Thursday, June 19, 2014

Country Come to Town

Once again, I find myself with a cake in my lap. This is the second time I've found myself in such a position on the ride back to Cange after a day trip to Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital. This particular cake was going back to Cange for someone's birthday party. The first time, I was toting a much larger cake for a Christmas party in Cange that evening. That day we didn't start leaving Port-au-Prince until dusk, the car broke down after dark in one of the roughest parts of the city, and the entire trip back took four hours. Four hours with a cake in my lap, sitting in the middle of the back row of a crew cab pick up.
I felt a bit more optimistic about this second cake trip going better than the first, however, because we had just had a wonderful cheeseburger for lunch (I had been craving one for about a month), I was sitting in the front seat, we were leaving with daylight to spare, we were with my favorite chauffeur Johnny, and the cake was about half the size and weight.

It seems as if everything and everyone who travels in Haiti must pass through Port-au-Prince. The capital is the economic center of Haiti, which has one of the fastest growing economies in the Caribbean. And as gas is precious, any day trip down Mon Kabrit (Goat Mountain) from Cange always has multiple objectives. One never knows who will be riding down or picked up along the way, what tasks will need to be accomplished and for whom, or how much time will be spent on any given to-do list item. This is just how it is on a typically unpredictable trip to Port-au-Prince...
Yes, there are tent cities in Port-au-Prince. Yes, though it doesn't compare size wise, there is also a tent city in Greenville, SC. But to only look at the current estimated population of tent cities in the capital (140,000) is to ignore the fact that over 90% of the almost 2,000,000 people living in tent cities just after the 2010 earthquake have moved out of such living conditions to more permanent housing. Incredible. Moving on.

So what is a day trip to Port-au-Prince like? Not at all like the previous day trip to Port-au-Prince.

The ride to PauP from Cange takes about 1 hour (it used to take 4 before the road was paved). But that really just gets you to the edge of the city. Once there, there's no telling how long it will take you to cross sections of the congested city. I always ride with a chauffeur--I'm not about to navigate the wild streets of the city, they intimidate me. When you reach Mon Kabrit on National Route 3, the edge of the Central Plateau, you can look out into the Plaine du Cul de Sac and the entire capital. Sometimes the smog and dust hides the taller mountains of the southern peninsula across the plain.
Port-au-Prince on a smoggy day.
The Dominican Republic is out there somewhere.
"How is Port-au-Prince?" asked the visitor. "Dusty when it's dry and muddy when it's wet." That's a perfect description. Any other description of Port-au-Prince is simply incomplete, because it's such a contradictory city.
New construction!
The haunting skeleton of the Catholic cathedral reminds everyone passing by of the horrific 2010 earthquake--but it is also true that new construction is happening everywhere. Yes there are still tent cities, which are continuing to shrink, but there is also sushi, pedicures and an Irish pub among the ordered streets of Petionville.

One can find almost anything in Port-au-Prince:

Vegetable Oil
Assorted Alcohol
Port is packed with people--on motos, in cars and tap-taps, walking, leading animals and selling almost anything you can imagine right up to your car window. Those merchants particularly congregate around red lights and speed bumps. I'm always amazed at the people running along beside cars making change and handing snacks, manje kwit (fast food), drinks, phone credit, car phone chargers, or World Cup flags through the window. These car-side vendors take advantage of the fact that going to Port means a LOT of time in the car and a lot of time stuck in a blokis (something causing a traffic jam). This in turn also means a lot of smog. Making a small effort counteracting this are solar street lights in some sections of the city.
Most people are generally friendly and willing to provide directions, in the distinctly non-specific Haitian way, so long as you say hello and ask how they are first.

Another sign that Port is the economic center of the country are all of the wild cargoes being carried in trucks and on the backs of motos. The most amazing feats I have seen involved an entire lottery building on the back of a pick-up and a mattress being carried between the driver and passenger on a moto. Despite all of this activity, sometimes Port seems like the land of "pa gen," which means, "we don't have it."

Then there are all of the billboards and ads going up--some of which are really clever. Here are some of my favorites:
"Let's choose peace, violence will destroy our life"
"Evil doesn't have a horn"-an insurance company
This is a new 50% larger Prestige bottle. For only 10 goud more. It's somewhat of a big deal because, despite the recycling of glass bottles, the Prestige brewery's production is limited by the number of bottles available. Thanks to a $100,000,000 investment by Heineken in Haiti, Prestige is expanding! Kenbe Prestige ou!
"Don't drink while you're driving"-Prestige That's a tap-tap being driven off a mountain. Notice the goat with its legs tied flying off the tap-tap.
Speaking of tap-taps, they are a mode of "public" transportation in Haiti and take the form of either a pick-up or a larger bus like vehicle. They are always painted bright colors (and have lights at night), with themes ranging from international soccer starts to Bible stories to music acts like Justin Bieber and Ludacris.

Tap-taps follow specific routes around Port or between other cities. It's a common form of transportation, along with motorcycles, or simply by foot. Those travelling by foot in the city seem to have no trouble commanding cars to stop for them simply by holding up their hand and walking.

Some other things common to see in Port are schools--seemingly on every block--loto stands, art for sale, art for beautification, and gas or water trucks delivering said liquids around the city. They're almost always leaking--and when following close behind one I'm always hoping it's water...

Driving around the city is a mix of narrow roads, some paved many not, and large wide boulevards. There are areas of seemingly endless cinder-block walls, random fields of crops, and dry river beds that come alive during a rainy season storm.

But once all purchases are made, packages delivered, and people found to return to Cange, we start the trek back out through the city, up Mon Kabrit and through the winding roads of the Central Plateau.
President Martelly's son is working on a new sports complex
Brazil flags everywhere--WORLD CUP!

Bringing down rocks from the mine to make cement blocks
A yet to be fully inhabited, somewhat questionable development housing project
Along the way home it's common to see a number of car and motorcycle accidents, a result of newly paved roads and fast vehicles in an area not accustomed to such travel. One may pass a truck full of cattle going to the city, or a caravan of buses returning school children from a field trip to the Peligre hydroelectric dam just below Cange. There are often a slew of abandoned vehicles, often marked with clumps of branches plucked off the side of the nearby hill and laid down like caution cone to warn passers by.

Never a wasted trip
Whether with a cake in my lap, squeezed four across on a middle row, or comfortably napping with the window down and breeze in my face, I'm always happy to return to Cange after safe travels in Port-au-Prince.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Frederick Douglass on Haiti

This post may be a bit nerdy, but I want to share this anyway. I am exploring more literature and writings on Haiti by Haitians and non-Haitians. In one way or another, Haiti has influenced many high profile historical figures around the world, and many of them have had something to say about it.
Frederick Douglass, and American, worked in various capacities on the relationship between Haiti and the U.S., including delivering a speech at the Chicago World's Fair on January 2nd, 1893. Here's a link to the text of that wonderful speech. He is as eloquent as ever, and does not shy away from being direct to his purpose and object.

Because of the similarities I see to present day, it is amazing to me that this was delivered in 1893. Awesome insight into history, Haiti, and the relationship with the U.S. To me, this speech shows very clearly how the history of the U.S. is inseparable from the history of Haiti. I think it's worth the 30-45 minutes it takes to read it.

Here's my favorite quote from the piece:

Until she spoke no Christian nation had abolished negro slavery. Until she spoke no christian nation had given to the world an organized effort to abolish slavery. Until she spoke the slave ship, followed by hungry sharks, greedy to devour the dead and dying slaves flung overboard to feed them, plouged in peace the South Atlantic painting the sea with the Negro's blood. Until she spoke, the slave trade was sanctioned by all the Christian nations of the world, and our land of liberty and light included. Men made fortunes by this infernal traffic, and were esteemed as good Christians, and the standing types and representations of the Saviour of the World. Until Haiti spoke, the church was silent, and the pulpit was dumb. Slavetraders lived and slave-traders died. Funeral sermons were preached over them, and of them it was said that they died in the triumphs of the christian faith and went to heaven among the just.