Nov. 6, 2012: Haiti

Arrived Nov. 3, 2012. It’s wild, crazy and wonderful. I can’t insert any photos because my camera is on my US cell phone and I can only store pics while traveling. I’ll get an actual camera someday. (I later borrowed Pia’s camera and uploaded photos, so they now appear in my blog.)

The back of a tap-tap at the Petion-ville martketplace. They have seats on both sides, and young men hang onto the back, standing on the bumper. The tire on the floor can also be used as a seat.

All the old wrecked vans I see along the street are taxis. They are called tap-taps. Small, colorfully painted Toyota trucks are the other kind of tap-tap. The slogans painted over the cabs (like those I saw in Central America, especially in San Salvador)  say things like “One Love,” “Dieu Devant,” “Souvenir,” “I Love You.”

Many people carry things on their heads. People look mean and fierce (they hate and mistrust white people, with good reason), but when I say “Bonjou” or “Bonsoi,” they smile and respond in kind. The dumb NGOs here tell all their workers to avoid the streets and the motos and taxis and buses (my housemate, Pia, told me this). Many people who work for NGOs are getting very rich off them, and Pia says the NGOs are doing more harm than good.

The driving is crazy, the vehicles are often mostly demolished, the roads are horrendous. Walking along the road here in Delmas 95 where I live can be dangerous. Up farther toward the road to Petion-ville (richer) the traffic is terrible. I walked up there yesterday afternoon when hundreds of private school kids were being picked up by their parents. It was wild and dangerous. Or it seemed dangerous. I didn’t see any accidents.

The whole ethic here among the average (not rich) person is entirely different from anything I have ever know before. It’s definitely not about valuing money, at least not in any way like we do in the US. Other things are more important. Life is hopping and full of action and laughter and singing and largely harmonious interactions between people.

Every market and restaurant has an armed guard outside or inside. Pia doesn’t get this any more than I do. It’s a huge separation between the rich and the poor (guess whose fear is ruling this interchange?).

The culture makes me feel alternately like masturbating (i.e., I feel free, loose and very relaxed, with love and peace and music all around me) and like breaking out of this asylum for mad people.

The people here at guest house speak Creole, French, English, German, and Spanish.

I walked up and down my street Rue Jacquet (or Jacquet Toto) yesterday in the am and in the afternoon. One end is green and full of plants and a field of corn. A steep path goes down to a little shanty town of 20 or 30 shacks. Yesterday drumming and singing was going on in one of the bigger buildings down there. I longed to go down, but a white person can’t do that here. I have to be very respectful since white folks have done so much damage in the world and especially to black peopled. The rich folks here are mostly whites.

I greeted many people on the street. I am learning a little Creole (krey-ol’). A few fruit vendors and one paper dealer tried to get me to pay an outrageous amount in US $. I asked for the price in geddes. I bought 2 oranges and a pen and a notebook. (I paid 5 geddes, 5 geddes, and 25 gddes respectively.) Some vendors laughed at me as I left. One was nice and didn’t try to rip me off. She sold me the pen. 75 geddes is about $2. I think. Still getting this straight.

Up Jacquet Toto by the green area I can sit down and overlook a bowl-like little valley. I am on one of the hillsides of the bowl. Rich people’s houses dot the hills, but they are isolated, unlike the People’s houses/shacks/tents which are in groups. I met an old man up there the day before yesterday. He had a machete and a bunch of long green herbs he had just pulled up. In his Creole (or was it French for my benefit?), I heard the word “fevre” so the herbs were for fever. I couldn’t identify them.

Yesterday, walking up the other end of Rue Jacquet (which is much busier — I am at/near the green, quiet end of the street), I met a group of folks standing by a car outside their house: a woman my age (or so –hard to tell), man same age, and three young men, including Emmanuel who talked to me (as did the older man) in English. Emmanuel wants a job and wants to learn English and teach me Creole. I took his phone # and told him, “Je suis un explorateur.” Lord Byron told me this means that I am a traveler, but I think it may be something ludicrous (because, in our short time together Sunday, I noticed that Byron’s a bit of a fool sometimes) like, “I am an explorer.” I have told a few people this.

Yesterday I bought an orange from an old woman with a small crew at a roadside stand near my heavily-gated house (many on my long street are like this, and many houses are big and expensive, while the poor people live in tiny shacks and tents in between the big houses of the rich people). They were a bit wild and made fun of me, laughing wildly when I left. I don’t know why. Just getting the orange was an ordeal of an interesting nature: her sidekick, a young man named “Berd” spoke some English. He did most of the dealing. They tried to see me an orange for a lot of money at first (several dollars). A small crowd gathered with their yelling and my attempt to bargain. I finally took an orange for 5 geddes. Then, when I returned and walked by their stall again, the old woman (and I only call her this because she was toothless and small and sort of cackled) came up to me and gave me back the 5 geddes. I don’t know why. So I returned the orange.

I then proceeded past my big red locked gate and went down the other end of the street and bought 2 oranges from a few women of various ages. When I was leaving their stall, the teenager questioned me about the 5 geddes piece I gave her, pointing to its old damaged parts until the old woman told her to stop and let me “passer,” at which point the girl laughed at her joke.

I bargain, but I don’t feel bad about it. I am poor, too. Not like them, but then I don’t live here, and I’m not one of them. So I don’t have to live by their money standards, but I do have to respect everyone and I do. The old man with Emmanuel told me it’s OK to take photos on the street, but some people say “no” when I ask to photograph them (even a little girl who was going down to the shanty town yesterday). Pia said someone told her it’s because they think we are photographing their poverty, but half the Haitians practice voodoo and I think it has to do with the old (African?) belief that the camera captures the soul.

The drumming and singing coming from the shanty town yesterday had a very definite African sound and feeling. I waved to a gal down there who was looking up the hill at me; she waved  back.

Many people call out their wares as they walk up and down my street. Many people, mostly women, carry stuff on their heads. There are two newspapers in Port-au-Prince (PaP), but I haven’t seen any. They don’t sell newspapers on my street. The rich people have cars and they take their newspapers home. The poor don’t read them.

There’s almost definitely no trash service in my section of town; trash is all over the place. It reeks. It’s food and also everything else. The dogs, goats and chickens live off this. I saw a cow on the hillside yesterday. But our house and the other big houses on this street have trash and rich people don’t just dump it in the street (maybe the very poor people do).

I almost never see any other white people on the street, hardly even any brown-skinned people (Spanish or Dominican). A few Asians are here and there.

Most dogs here are brown or black or tan. They are very thin and not treated as pets. They are wandering around (never running — no energy) free, and sometimes people throw rocks at them. The 2 dogs kept in a cage inside the gate at my house are treated like guard dogs; one seems to come in the house at night and wander around, barking now and then. These medium-sized dogs with white curly hair are fed and seem, if not happy, satisfied. They can get out of their cage if they want, but I saw Wilson, the house caretaker, run at them, forcing them back into the cage when they tried to come out.

My room is a good size with a bathroom (shower doesn’t work; I fill a bucket with water and bathe with it). Very comfortable. Lock on the door. Fan, light, tables (2), nice little bed with clean sheets. Toilet works, and sink is fine. All is clean. Cold water only. Can’t ever drink tap water here (no one does); people sell bags of water on the street. We have many small bags of water hanging around the house because, as my Haitian landlady (who has money and lives in a big, expensive house in Petion-ville, the richer part of town) told me: the flies see themselves magnified when they look in the bags and they get scared and fly away.

My room has 16 slits in the wall that adjoins the house’s kitchen. They are high up in the wall, so no one can see in here, but they can hear me (if anyone’s in the kitchen) and I can hear them. The opposite wall (c. 18′ away) has 55 bigger slits covered with old, black screens with holes in them and bars on the window. This opens up to an alleyway (I am quite a ways up above the ground) and the tin roof of the shacks next door (which are low). The voices and singing and laughter and roosters crowing come up into my room all day until about 10 pm. Very good happy sounds and raucous and very alive and full of energy and good health. (The people I have seen here, almost without exception, look healthy and strong with good teeth.)

The first night a child was screaming and obviously being hit. He responded with continued screams and verbal fighting back. Later, when it all calmed down, a man was talking to the child and he allowed the child lots of time to get out his anger and his side in words. The whole neighborhood could hear this whole thing which I personally believe is very good and stops the worst child-abuse.

The first two days I was here were without electricity. Audelio (resident here and brother of landlady, Natacha) gave me a candle. He took me to the grocery store (we walked the mile or so, with a ride from a friend for part of the way). People with cars here are rather snobby; it must be a big deal to rise above the masses of poor people here. Audelio told me the police here don’t make much money but the military men make a ton.

I would call the People here fearless and exuberant. We all went to a party after church (Catholic; I waited outside with Lord Byron and young woman who traveled with us) with Natacha and Charlene Noelle (manager of our guesthouse), and her son, Olivier, and a little girl and about 15 other people. It was a birthday party “for the group” (as Natacha explained it). We drank champagne (just a little for each person), had meat (could barely see the meat mixture) sandwiches, pastry and cake. After a little talking by a man, a young man sang some songs (very passionately) and another man recited poetry that was about liberation and tribulations. He was very angry, then very gentle and soft.

The Christians here drink alcohol (the French influence: “it’s good for us”), but don’t smoke. There are many Christians. Gays have to “keep it a secret,” as Lord Byron (a photographer and journalist) told me.

I am living in a ghetto of both semi-wealthy and very poor people.

On the plane getting here (out of Ft. Lauderdale), I thought I might not get on. I was there a little late. I was supposed to have an onward ticket (or so the lady said at the Spirit Airlines counter [she also said: “I’m just telling you this to cover my behind.” I ran for the plane with a few others (thank god I worked out in Ojai for 2 months!). We weren’t late afterall, but it was a good workout. A young native Haitian man in line had to pay $150 (“my vacation money”) for his huge bag. It was that much overweight: filled with food for the poor, he told me.

I was one of only a handful of whites on the full plane. An old man wandered down the aisle and into the toilet during take off. Flight attendants ignored him, but shut the door when he left it part-way open. Sam old man wandered down to the bathroom during the landing (as did many others) and tried to evict the young man who was in there peeing. Much laughter ensued all over the front aisles of the plane (those of us who saw all this). Smell of vomit in the front aisle (something you don’t smell much these days when everyone is used to flying). At the last minute, when we were actually landing, flight attendants made everyone sit down.

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