I never hear or see planes going over the city. An ambulance came to our street one day, and I saw an ambulance out on the main boulevard, Rue de Delmas.
This ghetto I live in is a very dense concentration of constant (except fo few hours in the dead of night) sounds, smells, sights, emotions, thoughts, and interactions.
It’s not like the miles of empty peace, solitude and quiet in the countryside. It’s a hive full of activity. One can live a full life here almost without ever leaving Jacquet toto, a quiet street between Delmas 95 and 83.
I’m grateful for having been able to share this reality with these people for a month. It’s one of the extraordinary places on earth right now.
What is unacknowledged here is how unsafe we really are. We relatively wealthy folks behind our big, locked gates are only able to live here because the masses of poor people around us allow it. In a matter of minutes a mob could scale these walls, attack, rob and kill us all. It’s true; I’m not exaggerating.
Why do The People tolerate this unfairness, this obvious inequality? The badly- paid police and the well-paid military men must control the poor to some extent, but we’d all be dead in our beds before they ever got to Jacquest toto.
I could not live here with this sense of unease and the social imbalances that create it. I guess I prefer to be far away from the masses of poor people in the world, ignoring them and living the good life in peace. Wow. Is that really who I am? Yes, it is. And I’m ashamed of it. It’s the “inconvenient truth,” and it prevents me from ENJOYING LIFE. Thus, the truth is my salvation.
I am only seeing the tip of the iceberg that is Haiti. I can’t even guess at what people’s home lives are like. What goes on inside relationships here? What’s marriage about in Haiti? Sexuality? Parenting? Childhood? Old age? Disability?
I want to go to Iran. (Ilona, a French woman working for NGO and living at the guesthouse, went there two years ago and loved it.) Iran will be the same fascinating mystery to me as Haiti is. I won’t understand anything beneath the surface. Maybe with time, insight, and more travel around the world, I will have a tiny glimpse of other realities. Insight–into life in general and my life in particular–is what inspires me to write and drives me onward.
The connection between the guesthouse manager, Charlene, and Wilson, the caretaker and general cleaner-upper, is what keeps this fine little place going so ignoramuses like me can drop in for a month and do surveillance on the Haitians. Charlene is like my dad (and like Natacha and Natacha’s mother, who began the family fortune that begat this guesthouse, among many other things, places and people). Dad was dead in the water from the beginning: a poor little kid from a Berlin ghetto, alcoholic father, seven siblings, and him the oldest boy at a time when that meant something (i.e., responsibility for the family). Dad came to America wanting a better life; he knew money was his (and his family’s) ticket up and out of poverty. When he hit Ellis Island in 1922, Daddy-o might have had an inkling of was about to befall him in the land of the free. Even before WW II made the Germans the most hated group in the United States, WW I had Irish kids yelling “Krauts!” at my German-American mom and her gang in the streets outside Boston.
Charlene reminds me of Dad. I think she’s had a tough time, and she’s doing the best she can for herself and Olivier, her son. It takes a combination of ruthless ambition and secret tenderness that you only show now and then to special people to follow this path.
Wilson is another type altogether, and he’s someone I identify with. Wilson’s from the ghetto. Every Friday he goes to another poor section of Port-au-Prince to spend a day and night with his family. Wilson has scrabbled his way up. He knows he was that close to being left out and left behind, and he’ll never forget it (this is the part I identify with). He’ll never let himself be one of the rich people; at the same time, he’s a survivor among the rats, and he’ll use every opportunity that comes his way to assure his (and his family’s) survival.
I was only adopted because I was a cute baby. Without this face and this body, I’d have been raised in a Catholic orphanage in Boston. I’m just getting over trying to make it on my looks, which weren’t that great to begin with and have faded considerably over time. It takes years to let go of what you think you need.
Dad took care of his large family in Berlin (East and West) all during the war and afterward, when times were really hard over there. How he did it, I’ll never know, but he was a tireless worker and good at what he did (his work appeared in national magazines, like LIFE). He gave me a wonderful life.
I was mad at Dad for a long time because he was an angry, bitter man who could sabotage my life without any regrets. Like lots of people who grow up poor and disadvantaged and raise their kids in the middle class, Dad resented my privileges, privileges he made sure I had. Doesn’t make sense, but that’s the way it is. At any rate, I always thought Dad was a weak man, but it turns out he that he was a tough, stand-up guy. You had to overlook his undying devotion to Germany and his neo-Nazi “friends,” but besides that, Dad was OK.
Mom joked that Dad, who was a photo-engraver, printed money in the basement. He did seem to have secrets. (I thought Dad was a Nazi, and in 1983, I reported him to the Beate Klarsfeld Foundation. Nazi hunters. They told me to forget about it.) Maybe Dad’s secret was that he did print money. He loved to bet on the horses and had a bookie he’d call on the phone to place his bets. Maybe Dad struck it rich.
Packs of dogs tear through the streets during the night. I go to sleep around 7 pm (years of camping take their toll) and wake up around 2 am. Cats are screeching and meowing pathetically. (I think they are being tortured. Seriously.) The dogs are barking madly as they run by the house. The other day I saw a little boy run from a dog who wasn’t paying any attention to him. That’s when I realized the dogs here have a certain amount of power. By 4:30 am people start singing at the church next door.
My Dominican Republic couches are set up. Alexei, Paula and Israel are ready for me.
Before Haiti, I never realized what a high standard of living I rigidly hold myself to. Must exercise, must do this, must do that, must look “good,” must say the right things, not embarrass myself in public, not show neediness or subservience, etc. ad nauseam. A regime of health, fitness and so-called well-being (strictly according to American standards).
In Haiti it’s all relaxed and slow (well, as relaxed and slow as you can be when your survival is at stake everyday). No where to go, not much to do, standards are low. It’s less stressful,but also less interesting. I’m not personally involved in Haitian culture so the interest for me is all about the newness and different-ness of life here. As soon as my fascination with this is over, I am ready to leave. It will take a long time to assimilate what I’ve seen and heard here in Haiti.
Yesterday, Pia and I walked to a busy, little, crowded market down a street to the right, off Jacquet toto. On the way, we bought some of the flat, round, peanut sweets I like (2 for 10 goud), and I bought two bags of their popcorn (5 goud each) from the same woman. She comes out in the afternoon to sell her after-school treats to the kids. At the market, Pia could negotiate good prices for us since she speaks some Kreyol, and we bought potatoes, green peppers, onions, garlic and a few other veggies from a bunch of women who were fun to do business with. Lots of laughing as Pia bargained with them. On the way home we bought eggs at a tiny store across from our house: 8 goud each. I got two; Pia got 4. ($1 US = c. 40 goud) Eighteen-year-old Pia is a smart, optimistic gal, a natural linguist who loves to cook and eat, and she’s lots of fun. When we got home, Pia made us “Christmas punch,” which was just tea, but she loves Christmas and misses being home in Germany during Christmas season. In Europe next year, I will visit Pia and a bunch of other people I’ve met in Haiti.
Yesterday morning, Charlene fed me a huge plate of left-over spaghetti (plain, no sauce, with tiny bits of sausage in it). At lunchtime, Wilson served me a big plate of macaroni (plain, a bit of sauce, with pieces of onion and fish he keeps in the cabinet above the stove). I appreciated it all, but pasta makes me feel sick and bloated, and I am supposed to be watching my cholesterol. I feel guilty just writing this because these people are just trying to fill their stomachs with what’s available, and here I am bitching about these gifts they gave me. Duh.
A kitten has been meowing outside my window (in the alley?) for two days. In my experience, this is what kittens do when they’re starving to death.
Almost every evening someone turns on a washing machine that pounds and crashes deafeningly through its hour-long cycle. Or it might be deafening if not for all the other noise in this part of the village. Recorded Christmas carols sung in English with a French accent: “To face unafraid, the plans that we made, walking in a winter wonderland.” Did Felix Bernard (music) and Richard B. Smith (lyricist) imagine their song, which was written in 1934, being sung on the streets of Haiti in 2012?
My skin is dry and itchy, and full of little bumps that I pick at until they scab over, then I pick the scabs off, and they ooze. It’s very gross and might be a skin fungus from the water here. Or something. Quick, tiny insects are crawling all over me (what the hell are they?), and my scalp itches. I pray it’s not lice. There are so many mysterious “somethings” here. Malaria, cholera, dengue fever. From my earlier travels and life-among-the-lice (i.e., motherhood), I’ve learned that “this,too, will pass.”
The Haitians are incredibly hardy. Everyday they fight for life in a harsh environment. Yada, yada, yada, I know. But I feel like a hothouse flower wilting in the hot sun, which is actually not a sun at all. It’s life at its most raw and basic. It’s too much for me; Haiti’s beaten me. I’m no match for her. I’m trying to not get robbed while, all around me, people are just trying to survive for one more day. And they sing, beautifully, while doing it.
Haitians, like the Navajo, the Inuit, and the native Hawaiians, know that the spirits are watching over them.