Port 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 of anarchy.

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 boomed.

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 ever experience.

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 business?”

“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 icon.

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 Jackson?”

“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 later.

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. 


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