Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Day 174 - Out & About In Port-au-Prince

If I'm totally honest, Port-au-Prince has always intimidated me. My prior time spent in this labyrinthine, sprawling, crowded city is something that both excited me, and made me nervous. Being the capital and home to about a quarter of Haiti's population, when shit goes down in this country, you can bet it'll go down here. The city recently shut down following the elections - the main thoroughfares choked with roadblocks, and smoke from thousands of burning tires looming over the countless collapsed and damaged buildings. Kidnappings happen here. Riots. It's home to Cite Soleil - Haiti's largest slum and one of the worst in the Western hemisphere. There's reason for the cautious approach. To be in Port-au-Prince is to be in the middle of a semi-state of chaos that never seems to completely abate.

So today, I decided to push my comfort level, and just go out and see what I'd find. Rose, my friend and fellow All Hands volunteer here with me for our break, had friends she wanted to see up in Petionville, a wealthier suburb up on the slopes of the mountains surrounding Port-au-Prince proper, and I was up to accompany her. We got some rough directions on how to tap-tap it up there, and headed out around 11AM. First we had a quick pitstop at a local business that changes American dollars for Haitian gourdes, then hit one of the main streets in the city, Delmas 33, and started walking. After a longer than expected wait for some freshly-fried pates (kind of like an empanada - fried dough stuffed with cabbage and meat and whatever else that particular vendor is feeling inclined to add) to appease my growling stomach, we took a breather on the side of the street to eat and see if we could hail a tap-tap. I could definitely feel how clearly we stood out, but it wasn't in an uncomfortable way. "Blanc!" People would call us, we'd wave and smile. "Koman ou ye?" I'd reply. "Mwen byen." "Tre byen." I don't have a truly working knowledge of the language yet, but I didn't need to. Simple phrases teamed with body language and a smile almost always elicits the same response - a smile and wave in return. The Haitians are fun in that way. Even with the countless NGOs on the ground here, most of the time blancs aren't out and about, mingling with the locals. Private drivers and gated compounds keep most of them removed. When the random blanc does end up out in the fray with everyone else, it is noticed, and maybe even appreciated. I felt comfortable. We were enjoying ourselves.

Pates finished and with no tap-taps having stopped to pick us up, we continued walking. Along the way I asked a Haitian guy probably a bit younger than me for directions - "Pardon misseur, eske ou kone kikote tap-tap la a Petionville?". He did know where we could find a tap-tap to Petionville, but instead of simply giving us directions, he opted to escort us. He was headed in that direction anyway. We got to talking. His nickname is Rudy (or, spelled the Haitian way, Roody) and he lived in the area. We told him a bit about us - volunteers, living in Leogane, in Port-au-Prince to visit friends. "She your baby?" he asked me, drawing my attention to Rose. "No, zanmi mwen." "No, my friend." I've come to find that any time I've been out with a female blanc, be it Rose or Cassie or Jess or Mathilde or whoever, the Haitian men will inevitably ask me if they are my woman. Depending on who I'm with, the answer varies. Rose is comfortable dealing with the male affection, so she's always just my friend. Jess wasn't so keen on having to ward off the advances, so she'd reprimand me whenever I forgot and failed to claim her as my own. With Mathilde, who I spent the most time out alone with, and was in fact my "woman" if that is to mean my romantic interest, we opted for the full defensive maneuver. "She's my wife." The lack of rings never proved problematic, but my lack of knowing how to say wife in Kreyol meant she'd be the one to have to make it clear in French, the language Kreyol is based on and largely understood by the people here, and one of her two birth languages.

Surprisingly, my acknowledging Rose to be just a friend didn't result in the expected chat-up that usually follows - Roody proved to be pretty quiet, a soft-spoken guy - and so we just walked together, every now and again trying to talk in my broken Kreyol and his broken English. Before too long he hailed a tap-tap and we piled in the back. Ah, the joys of tap-tap travel. If you can manage to get a seat at the end of the tap-tap, near the exit, or if you're riding the bumper by standing on it and holding on to the roof, the trip is fun. However, if you get packed into the belly of the beast, expect heat, very cramped seating, and very little fresh air. This time I got the latter. Luckily, it didn't last too long. We hit the main Delmas street (it seems every street in Port-au-Prince is named Delmas plus a number, except the main one that runs perpendicular through all the others) and hopped off, hunting for another tap-tap headed up toward Petionville, which we found before too long. Unfortunately, this one didn't go all the way, so we ended up somewhere around Delmas 50 (we needed to get to Delmas 91) and couldn't for the life of us flag down another one. Finally we decided to just grab a mototaxi, even though they are far more expensive (5 - 10 gourde for a tap-tap, 100+ for a moto) and get to where we needed to go. We thanked Roody for his help and a short moto trip later we were at our destination.

Arriving at Delmas 91, up in Petionville proper, above Port-au-Prince, we cut down the street - a small, steep dirt alley really - hunting for the organization Rose volunteered at five or six years ago. The organization, St. Joseph's Home for Boys, is run by an older man of faith (not sure which - Catholic I think) named Michael. He came here originally some twenty-five or so years ago with the organization started by Mother Theresa, but had a disagreement with how they were choosing to tackle their purpose - to help the street kids and restaveks (Haiti's slave class of sorts, always children) get a chance at a better life. Breaking away from that organization, Michael started his own, and now, twenty-plus years later, he currently houses over seventy boys and mentally challenged children (boys and girls) in multiple cities here in Haiti, and helps them get an education and training to benefit them once they hit eighteen and are on their own. It was wonderful to sit down with him and pick his brain for a while while he fed us baked bread from Jacmel, peanut butter, watermelon, sliced cheese (!!!), cold water, Haitian Oreos, and bananas.

Given my camera is lost or stolen, this is a photo I found online, but it gives a pretty good idea of the view from Petionville down on Port-au-Prince proper.
I didn't know it until she told me, but it was an emotional trip for Rose. The original St. Joseph's Home for Boys, a giant, seven-story house, had collapsed in the earthquake. What was left of it when we got there was nothing but a hole being dug out by local Haitian construction workers preparing the foundation for the future home. The new interim home is the neighboring house, also owned by Michael's organization. Luckily, the earthquake didn't kill any of the boys or staff living at the original house, but it did kill a visiting international man staying there to learn more about what St. Joseph's was doing. However, one of the boys Rose had known from her time there, a boy she had mentored who had since turned eighteen and left the house to go teach other young Haitian boys dance as a means of therapy and self-expression, did die in the quake. The community center he taught in came down. As we sat overlooking the hole where the original house had been, Michael pointed out the neighboring house on the other side, another big one, this a former three-story now reduced to two because the middle floor sandwiched. "There are still two bodies under that slab." Apparently the owner of the house, a French guy, never bothered to come back and clean it up, or remove the bodies. It was sobering to look at it right there across the way, staring at the cracks that faded into darkness under the concrete, knowing two people were still there somewhere, eleven months later.

After spending maybe two hours at St. Joseph's, which we closed out by climbing up to the roof to get a wicked view of Port-au-Prince, Rose and I decided it was time to start making our way back. Bidding farewell to Michael and Walnes, a Haitian friend of Rose's who is quite a talented artist, and the rest of the boys who were busy making jewelry for Walnes' jewelry line, we headed out. After getting some ridiculous prices from mototaxi drivers (pretty standard fare for Petionville, given that is where many of the NGOs, and therefore blancs, are based) we jumped on a big tap-tap instead - think moving truck with no back. Rose smashed in while I opted to ride the bumper. It was great. The truck was packed with Haitians, and one of them, a guy probably my age, cracked me up. "Hey my nigga', let me see your face!" It was said in friendliness. Apparently we were quite the spectacle. As he exited the tap-tap, he caught my ear for a second - "Hey my friend, don't mind it when the Haitians laugh at you. We just never see whites out here like this." I smiled, gave him a half-hug with my one free arm, and we went our separate ways as the tap-tap lurched into motion.

By total coincidence, after arriving back at Delmas 33 and making our way down what was apparently the clothing vendor section of the street, we bumped back into Roody. A sprawling city of two million and we walked right into him. He fell back in stride with us, trying to keep me up on the sidewalk after I got clipped by a mototaxi, and was in the process of helping us get a tap-tap when a random blanc came out of seemingly nowhere. He was a reporter from the Miami Herald on assignment in Haiti and wanted to interview us for a story. We agreed. He was familiar with All Hands, and had actually given my friend Annelie, who volunteered here for a month or so, a ride to Jacmel. Small world. He asked us questions, mostly about the volunteer experience and what we got out of it - if we thought we were making a tangible difference. He spoke with me first, then Rose, while Roody looked restless. After my interview was over, Roody took me aside and asked me if I had any money, if I'd give him some. Normally I'd say no, but he had been helpful and he settled on asking for 100 gourdes after his initial probing of twenty dollars American was totally shot down. "Mwen grangou." A saying all too common here. "I'm hungry." After finishing up her interview, Rose gave Roody 100 gourdes as I only had 250 notes or higher, and, given the sun was setting and I wasn't feeling a post-nightfall Port-au-Prince navigation, we flagged down a moto and headed back to the GrassRoots United base. A wild ride later, weaving in and out of cars and buses and dumptrucks, nearly scraping our knees on them, following a Haitian moto-policeman in military fatigues with a shotgun strapped to his back, we arrived with a smile. "What a great day." Rose said it, but we both felt it. I still feel it.

Again, not my photos, but good to help give a feel for Port-au-Prince.
Port-au-Prince: an infectious kind of madness.
In closing his interview questions for me, the reporter from the Miami Herald asked what I've gotten from this experience, what I've found most valuable. It's a question I've been asked before, and my answer has remained constant: "The reaffirmation in the general goodness of people." Today, getting swept up in the madness of Port-au-Prince, was just that. It was proof that, no matter how alien I may feel, how different my life and experiences have been from probably every single Haitian living in this city - the same Haitians all around me - I'm still sharing something in common with them. In our mutual smiles and laughter, in my terrible attempts at Kreyol and the laughter that follows it (or surprise if I actually pull it off - "Blanc pale Kreyol!"), our differences don't feel like a boundary. We're just people living our lives. I love that. It is that exact something which I can't completely explain that makes me want to keep traveling and pushing out into the myriad different places on this planet. Be it New York or Shanghai or Guadalajara or Port-au-Prince, most people out there are trying to live their lives as best they can, and let others do the same. It's easy to forget that in the negative blitz of popular media. Sometimes it takes getting out into the middle of the human flow, wild and intimidating as it can be, to remind you.

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