16 January 2010

Port-au-Prince, an elegy

It was December of 1983, and it was decided by The Wife that our few remaining sheckels would be spent on a trip to Haiti. She'd had a friend whose husband had a penchant for round Haitian women (and The Wife, while prep schooled and colleged in New England, is too; that led to a bit of a problem at customs) which planted the need to see the country. Baby Doc hadn't yet gotten thrown out, my nascent career change to photo-journalism had died whimpering, so what the Hell. I packed up the M4's, lots of Kodachrome, and made my first and only trip outside the USofA.

What I got from it were hundreds of slides, and a piece in a Connecticut newspaper (not yet, or likely ever, on-line so I can't share it) which got me an internship with Jack Anderson, which in turn got me a two day piece in the column about gun running in Ghana. And the occasional flicker of recognition whenever some bit of national newsworthy calamity occurred there. Until now.

Which brings us to Rush and Pat Robertson, who are evil incarnate. Repeat that ten times. People such as they are the reason Obama must stop this bi-partisan nonsense. Evil cannot be accommodated. Rush and Robertson prove that.

Robertson knows nothing of Haiti, its people or its history. I learned some of those in the week I was there. We stayed at the Hotel Montana, now destroyed. We hung out at the Hotel Oloffson, according to Twitter reports some damage yet still open. I roamed around Port-au-Prince and Petionville; the Montana was conveniently midway between both. (As I write, NPR is telling a story about rescues at the Montana. Weird to hear about a place one slept and ate in, destroyed in a few seconds. The owner, a Haitian and not some fat cat foreigner, is trying to find his wife's body. Truly eery.)

From memory, the Montana was a large whitewashed building, with a pool and covered veranda. The location was ideal for its purpose of housing tourists. The usual description of Haiti's geography is that it occupies the western half of the island of Hispaniola, with the Dominican Republic in the east. That's not quite true. Haiti has about a third of the island's footprint, and most of that is mountain. Port-au-Prince is the harbor city, and sits in a small plain at the foot of the mountains. Current reporting talks about the difficulty aid organizations are having getting into the country. The airport's sole runway runs from nearly water's edge to the mountain side. When we landed, it was much like going down that first hill on a rollercoaster, only for minutes, not seconds. Prevailing winds are from the west, so the aircraft have to find the eastern end of the runway, which means dropping out of the sky in front of that mountain. And it's not a long runway.

Petionville is the wealthy suburb, relatively speaking. The truly wealthy don't live near the city, but out in estates. Winding up the mountain from Port-au-Prince to Petionville is Avenue John Brown. Once out of the plain of the city, the road runs along a ridge; to the left are houses and hotels for the better-to-do, and to the right is a ravine with small dwellings. Some are constructed of cinderblock, others wood, and still others scraps; lots of corrugated steel roofing. This is the ravine the reporters talk about when they say that buildings fell down the mountain side. About the name of the road. Many roads, and all major ones as I recall, are named for persons prominent in the history of opposing slavery or Haiti's independence. And it is pronounced "Jean Braun" (as in Werner von).

The view from the veranda of the Montana was spectacular. Since it sits on the ridge, the view to the west looks out over the "good" neighborhoods nearby, then the harbor; a mosaic of colored roofs and walls blending with the sky and water. It looks almost Idyllic. I guess that's why the better off live up the mountain. About the walls. When I set off on my first walk back to the city, down the mountain, Leicas in hand, I wandered among houses on the side streets. They all were walled in, and those walls had a dense coating of broken glass in the concrete which layered the top. I had never seen that before, and the point was well taken.

So, for five or six days, whatever it was, I wandered around Port-au-Prince and Petionville taking pictures. Getting around was often walking, but if I wanted to get someplace in a hurry, there was public transportation, well sort of. Tap-taps and camionettes is what the vehicles were called. Twenty five cents to ride. Peugeot station wagons are camionettes and the rest were tap-taps; some were pickup trucks with benches and a top, while others were conventional mini-buses. People just managed to squeeze in. I was never accosted or even pestered. Just another passenger. Oh, yes; all brightly painted.

I didn't venture into Cite Soleil. I didn't want to get overly angry at the situation. I wasn't there as an aid worker, or even investigative journalist. What I wrote on return was angry enough; the shard topped walls set my mind. We did go to a "voodoo" service. Now, I know, it was mostly pasty white tourists in the audience. On the other hand, to get there, at night of course, one got in a tap-tap and drove out into the countryside, and arrived at a smallish hut where the service was held, lit only by candles. As Jack Paar used to say, "I kid you not". Recall, Baby Doc was still in power, so carving up tourists for sport was heavily discouraged. I wouldn't have gone to the country in the aftermath of his ouster, nor later when Aristide was deposed. The Right Wingnuts get ever so agitated when democracy doesn't do what they want. Another real world example of Lord of the Flies.

What to do today? Send money to either Oxfam or the Salvation Army. Don't do the humanitarian thing and fly down to "help". You'll just get in the way, and consume an order of magnitude more resources than a Haitian. What's left and being sent should be for them, not fly-ins.

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