Port Au Prince
Sophie made and observation last night that even when you are arriving at the American airport for your flight to Haiti, you essentially already have one foot in the door. She could not be more right. As we walked through the terminal, were annoyed through security and found our way toward our gate, Haitians had invaded the ordinarily dull, clinical air of the gate and filled it with kreole, laughter, and a nervous energy, which silently voiced concerned for the safety and well being of everyone on our flight. I saw at least ten different versions of my own grandmother, definitely a curious comfort, and everyone was exceedingly polite. The flight itself was a short, lackluster experience, except for the pretty toddler peeking her head over our seats and demanding a bit of attention every ten minutes or so. The brevity of the whole experience was a pleasant surprise as the ticket sold a four-hour flight, but we were only three hours in the air. I think that in general people believe Haiti is much further than it is from major East coast cities, and are therefore unwilling to consider a trip. Unfortunately this is probably not something that a lesson in geography will fix. Their issue is a mental disconnect and ingrained doubt about land that has experienced so many physical beatings. Resulting is a vision of great distance socially, economically and culturally. Those opinions would be awed and silenced by the aerial approach to the island. Serene views of the rolling mountains greeted us as we dismounted the plane and were ushered into a bus that pre 2010 earthquake would have taken us to the main baggage collection area. That complex took massive blows from the quake, and its functions have been smushed into an old warehouse space.
Baggage claim was wild. Bags from two flights arrived at the same time and neither the space nor staff was ready to manage that bulk of bodies and tide of too heavy suitcases. Before I knew it we (any passenger fortunate and brave enough to be positioned near the carousel) were literally catching bags like a shortstop as the conveyer belt invariably shot them off at knee height. The scene must have been cinema worthy, a few people were sucking their teeth (mostly Haitians) and a few were laughing through the madness (foreigners), but all said we found our bags and stepped through the doorway into Port au Prince.
In the lower section of the city that builds up into the mountains there is still glaring destruction, and tents strung up in idle spaces are common place downtown. Port au Prince is a city of extremes – emotionally and financially. It is a place where old money reigns and those “haves” still have. It is also a city that has undergone massive infiltration from NGOs since 2010’s gudou gudou. The workers form a tight community, and their own social scene that includes some Haitians who can afford to dine and drink at the same places and pace. The scene plays itself out in an atmosphere of chilled out bars and strong rum. The party is ongoing and chance is the chief rule for these generally long nights. Outside their bubble the NGO-ers’ reception by the Haitian populace reacts to the state of their group’s involvement in the rebuilding efforts, and the most recent events sway public opinion toward wariness or complacency regarding their constituents. A new friend who works for the UN told us that during one low swing in their reputation with PAP citizens it was impossible to not catch looks of blatant disgust when driving their marked Land Cruiser. She bought a Haitian car, and it’s been all smiles since. The issue at hand seems to be respect or the lack thereof. When an organization or a person does not show respect for the community there will inevitably be an issue.
After spending only one night in the city this should be received is a short and incomplete set of observations the full scope of which will fill a few pages. We’re planning to return next month, and will say more after.
The drive leaving Port au Prince for Jacmel begins on a road that is rippled and broken with earthquake damage. People drive with zealous purpose, and honestly it seems like some won’t bat an eyelash to drive you off the rode if it means they can pass. As we left the overpowering activity of the city and climbed the sloping, curving mountain road we learned why many people consider Ayiti’s wild beauty as something every person in the world would be privileged to contemplate. The photos should give you an idea of the step farming system and the awful deforestation of certain mountains. Most trees left untouched are fruit bearing, and worth maintaining to the community. All other trees are cut down for house wood and every other sort of use. One idea we have for TF is to use the soil amendment to spur the reforestation of Haiti’s mountainsides.
Approaching Jacmel there is a sense in the air of a much calmer and laxed environment than in PAP. People walk with ease and greet you with a little wave or a nod. So far proximity to the beach has meant eating a lot of fish and crazy good grilled lobster mixed in with other Haitian food. The next post will be all about Jacmel/Kabik and how life and work is progressing. The internet is a situation we are trying to fix so please bear with us and check in often for an update.