We left Port-au-Prince three weeks ago for the southern coastal town of Jacmel, where we’ve rented a little white bungalow with a huge green garden on the beach. We can’t actually see the beach over the security wall, mind, unless we’re standing on the roof of the house, but the sound of the crashing surf reassures us it’s there. We have a little gazebo in our huge green garden, to which we retire at the end of each work day to play cribbage and drink rum and watch the sun set. We have trees that drop heavy things from great heights—almonds, mangos, coconuts, some kind of unidentifiable and terribly ugly fruit. We have bougainvillea and poinsettia. We have lizards and roosters and sometimes a dog that likes to sleep in our doorway. Once, we heard a pig snuffling up against the gate.
We came to Jacmel for a bit of peace, a bit of distance from the relentless PaP. We came so Brett could draw, and I could write.
For the first week, we mostly slept and read and floated in a long, skinny pool amidst the ruins of what once must have been a very grand Jacmellian home. I listened to tape, made notes. At night, we talked stories, edited pictures. And after a month without, I started writing again, first overdue hellos to friends and family, then pitches, bits of scripts, and finally this post.
I had stalled mid-way through my last post. We’d been invited to a party at one of the big NGO compounds, a sprawling property with a couple of massive houses—maybe 6,000 square feet each—and a twinkling garden that easily accommodated the 70-or-so of us that had showed for dinner (prepared by an in-house army of Haitian women) and dancing. At the time, nine aid workers were living there. Nine.
That night marked the beginning of a series of surreal encounters with the ex-pat community in Port-au-Prince. There were well-heeled artisan bazaars and Christmas parties and beach resort days. There were MONGOs (My Own NGOs) and missionaries, aid workers and medical teams, diplomats and developers, adoptive families and business opportunists, Hollywood stars and fashion designers. There were evangelists and drunks and slightly maniacal teetotallers who had come to Haiti because they had “love to share,” because they were certain they could save the “wild-eyed and desperate.” And there were architects and journalists. Us.
At some point, I began to feel as though we were living in the pages of a Graham Greene novel. And every time I sat down to write, I had no idea where to begin. I realized I’d need a book to unpack it all.
Many people have written eloquently and convincingly about the unwieldy behemoth that is the aid industry in Haiti—particularly in these last weeks leading up to today’s grim anniversary. So for now, I’ll leave that to them, and the parties and ex-pat archetypes to Greene.
Instead, I offer Five Weeks of Haiti From the Back of Ambulances and Pick-up Trucks:
Week 1: Port-au-Prince, Petionville, the coast running north from the capital. Brett makes a deal with the owner of our guesthouse: design services for room and board. The main house had collapsed in the earthquake, killing five. They need a new one. Thus begins our whirlwind tour of Haitian guesthouse, hotel, and resort architecture, much of which is very beautiful in its ironwork detailing and overgrown bougainvillea. Most have lolling resident dogs and remnants of at least one collapsed structure—usually half a wall or an exposed tile floor. Meanwhile, my work continues, but more on that in a later post.
Week 2: Port-au-Prince, Petionville, Croix des Bouquets. We meet a fabulous Canadian, whose family has been working in agriculture in Haiti for nearly 30 years. She gives us books to read and introduces us to Haitian artists, woodworkers, fashion designers, diplomats, ex-pat elders, the Colony Club English Lending Library. She shows me a thing or two about bargaining for iron art in Croix des Bouquets, where she buys half a dozen mirrors, dozens of trees and angels, a pair of flamingos. Somehow, I end up with 10 bracelets. On the way home, we have a good laugh at a recent addition to collections of Haitian folk art for sale by the side of the road: wooden carvings of the much-reviled MINUSTAH soldiers.
Week 3: Fonbatis, Delice, Saint Marc. We pile into an ambulance with our fabulous Canadian, an American contractor, four Mennonite missionaries, and a couple of Haitian agronomists, and head for rural Haiti. The mountain switchback roads are wild—narrow and rocky (or bouldery, if that’s a word) and offer breathtaking views out to the sea, down into the valleys. We pass donkeys and naked children and motorcycles four passengers deep. Sometimes, LeGrand has to climb out, remove boulders the ambulance can’t clear. We’re happy to be squeezed in for the ride, as the less space there is between us, the less likely we are to be injured. We meet representatives from six agricultural co-ops who have come together to agree to construction terms for seven new silos. We meet peanut farmers at harvest. We visit a sugarcane mill where molasses is made. We walk an irrigation project in the gorgeous Artibonite valley, where we see the lushest farms. There, I ask a man if he ever worries about theft, of his crop, of his tools. He tells me that we are in the Artibonite, where zombis are made. Only the stupid steal here. We get stuck in a mudhole, though it hasn’t rained for weeks. A woman doing her laundry in the river holds my hand while I ford it, hopping from wet rock to wet rock. We are chased by laughing boys. We are left after nightfall in a restaurant in Kabaret, formerly Duvalierville. After two days travelling these roads, I am at least half an inch shorter, but happy for the beer and goat in front of me.
Week 4: Jacmel. We’re dropped at the bus station in Port-au-Prince. It is utterly bonkers, people, motos, buses, tap-taps, vans, loud music, vendors everywhere. We negotiate the backseat of a van for ourselves and our bags. The trip is three hours, again over switchbacking mountain roads, and I concentrate very hard on keeping my breakfast down. In Jacmel, we hand our bags through the window to a moto taxi driver. At the hotel, we have our first argument over fare. We attract a good crowd, but prevail.
Week 5: Jacmel, Cayes Jacmel. After a week of holiday lazing about and clearing the Port-au-Prince air from our lungs, we begin to make friends—artists and musicians and filmmakers. It’s impossible not to, Jacmel is so friendly. A 10-year-old painter asks me for my number, so that we can “talk art.” I give it to him. We visit an AFH project up in the hills beyond Cayes Jacmel, a free school for kids who wouldn’t otherwise have access to education. I fall instantly in love with the school’s tireless headmistress, Madame Vieux. We meet Prince Luc at the arts collective FOSAJ and he tells us of his vision for arts education in Haiti while showing us the work of his students. We eat lobster on the beach. We wander the city streets at night, and when the moon is full, sit on our back stoop and watch the light reflect off the palms. We listen to the surf, and on weekends to whichever bands are playing next door at the beach club. One night, we stumble on group of horn players jamming in the ruins of a tennis club. I cannot get enough of the ruins, the Miss Havisham-ness of Jacmellian architecture. We cannot believe we stayed in Port-au-Prince as long as we did.
But you know what they say about all good things.
Tomorrow we head back to the capital, where on Monday Brett starts two months with Architecture For Humanity. I’ll go up with him in the morning, to check in on a few sources, meet with some local journalists, and pick up a case of bug juice before I return to Jacmel for a week on my own, while Brett settles into his new gig, and our new digs.
I’ll miss the freedom we have here, the ease with which we’re able to get around. I’ll miss having a kitchen. But that’s for another post.
On to the next chapter.