It’s been a dizzying first week in Haiti.
We landed as the sun was setting over Port au Prince on Monday. We forgot to take pictures, it was so riveting, the city spilling down the mountains into the ocean, the dust, the concrete, the tents spreading out seemingly forever.
And now suddenly it’s Sunday, and we’re on our own for the first time, our wonderful fixer Emmanuel Midi having given us the day to sleep late, reflect on the last many days, and look forward to the months ahead.
I’ve been trying to work out how to organize this blog so as not to bore you all with long-winded posts. In the meantime, we’ve had a bit of a week.
We’ve spent much of it learning how to navigate PaP’s insane traffic. As a pedestrian I’ve been unsure of which is more dangerous—looking down to avoid falling into an open sewer, or looking up to avoid being run over by a motorcycle screaming by, three, sometimes four, people deep. As a passenger in the backseat of jeeps careening wildly through the city’s broken streets, I’ve stopped being surprised by the number of blow-outs and broken axels we’ve seen. And as a lover of public transportation—which in Haiti is largely an unregulated fleet of battered, brightly coloured, pickup trucks called tap-taps—I’ve discovered my nirvana.
We’ve found local numbers, maps (extremely rare, apparently), rum, an already-favourite restaurant, two excellent lunch spots—both, oddly, in nightclubs. We’ve traded a mosquito-infested shower for a pipe spouting blessedly cool water over bright pink tiles at the guesthouse. We’ve been through our first rent-term negotiation (not at all like it sounds), our first lightning and rainstorm. We’ve visited markets and museums, and come unexpectedly upon the crumpled National Palace, the Champs de Mars tent camp for the displaced, Cite Soleil.
We met a young PaP-ian with dreams of reforesting his city, one seed at a time. We met fishermen, netmakers, boatbuilders, banana farmers in Luly, a fishing village north of PaP. We met Haitian journalists at Reporters Sans Frontieres, where we talked press freedom here and in Canada, and made plans to meet again, and consider what projects we might do together. We met students and teachers and volunteers and journalists-in-training at FAD, a free school for at-risk kids founded and run by a team of remarkable young Haitian men who believe the future of their country is in the education of its children—children who find us weird, amusing, huggable.
And we met with Architecture For Humanity and MASS Design. AFH Haiti staff is huge (35), MASS tiny (two). Both are wonderfully open to having me nose into their business over the next many months, and to introduce us to whomever they can. I suspect that soon I will be buying rum off the street on my own, having lost Brett to design work.
I’ve been surprised by many things. The dust, for one. There’s a Haitian saying that I’m certain to mangle, but that goes something like: Even when it pours with rain and you’re watching your feet to avoid stepping in the mud, the wind blows dust in your eyes.
Then there’s the way the city smells during the day, not so different from my own east Vancouver neighbourhood and its alleyways.
Earlier this week, Brett and I sat on the roof of our temporary home and watched the traffic below. It was early, maybe 7. I could hardly understand how in such a massive city, I could look up, and see the stars, how I could look around, and see nothing but headlights, the odd porch light, a fire. The next night, we sat in traffic (always, always traffic) on a major city road that happens to run through PaP’s largest slum, Cite Soleil. Beyond the road it was dark, so dark, the market stalls lit only by candles, schoolchildren in uniform walking home by the light of passing vehicles, and bonfires of rubbish. There was such a crush of people, on foot, on motorcycle, even on bicycle, emerging from and disappearing into that impenetrable darkness, and we could barely breath for all the dust and the exhaust and the smoke.
More than anything, I’ve been surprised by how comfortable we are here.
This coming week will be as intoxicating as the last. We’ll be looking for a more permanent place to lay our heads for the next months, meeting with ever more architects and engineers and designers, taking our first non-Pimsleur Kreole lessons with our new tutor, and learning to make our way around (and me to find my own stories) without the help of Emmanuel, whom we lose on Friday.
Already, our French has improved a thousand fold. We’ve made a friend in André, a French Canadian filmmaker who’s been coming to Haiti for many years, and is here now to make a film about unions. He’s been so generous, as has everyone we’ve met, in sharing his love of the country, and what information and contacts he thinks may be useful for us. And I’m getting used again to just ringing people up, as is the way here.
This week, I’ll upload pictures, videos, and shorter posts.
Bear with me. I’m new to all of this.