It’s humid tonight in Port-au-Prince, the air thick and soft and still. For the first time in two weeks, I can’t taste the dust. It smells sweet, stormy.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the way this city smells. This afternoon the scent of something nutty roasting on an open flame carried me years back to Italy, and a perfect winter’s night I spent eating my way through a chestnut festival in a tiny village in the hills below Monte Amiata.
This was followed closely by the stench of rotting vegetables. And then a couple of goats wandered by, and a rooster, kicking up dust, tamping the rot.
PaP is a constant assault on the senses. I love that in the early hours of the morning, the sky is a dreamy diffused pink, the sun rising through the embers of the night’s fires. The air is coolish then, and it smells almost as if the ocean is as nearby as it actually is.
By mid-morning, the pink has given way to the dust and the diesel, and the markets—which occupy every major (and many minor) intersection in the city—are heaving, men and women and children tending turtles, making sausages, butchering goat, grilling chicken and other meats I still haven’t learned to recognize on charcoal-fired drums.
There’s slop too—a lot of it—the rotting foodstuffs carried away on streamlets of raw sewage, picking up bits of rubbish en route to the nearest open sewer or sidewalk dump.
At night it’s the smoke from the fires—for cooking, for gathering, for clearing the piles of rubbish. Here in Delmas 19, it’s usually for burning plastic, the fumes so acrid we’re often driven to our room long before bedtime. And at a community event last week in Cite Mericain, we stood in the dark watching short films and kids dancing, and it was cigarettes and garlic and bug juice and a joint, of all things.
I have tasted all of it, my lungs heavier than they’ve been in a long while.
The air is thick with gorgeous sound too. Haiti is a cacophonous country, a radio producer’s dream… if you can get away from the generators. Even the language is evocative, onomatopoeic, the earthquake called not the earthquake, but Goudou Goudou.
There are the roosters, always, and trucks tapping through the streets, honking, stalling, coughing to life. There are the sounds of reconstruction, of rubble being crushed one rock at a time for reuse, of concrete blocks being formed, of cement being pargeted, of water being sprayed to keep the dust down, of rebar being dragged behind a motorcycle taxi.
There is music everywhere, people singing together in tap-taps, or alone, along with a song only they can hear. Private water trucks play canned jack-in-a-box tunes through loudspeakers tied to the roof—Haiti’s version of our ice cream trucks. Everything is a drum. Lunchtime conversation is shouted over blaring hip-hop, konpa, hymnals. And such conversation there is, a babel of Kreyol, French, English, Spanish.
In Croix-des-Bouquets, a village famous for its iron art, the maddening sound of metal being hammered carries from the yards of dozens of ateliers for miles. I was happy to spend my time there interviewing artists—an excuse for using a directional mic, and wearing noise-cancelling headphones.
And in the fishing village of Luly, the peaceful sound of the sea at dusk, fishermen mending nets, boatbuilders making small repairs, quiet conversation around the fire and the buckets of fresh fish.
At night, I sleep with earplugs, not because the city makes such noise, but because the fans do.
This week we hope to move up the mountain above Petionville to Thomassin 25, where the air is clearer, cooler, quieter. I wonder if we’ll be as happy up there as we have been down here.