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Day 6: Port-au-Prince

March 4, 2011

Spent the day in Port-au-Prince amid the crumbling pancaked buildings.  The streets are filled with rubble and garbage and people.  People selling everything imaginable – bottled water, juice, food from pots simmering over charcoal fires, produce, chickens, dishes, pots and pans, clothing, shoes, bricks they have salvaged from ruined buildings and cleaned, scraps of plumbing and electrical wiring, doors, window grilles, bits of metal and wire, poles cut from the sparse forests to support tents, tires, car parts, tools – just about anything anyone could use and a lot of things I couldn’t imagine anyone using.

Brazilian troops are in evidence everywhere.  They are the leading force in Haiti and have responsibility for the Port region.  Unlike the Ecuadorian troops in the Artibonite who were in fatigues, the Brazilians are in full battle gear in armoured vehicles and jeeps.

We drove past the Presidential Palace and the magnificent Cathédrale Notre-Dame de L’Assomption, both in ruins.  Champ de Mars, the huge park in front of the palace is now a tent city.  Tents and shacks have been thrown up in every available space throughout the city, some with tarps bearing the logos of USAID, UNESCO and Canada.  I can’t imagine what things were like when there were twice as many people in the camps.  On the way home we passed the tent city we had come by on the way from the airport when I arrived.  Knowing where I was I had time to take a good look.  This is a new camp on the edge of the city where people from other camps are being relocated.  It is enormous; I literally couldn’t see the far end of it.

In Port I met Alexandre, a Haitian national who is a good friend of Chris’ and a board member of CWH’s Haitian foundation.  He is also a very generous benefactor.  He is a true reflection of Haiti itself.  He runs The Training Seminary for Haitian Pastors and is a strong Christian.  But he is also a high ranking Haitian police officer in the Presidential Guard who speaks of extreme violence very matter-of-factly.

While waiting for him to arrive from work Chis and I examined one of CWH’s trucks which had been badly damaged in an accident and which Alexandre is having repaired.  Chris was very impressed with the work.  We met Alexandre’s wife briefly on her way out to do some shopping.  Chris told me that although their home was only slightly damaged in the earthquake, she and her daughter are still afraid to  sleep in the house; they spend their nights in a tent in the yard.

Alexandre acts as Chris’ negotiator and sorts out all the legalities and paperwork of doing business in Haiti.  We had gone to Port to buy two motorcycles.  Alexandre recommended a particular brand as being the best value.  It took us some time to find the dealership because it like many businesses in Port had relocated after the earthquake.  When we finally arrived the haggling that is apparently Haitian business began.  Alexandre has nothing but distain for foreigners who pay whatever is asked.  In his opinion they are stupid and make things bad for others.

After the price was settled and the purchase papers were completed, we drove to the police station where Alexandre dropped off the necessary paperwork to license the bikes.  He also suggested to Chris that he re-register his SUV for the coming year and took care of the paperwork.

We then went for lunch.   It was an experience.  The restaurant was familiar to Chris and Alexandre.  We entered off the street into a 6’x10’ space, the concrete floor of which had been cracked and heaved by the earthquake.  One wall was the side of the adjoining house, which is now unsafe.  The other was a blue tarp.  The roof was rusty corrugated metal.  There were two small metal tables covered with neat blue tablecloths and half a dozen very well worn metal chairs.   Opposite the door was a concrete stairway leading down to a patio with a very tattered tarp for shade.  Here the cooks prepared our meal over charcoal fires.  Soon after we arrive the restaurant was crowded with people sharing the tables with us, sitting on the stairs and on convenient chunks of rubble.  The service was excellent and food delicious – rice with red bean sauce, a vegetable mixture and a fire-roasted chicken leg as well as soft drinks.  The cost was 17 Haitian dollars, or $1.75.

Alexandre, who speaks English quite well, took the opportunity to talk to me directly over lunch, asking how I liked Haiti.  He warned me that one has to be hard to stay here any length of time.  He said Haitians do not respect those who too readily give and will take advantage of them to the extreme.  They appreciate those who give them opportunities to earn their own way.  He encouraged me to learn Kreyol as quickly as possible as that is seen as a sign of great respect and in business dealings gets one Haitian prices rather than “blan” prices.

He went on to say Haiti needs to move away from Kreyol to French and English.  Kreyol has only been a written language for less than 20 years and there are very few Kreyol books.  It has too few words and makes being precise very difficult.  What is said is often open to interpretation.  I had noticed that one of the most commonly used words is bagay, translated thing.  One is left to determine what the thing is from the context.  Kreyol is primarily the language of the uneducated.  Wealthy and educated families would not send their children to a Kreyol school.

After picking up the completed paperwork and paying all the required fees, we dropped Alexandre off at his home.  We returned to CWH to find  a crowd of people.  It turned out to be a team from the US who wanted to find out how to get filters for people they were in contact with in Montrouis (pronounced like Maui) just a few miles north of us.  They were floored to learn we would supply them for only 200 gourdes or $5 US.  But I’m not sure they will comply with Leslie’s insistence that the recipients of the filters be the ones to pay the cost.  There was quite a bit of discussion within the group about gifting the filters.  I explained to them that this had been tried and proved entirely ineffective.  Those who were given filters without cost generally did not use or maintain them.  In any case they were talking about 40 filters or more, several days’ production.

This  is Kanaval  weekend in Haiti, a huge county-wide pre-Lent block party that goes on for four days.  The yearly festival is marked by masquerade and RaRa bands, floats and aggressive ga gun dancers in  a 7-hour parade through the streets of Port-au-Prince. Music of many styles from traditional vodou music and meringues to techno, hip-hop, reggae and other genres blares on speakers large enough to blow out your eardrums.  We met Barikad Crew’s soundstage being trucked down the highway on our way to Port-au-Prince this morning.  It took up both lanes of the highway.  (The Crew is widely considered the country’s leading Rap Kreyol group.)  Haitian rum flows freely, and for those who cannot afford it there is  homemade klerin (sugar-cane grain alcohol).  This is the country’s largest cultural event (more than 1,000,000 people attended past Kanavals in Port) and since it was not celebrated in 2010 due to the earthquake, this year’s party promises to be a big one.

However there is considerable controversy surrounding this year’s party in Port.  Some feel that they should not be celebrating with bodies still entombed in the rubble.  They feel the money that will be spent should go toward reconstruction of the city.  They consider it an embarrassment to hold a party in a city in such a state.

In any event, CWH’s workers have a four day holiday weekend.  I’m not sure what I will be doing other than going north to Gonaïves, known as Haiti’s City of Independence because it was there that Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared Haiti, the former Saint-Domingue, independent from France on January 1, 1804.  We have been invited to  visit by a missionary couple working there.  Depending on events, I may not post until we return.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Betty Anne and Allen Semer permalink
    March 4, 2011 8:16 pm

    Yes, we are receiving all of your blogs and are copying them to pass on for others to read. Also we and the Frinday moringing prayer group are praying for you. Keep encouraged.

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