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Is This Heaven or Is This Hell?

February 27, 2011

Sunrise over the Everglades.  As the 757 wings its way through the early morning a brush stroke of tangerine separates the smoky clouds on the horizon from the cerulean sky.  Slowly the garish sodium lights of Miami come into view.  Just a few more hours now.

Mushroom shaped cumulonimbus clouds sprout from the cotton candy layer drifting lazily over the shimmering teal waters of the Caribbean.  Suddenly Haiti  appears, its torturous deforested terrain reminiscent of the badlands of the Dakotas.   It is the dry season and brown dominates the landscape.  Smoke from burning garbage spreads a haze over the island.

Port-au-Prince.  As we descend toward the airport the cityscape is one of rusting metal roofs and blue tarps accented with the magenta of bougainvillea and the pink and white of oleander.   Buildings damaged by the quake are evident everywhere.  Rubble piles line the streets.  When we land we are bussed to the makeshift customs area; the damage done to the airport is yet to be repaired.  Letters missing from the sign on the terminal building add to the air of destitution.

After collecting my bags I have to fight off the many “porters” who vie to help me.  I am outwitted by one who notices my Clean Water for Haiti t-shirt, tells me he has been sent to collect me, and takes over control of my baggage cart.  I soon realize I have been duped but decide to wait for direction from Chris as to how to resolve the matter.  Chris tells me to completely ignore the man’s requests for payment.  The “porter” threatens to kill him.

As Chris drives me to Pierre Payen we pass through Cité Soliel’s infamous Ambush Alley, the sight of frequent car-jackings.   Garbage is strewn everywhere.  Goats browse freely on the roadside.  People are everywhere – women with enormous bundles balanced on their heads, men on bicycles with loads of firewood in 8-foot lengths, children carrying black garbage bags of who knows what.  Cars, trucks, tap-taps (the indigenous brightly painted pickup trucks-cum-taxis) and motorcycles dodge around them at high speed, weaving from right lane to left, passing on either side or on the shoulders of the road.  There are several police checkpoints and the occasional UN armoured vehicle.

Chris points out a new tent city to accommodate some of those evicted from other tent cities by landowners.  There is no plan evident.  The tents are scattered helter skelter over the rocky ground.  Chris tells me the government has promised to provide jobs for these people but nothing has been done to date.

As we travel further the road is lined with tables and stalls, their owners offering just about anything for sale – diesel in 1-gallon and 1-quart plastic jugs, local produce, used clothing.  Suddenly the road in front of us is blocked by a large truck; the owners are changing out the rear axle in the middle of the highway.

In Pierre Payen Chris pulls up to an iron gate and honks the horn.  The gate is unlocked by a guard carrying a 12-gauge riot gun.  Chris and Leslie show me my Haitian home, a delightful round stone house with a loft bedroom.  The windows have ornate iron grilles but no glass allowing the night winds to provide natural air conditioning.  The solid wooden doors and shutters feature massive forged iron hinges and locks.  Through the back doors there is a stone-paved porch opening onto a private yard that touches on the ocean.  The interior is whitewashed stucco with ceramic tiled floors.  The house is spacious and has all the amenities – hot and cold running water, electricity supplied by a huge array of solar panels, a fully equipped kitchen, and a washer.  No dryer though; Haitians dry their laundry on a line or simply throw in over a convenient bush.  And as an added touch my home is complete with house lizards that scoot around from time to time.

Chris and Leslie give me a tour of the work yard and then Chris points out his garden – banana, mango and lime trees.  He also has a small flock of chickens that produce a steady supply of eggs.

After a quick lunch 11 local missionaries arrive for Sunday service and to discuss common concerns.  The missions work cooperatively to support one another.  Chris and Leslie have a delightful adopted daughter, Olivia, and two other missionaries are currently in the process of adopting Haitian children.  They voice their frustration at the difficulties involved.

In the evening a missionary doctor and his wife invite us to join them at what was formerly Club Med.  We enjoy the evening under the coconut palms at poolside and dine in the open-air restaurant.  There we meet other missionaries active in the area.

At the end of my first day in Haiti with the waves crashing on the beach just outside, I am overwhelmed by the contrasts of this country.  Despite the devastation and the poverty this is a place of breathtaking beauty.  With all its troubles it is still The Pearl of the Antilles.

Time to crawl under the mosquito netting and get some much needed rest.

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