I didn’t realize I’d need a period of readjustment after returning to the U.S. from Port-au-Prince for the first time. Makes sense. In the time it takes to drive from New York City to Baltimore I went from six weeks of 24/7 fight-or-flight response (normal in a place where if you get sick or hurt, ain’t no ambulance or cops coming) to the All-American sense that all is right in the world.
I’m home, I thought, when I saw the pink-tiled roofs of the Miami city grid. Ambulances drive around down there. Cops patrol the streets down there. And when those two mess up there’re a couple buildings down there–City Hall, local news, law offices–that’ll welcome my complaints. Even if the founding fathers didn’t intend it, this society was built to have my back. In Haiti, for Haitians, it’s the opposite. That realization however–the difference between Haiti and the United States–is the least that I think about now that I’ve been home for nearly a month. I’m more taken by the disparities between Haitians (this includes foreigners with residences there).
We’re all familiar–too familiar, some Haitian-Americans grumble–with images of extreme poverty in Haiti. But wealthy people live there, too. There is also a middle-class. Both are of course very tiny but the surrounding squalor has the effect of making their air-conditioned SUVs seem like bejeweled thrones belonging to the Queen of England. Their lives appear out-sized and awesomely grand, which, when you consider the magnificent effort it must take to live well in Haiti, they are.
Take that sofa. Besides its cost (and that may’ve been quite normal by American suburban standards), how on earth did you get it home? The furniture store isn’t in downtown P-au-P; it’s in Miami. Once the ship unloaded how on earth did you get it out of the port? How much did it cost to truck it home? It’s not like you choose the cheapest or most efficient trucking company out of 10; you’re in business monopoly territory after all. And that’s just a sofa.
Every modern convenience (potable water, electricity, flushing toilets, vehicles, internet, furniture, appliances) comes with a percentage mark-up above and beyond its store cost. Yet there is a community of people here who can afford both. And then there is another community who can afford both, as well as the weekend home outside Saint Marc and frequent trips to Miami, Paris, Montreal, New York City. Life is hard for everyone living in Haiti but with diligent planning for the inconveniences and extra security, it is sugar, too.
There are restaurants in Port-au-Prince with New York City prices. Head north: there are beautiful private beaches and privately-owned ocean view villas. There are exclusive hotels. There are gorgeous homes straight out of Architectural Digest and gardens out of the tropics issue of Better Homes & Gardens, all hidden behind 10-12-foot-high iron gates and cement walls.
I paid attention to the have’s perhaps because I was a first-timer. Until Haiti I’d never lived in a society where the lifestyles of the rich and middle-class smashed right up against those of the extreme poor. But Port-au-Prince is so overcrowded they have to meet. And the sound is so jarring, I hear it still.
Perhaps after my third or fourth visit to Haiti, I won’t even turn my head. Perhaps I’ll visit the four-storey home with the three-car driveway and I’ll glance over the balcony and not be surprised by what I see in the ravine down below: the owner of a one-room shack bucket-bathing outside, flopping her breasts over her shoulder. Perhaps by my third or fourth visit I’ll notice the children begging outside the fancy European-styled restaurant but I won’t actually see them anymore. Perhaps by my third or fourth visit, I’ll give a child begging for food the same dismissive treatment as a man begging for change in the New York City subway. But during my first visit I noticed the differences very much.