Monday, July 5, 2010

Initial Impressions of Haiti

I was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and left a few months before my 9th birthday.  My younger brother and I boarded a flight to join our parents in the United States.  A little more than 30 years later, I return for the first time.  My memories of Haiti as a child were quite specific (house, school, a couple of friends, specific events--I got into a fight from which I still have a visible scar--etc.)  I doubt that I would remember POP pre-earthquake, I certainly did not recognize it post-earthquake.

My fearless college roommate,  Bobby Pratt and I landed in POP airport around 11.20, their time.  It took us a while to leave customs because I failed to put the address where we would be staying in POP (with my wonderful aunt and uncle who run a school in POP--more about them in later posts).  I had to go find my aunt, who was picking us up at the airport and that took a while.

The Haitians working at the airport were very helpful (although the immigration/customs person gave me an earful for coming back to "my country" (forget about my American passport) and bringing my "stranger" friend (read white) and not knowing where I was staying.  She thought I was embarrassing the country before my (white) friend. 

Everybody wants to help you (find your luggage, bring it to your car, find the address where you're staying).  But they also expect that you tip them generously.  Knowing me, my parents had warned me about the helpers and told me to tip them no more than two American dollars.  By the time I left the airport I was down $80.00.  What can I say; maybe they knew I felt guilty for having left Haiti and leaving them to fend for themselves.  Or maybe they know I'm a sucker.  In any event, even though I knew what I was doing, I was going to do it anyway.

Three specific and quick initial impressions.  First, the devastation is mind-blowing in POP.  A close friend of my uncle's Esaie Matthieu, along with my uncle, drove us around the capital.  People are living under whatever conditions they can.  The makeshift tents were ubiquitous.  Some were sticks and tin, some were tarp, some were real tents.  The living conditions that we saw (as we were driving through) were absolutely pitiful.  No human being should have to live this way.

Second, these folks are unbelievably resilient.  I don't want to generalize and assign to Haitians some super-human spirit.  I would guess that human beings make the best of the worst situations.  This was true of the folks that we saw in abundance.  Everyone was selling something.  We did not drive a single street without seeing at least one street vendor hawking one thing or another.  Whether it was food that they were cooking or selling, water that they were selling, clothes of various sorts.  I'm guessing that whatever could be sold was being sold.  These were not people who are waiting for someone to do for them.  They were doing for themselves.

Third, the child beggars broke my heart.  These young kids, mainly boys most no older than my 10 year old son were already expect beggars.  I must go now.  But I'll write more when/if I can. 

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