“The Department of Homeland Security has determined that Port au Prince International Airport is not secure for travel.” An eight and half by eleven-inch note warned me that what I did was ill advised. I had to laugh. This wasn’t the first time that I had left the country, but the American news providers had projected that Haiti was in chaos. “Aren’t they shooting each other in the streets?” my doctor asked me when I said I had come for shots to go to Haiti. I have to admit it felt kind of cool. On Friday, I flew from San Jose to the George H. W. Bush airport in Dallas, home of a life size bronze statue of the former president. From Dallas, I flew to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, seated next to a man for whom the seats of that plane were not designed. He was perfectly nice, I was just a little cramped, and using the john was out of the question. In Florida, I met up with my Aunt Kayla at my grandparents’ house and together we flew to Haiti.
When I go to Mexico no one raises an eyebrow. When I mention a trip to the Bahamas, all I get is jealousy inspired by the beautiful weather. But for Haiti, when I mention that half an island, all sorts of comments come out. People think that Haiti is a country full of distraught men and women killing each other. They think that Haiti is hopeless. Actually speaking with Haitians and connecting with them on a human level gave me a very different view of the country. In February, I traveled to Haiti to spend a week with my uncle, Steven, where he lives in a small community in the mountains.
Flying over Haiti, my face was fused to the window. They say that you can see the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic from the sky because of how much poorer and deforested Haiti is. I never got to see for myself; we flew in from the other side of the island. But I did get a feeling of what Port au Prince was like. The parts of the city closer to the shore are scarred with rusted factories belching plumes of black smoke. A little more inland is a huge shantytown. A grey dust shrouds the whole of Port au Prince.
When we got out of the airport, the very first thing I noticed about Haiti is that it smelled. You must understand what I mean when I say it smelled. The greater part of the urban U.S. is unique in that it smells sterile, or rather, doesn’t smell at all. Sure there’s the occasional restaurant or dumpster, but for the most part the US smells as though no one has lived in it. Other countries smell as though there is life and activity. I could smell the distinct smells foreign to the U.S.: smells of commerce, of work, of people living out their lives.
Steven, with his friend Edouard, came to pick us up and take us to the rural community of Ka Glo where he lives. The trip from Port au Prince, through Pétion-Ville, to Ka Glo took a little over two hours by taptap (a flatbed truck with a pair of benches in the back, often decorated with Christian messages and gaily painted designs). One section of the road, about two miles long, was absolutely impeccable. When I asked Steven why, he pointed to a mansion and said, “This is the house of the mayor of Pétion-Ville,” About sixty more feet and he said “and this is where the nice road ends.”
When we arrived at Ka Glo, Byton, the young man who had built Steven’s house came to greet us. We went to the house of Mme Met, who had taken care of Steven when he first came. She is a fantastic cook. She made beans and rice, a fresh salad, fried plantains, homemade potato chips and, because it was the Sabbath, fried chicken. Returning to the house, we found a second serving of food waiting for us; it was from Myrtane, Byton’s sister. Technically, Steven is a member of Byton’s father’s household because his house is on the father’s land. This means that the woman of the household, Byton’s oldest sister, is expected feed him with the rest of the family. But Steven has historically paid to be fed at Mme Met’s, and it would be rude of him to just stop. So Steven is being served four meals a day, two lunches, and two dinners. His house has a kerosene stove. So far he has only made coffee.
Steven works in Haitian schools through a program called Apprenticeship in Education. A couple years back a hurricane destroyed the school that the kids in Ka Glo go to, where Met Anténor, Mme Met’s husband, is principal. The state was supposed to replace it, but things frequently don’t work that way. Two hundred and sixty kids, grades one through six, are taught in a building about the size of a large apartment.
After two nights in Ka Glo, we went back down to Port au Prince, but this time we walked down the mountain in the heat until we were on the very outskirts of Pétion-Ville. There we piled into a taptap going to down town Port au Prince. Downtown Port au Prince is quite an experience. The commotion and the pungent smells of rotting meats and fish is overwhelming. From there we drove to the town of Darbonne where Steven’s colleague, Frémy, lives. During any drive though the city, my aunt Kayla and I entertained ourselves by reading the curiously evangelical names of businesses. The all time favorites were the Gas Station of the Immaculate Conception and the Eternal Father Lotto.
In Darbonne we visited an afternoon school run by a fellow named Carmelo. In Haiti, afternoon schools are generally considered inferior to schools run in the morning. The school we visited had a hard time earning prestige for the work that they did, which was to educate those who truly had very little money. The monthly pay for the teachers is about enough to buy a pair of pants, depending on the fabric, and the administrators aren’t paid at all. Basically, everyone who works at the school does so purely because they think education is important. Next to the school is a library of about 3,000 books packed in two little rooms. It’s the only library in Darbonne and the surrounding communities.
Five thirty in the morning on Thursday we started on our voyage to Port au Prince airport for a flight at twenty till twelve. Frémy told us that leaving so early was the only way to be sure that we would make it on time, since Haiti’s roads are not consistently effective. Driving to the airport we spotted UN soldiers from Sri Lanka and Brazil policing the streets. Their orders had recently changed. Now, rather than merely acting as a presence in Haiti, they had been ordered to disarm the group of ex-military trying to retake power.
The truth is that the vast majority of Haitians don’t have a car, a TV, a phone, electricity or plumbing. I learned quickly how needless any of these things really were. People have less money in Haiti, but they work it out and live full and happy lives just like anyone else in the world. In the U.S. a notion has been marketed that one’s life is empty if they don’t have either the newest technology or the finest fashion, and the truth is that the pursuit of all that junk takes away from life. I’m not saying that I romanticize or envy the situation of Haitians, but I don’t feel sorry for them.
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