au Prince: Seeing is Believing
Roused by roosters at dawn, we were
inching along the capital’s main artery by 6am, already jammed up
with cars coughing up exhaust. With nary a stoplight,
Port-au-Prince’s traffic is like improvisational art, a miracle
The sidewalks, too, are jammed, with the rubble of commerce: heavily
used and sometimes outright dirty items for sale, from strollers and
stuffed animals to car parts and cell phones. Women with hardened hands
offer baskets of charcoal and limp vegetables from their curbside
perches. Occasionally, a businessman or diplomat in a classic suit, an
absurdity in this tropical climate, descends from a 4WD, hinting to
another side of Haiti.
But plain as the poverty and inequality here is the resiliency and
creativity borne from scarcity. Repurposing is a high art form in
Haiti, publicity banners stitched into vendors’ umbrellas, scrap
metal turned sculpture, tin cans filled with cement to make barbells.
The taptaps are the one splash of color in an otherwise unsightly
cityscape. These mini-buses, the public transportation of choice, are
brightly painted with Biblical verses, rap lyrics, love odes and other
declarations of moral fortitude and personal expression. A portrait of
Obama -- the universal symbol for hope -- graced one taptap; another
tableau with the title “Full Love” obviously cribbed from
the cover of a cheap romance. Inside there is a sense of camaraderie
and even a festive atmosphere, the driving playing kompa music so loud
I could feel the speakers behind me tickle my calves as they buzzed and
Our first destination of the day was the private school Casi directed,
where the children were learning how to say “I need to
pee,” “I need to poop,” and other age-appropriate
phrases in French. The kids jumped up to say “Good morning”
in a sing-songy unison so precious it should be sampled in a coffee
commercial. One preschooler ran up and hugged my knees with glee, the
most beautiful and spontaneous manifestation of human affection I may
But this was not a scene most Haitian children would ever be a part of.
10,000 teachers have gone three or more years without payment (in part
explaining why 89% of schools are private). Only 10% of teachers are
credentialed; 58% of school buildings were not even designed for
educational purposes. A third of all Haitian kids don’t even get
to primary school. And this was all before the earthquake.
René, too, had been working for a small private school, but quit
when the money just didn’t add up. His wife left him – the
only adage “no money, no honey” – and now he’s
wandering a bit aimlessly, looking for work and love, in that order.
Just when Haiti had me feeling hopeless, we discovered the National
Pantheon, a built poem to Haiti’s glorious history. While our
tour guide took us through virtually every dramatic turn and head of
state, I will spare you the details and give you the rough outline: The
first and only country to be founded by a slave revolt. The slave trade
began a few years after Columbus’ arrival, as they quickly wiped
out the Indians and needed backup labor for the coffee and sugar
plantations. Saint-Domingue was called "Pearl of the Antilles" –
one of the richest colonies in the 18th century French empire. In 1697
Spain ceded the western half of the island to France.
A century later, the slave uprisings began, finally taking hold with
the heroic duo Jean Jacques Dessalines and Alexandre Pétion, who
in 1803 founded the République of Haiti. Simon Bolivar, among
other leaders of the enslaved Southern Hemisphere, would call upon
Pétion to help lead his country to freedom as well. (Petion
secretly ordered 4,000 muskets, 15,000 pounds of powder, flints, lead
and a printing press be given to Bolivar… though, in another
story Bolivar ended up snubbing Haiti in part due to US pressure.)
Half-dozen different flags underscore a turbulent history with lots of,
at best, differing opinions.
The Pantheon is lined with the names of Haitian revolutionary heroes,
like Boukman Dutty, a Jamaican slave (his name was actually a nickname,
given for his ability to read), who prophesied in a voudoun ceremony
the events that kicked off the Haitian revolution. His head was offed
and paraded around town, but he had already sparked the flame that
wouldn’t die until the slavemasters had.
20th century Haitian history has not been as glorious. From 1911 to
1915, there were six different Presidents, each of whom was killed or
forced into exile – US military (and economic) occupation - Papa
Doc Duvalier and a string of other dictators – popular president
and Catholic priest Jean Bertrand Aristide’s ousting – and
two months after my visit, an earthquake that would kill some 230,000
and leave another million homeless – residents of the
Presidential Palace included.
When we come out of the dim, cool, thoughtful space of the Pantheon
back into the hot stench of Port au Prince, the contrast is shocking. I
hope that all Haitian schoolkids are brought here to learn the courage
and strength of their ancestors who fought their way to freedom. And
hope that someday Haiti one day will know peace and prosperity again.
My first day in Haiti, and by noon, I was already having René
wave down a homeward-bound taptap.
Moments into the ride, we lurched forward with a tap from the back,
propelling a string of arguments among the passengers.
“What’s going on here?” I asked René.
I hear a voice at my back cut through the Creole clamor:
““Everybody in Haiti is shouting. Seeing is believing,
isn’t it?” Cap cocked, skin like molasses, eyes fierce like
his thoughts were shining through them.
“Can I ask you a positive question?” the young man
continued, with a reggae stagger to his accent. It turned out he was
recently returned from Texas… and he had many burning questions
about my stay in Haiti.
When I told him I found his country quite similar to the small
impoverished African nation of Guinea, he said. “I find that
amazing. We are so close to the United States, I would think we
would be more advanced.”
We explored the reasons why and then I turned his questions back on
him: “If you were president of Haiti and given a blank
check to carry out your agenda, what would be your top three orders of
“Ah, a trick question,” he said. He turned it back on me
and asked me about Obama, as we passed another roadside portrait of the
As the name needed no translation into Creole, some of his countrymen
chimed in with questions. “How would you feel if Canada elected a
black man?” one asked. “What do you think about Jesse
“Life is a roller coaster,” my new friend concluded.
Back in the oasis that was Casi’s calm, spacious home, I had
René trying several numbers to reach the Parc National La
Visite, a nearby national park. Having has my fill of Port au Prince
within 24 hours, I was determined to set off for the hills tomorrow.
Nada, rien, nathan: no response, out of service, try your call again
I did manage to connect with Joel, a Frenchman who runs what is perhaps
the country’s only full-service tourism company. He bought
René and me a drink in one of Pétionville’s upscale
bars, European liquor at European prices. He broke down the route for
me and René, who had decided to accompany me – not because
he liked to hike, he though the idea a bit foolish – but because
he didn’t think it right for me to go alone.
René was visibly uncomfortable – about being in this bar,
about setting off for a patch of his country he didn’t know,
about going somewhere no cars went, as Joel had explained. I half
expected him to talk me out of it or take me somewhere else, but come
morning, we were rising into the beautiful clean air, green hills,
yesterday’s grit making the new day all the sweeter.