haiti after all; it seems appropriate.