I Have Been to Haiti

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I do not know where to begin…except to say I have been to Haiti. It is true that the world is full of countries and place with great poverty amid great physical and human beauty. These places are all over Asia, Africa and Latin America. (And not totally absent from the “developed” world). It is apparent however (at least to me) that Haiti is special.

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Really? Haiti? How special? How to explain?

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THE VISIT: My time in the country was so brief. One day over on Capital Bus Lines. One day to explore the devastation remaining in downtown, to relax with naps and a nice dinner in the tropical leafiness of the La Plaza Hotel. One day to drive over the mountains to Jacmel, a peaceful picturesque colonial city built in the 1600’s, to buy a mask, have dinner at the historic Hotel Florita, and return to Port au Prince. Turns out the return trip was the biggest adventure of all but more about that in a minute. Then day four to make the long journey back to Santo Domingo. Border crossings here match and surpass all others I have made in Africa and elsewhere—except Nigeria. The border appears to be—on both sides—a mass of mud; dust; too many vehicles of every kind, make, purpose; and a whole lot of general incompetence.

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THE BIG STORY: This is about coming back into Port au Prince from Jacmel. Now you must understand every city in the more heavily populated ‘developing’ areas of the world is almost choked to death by traffic. Every imaginable kind of motorized vehicle, every human movement on bicycle, foot, or donkey cart are all jammed together on totally inadequate roads. Port au Prince is no different but it may have even more spectacular traffic jams than Lagos or Jakarta or Dakar. And that is some competition. Oh yeah and it is a holiday weekend!

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SO we get into the outskirts of the city about 6pm. For the next two hours our Mitsubishi SUV creeps forward. A few yards. A few feet. Rarely a whole city block. Huge heavily loaded semis, buses-regular/buses-piled ever so high with bundles and people, cars, jeeps, and motorcycles of every color, make, condition, power. Several lanes-some intended, some created especially for the situation of the moment.

Another 12 feet. There are five of us, my brother and sister-in-law, our “fixer”, the driver and me. It is not looking good and Robert is starting to exhibit symptoms of claustrophobic pissed-offness. Jean, our guide/jack of all trades/friend, says he will find motorbikes to take us into the center and our hotel, 15 or 20 miles away. A joke.

Then another half-hour, another city block. Robert says he’ll walk if he has to.

Four feet ahead this time. Did we actually even move? Okay we will do it—take bikes that is. Life is short anyway. Wonder what the Haitian hospitals are like… Jean commandeers the services of ‘friends’ passing by innocently enough, not knowing they are about to be carrying these aging Americans through what Jean says is the worst traffic jam he knows about EVER.

My brother is NOT a light person, but a brave young man on a 125 cc Chinese dirt bike  loads him on the luggage rack with Marsha crushed in between and off they go. It looks crazy—too funny to be scary but maybe a little scary too. Hope I see them again—undamaged.

Then my turn. I am littler and MY bike is bigger. The driver, me and Jean. Off. 15 miles.

It involves diving through water holes (created by god knows what since everything else is dusty dry), rearing up onto the sidewalks right into the people-crush, squeezing between idling monster trucks and pickups with a lone goat tied in back on its way to a throat-cutting for the New Year’s feast, edging aggressively between around in front of our fellow bikers—many in party finery for weddings or other family events of major silk, taffeta, organdy (often white) stiletto heel, dress-up proportions.

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My knee bumps the bumper of the truck we’re crowding around. OUCH.

I am steeped in exhaust fumes, bathed in sweat, enveloped in smells of cooking, gasoline, candy, perfume, occasional whiffs of sewage, liquor—young guy on the next bike over offers me a swig…and I’m a little tempted. I’m in Africa-space—where personal space is an unknown phrase. I almost love it and know I will absolutely upon later reflection.

It’s the warm dark humanity-packed Haitian night and I’m a little nervous about broken body parts but overall feel so lucky to be here in the special land of mad traffic jams and warm people and high green (actually—partially denuded and brownish) mountains and voodoo and Prestige beer.

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We all arrive safely and celebrate with Jean over chilled bottles of Prestige. Jean calls Alix the driver who is still in the non-moving traffic jam and who will be there until 4am! Gods of Whomever…Bless Haitians who never give up.

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HISTORY: It was too short a time for a place so crammed with the most intense of historical events so having the most basic understanding of what happened when seemed important. Here is the extent of my knowledge—a place for you to begin when you plan your visit!

Haiti’s history is unique—brave horrific strong violent beautiful abused. The following really short version is brought to you courtesy of a tour led by a most knowledgeable and articulate guide at Musée National in Port au Prince; Wikipedia and the astoundingly brilliant historical novel “All Souls’ Rising” by Madison Smartt Bell.

Haiti was the first independent country in Latin America and the Caribbean and the first black-led republic in the Americas. Haitians are very proud of this—as well they should be. It all began like the rest of the Americas however.

The Taino Indians lived on the big lush green island of Ayiti. One fateful day in 1492 island life took a turn for the worse with the arrival of you-know-who. Of course the Spanish immediately claimed the land for their own and proceeded to kill off—by means of abuse and disease—the native people. Then who would work the gold mines and cultivate the sugar cane as that crop grew in importance? Slaves from Africa of course. Meanwhile the western tip of the island was serious pirate territory, eventually settled by French buccaneers—leading to the first hard and fast division of Haiti between the French and the Spanish.

The western French territory was called Saint-Domingue and grew very rich with a system of slavery said to be the most brutal in the world. In the late 1700’s the mixed population of free people of color and slaves were inspired by the French Revolution and a revolt began. Refugees fled by the thousands to the U.S. and battles continued until 1794 when Toussaint Louverture, former slave and a leader in the revolt, established a period of peace and prosperity. In spite of his military and political skills, Toussaint was ultimately sold out by France and the U.S. (we did not think it a good idea for slaves in the cotton growing South to have examples of black freedom and independence right here before their very eyes), captured and sent to death in captivity in France.

Although France tried a few times, eventually she gave up on the idea of re-conquering the territory of Saint-Domingue and former slaves were able to proclaim independence and rename their part of the island Haiti. Ruled by Dessalines, who exiled or killed all remaining whites, Haiti became powerful enough to even support Simon Bolivar in his battle to free more of Latin America from Spanish rule.

As usual, all good things come to an end and the rest of Haiti’s history is one of dictatorial rulers, coups, demands by the French for reparations for their losses when their slaves freed themselves! and American occupation. Then the Duvaliers, Papa and Baby Doc, and Aristide (I attended a speech he gave in Oakland CA back when the world supported his efforts to bring some relief to the Haitian people—he was a benign and unassuming presence, not particularly inspiring though).

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Then the earthquake of 2010 when at least 220,000 people died. A similar magnitude 7 earthquake in San Francisco in 1989 caused 63 deaths!  Much of the difference due to poor construction and people already living in the poorest country in the western hemisphere—about to become poorer.

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So there you have it. A sad history with a proud beginning.

The real anchor from the Santa Maria is in the Musée National along with an excellently laid out historical timeline and quite a lot of interesting art from the Haitian naïve period (the guide said).

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I will return to Haiti I think. Even with so many passport stamps to go.

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