First Impressions on Arrival

Route Delmas, the street that runs from Petionville down to Port au Prince, is hideous. Trucks, busses, cars, motorcycles, and motorized vehicles of all descriptions screech, roll, and zip up and down it, pouring black smoke and other less visible toxins out of their exhaust pipes. They fill the street with all manner of rattles and roars. All drivers insistantly beep their horns. It seems almost constant, as if the horn-and not leaded gasoline-was what made their engines run.

And yet thousands and thousands and thousands of people walk along this street most of every day showered by its terrible racket. It is the most important route to and from work for Haitians that live in Petionville and the villages above and around it. Hundreds of street venders line its narrow sidewalks selling produce and batteries and motor oil and shoes and choking in its noxious fumes. And yet here I am sitting in a booth on the sidewalk with Erik and Michelet sipping Haitian coffee, strong and sweet, out of old,
enamel-covered tin cups.

The booth is four bent wooden posts, holding up a simple frame, covered by a torn cloth that its owner and we implicitly agree to pretend will protect from the street’s infinite dust. She ladels the coffee out of a large kettle that we has been cooking all morning. It’s already after eight, more than an hour after her busiest time. Erik is Erik Badger, Shimer class of 1997. He is here in Haiti to work with me. I don’t know Michelet’s last name. I met him last year when I was here, and I liked him. He tells great stories, and he
smiles a lot.

Michelet came early this morning to the office/guest house that Erik and I have been staying in because he is sick and he does not know where to go for help. The house is about a block from Rue Delmas. He asks me to look closely at his eyes, and they are a pale, sickly yellow. He tells me that it’s his liver. Strangely enough, I understand him because the Creole word for liver is the “fois” of “paté de fois gras.” Last time he came by he found someone willing to give him the little money he would need to see a doctor. Today he has a prescription-at least that’s what he says it is-but no money to buy the

I give him a couple of bucks-he says it’s more than he needs-without wondering very much whether the gift is the right thing for him or for me. It’s an easy gesture, and I feel good about it. I just don’t think about it very hard. I could describe the range of reservations I might have about it if I were to reflect, but I’ll save that for another time.

Tomorrow, I’ll move to my home in a village on the mountain above Petionville. I’ll be a long way from Delmas. In Ka Glo, it’s cool and quiet. There are trees everywhere. The house I live in is nestled in a mango grove.
Of course, when I go to work, I’ll be walking down Rue Delmas. Like everyone else.