The weather forecast for Port Au Prince was optimal; high of 90, low of 75, sunny for days. Late December is the coolest time of year in Haiti; it is not uncommon to see natives wearing sweaters. So when I landed in PAP I was looking forward to that saturating warmth that enfolds Northerners escaping winter’s chill. My last visit to Haiti was in May, when oppressive heat is the norm, and previous trips had been in July and August, when the heat slams against you like a force field in a sci-fi flick. I anticipated 90 and sunny with pleasure.
Somehow I forgot that ninety degrees in Port au Prince is not the same as ninety in Aruba or Acapulco or other tropical venues that lack PAP’s peculiar charms of rotting garbage, street corner fires, and dust clouds that obscure the millions wandering the streets. On Port Au Prince’s pavement ninety is still hot, still rank, and still oppressive.
I am a pretty adventurous traveler but I have never stepped foot on a city street in Port au Prince. I am in no rush to do so. There are supposedly nice sections, but I have never seen them. I am an anomaly in this city, a white guy, a blanc, a good target for a robbery or maybe even a kidnapping. Nothing bad has ever happened to me in PAP, and I intend to keep it that way. I am met at the airport by a driver who takes me to my destination, and delivers me back before I leave. If the timing requires an overnight in PAP, the lodging is a walled and gated mission house. There is no Airport Marriott in this country.
Still, I have driven through much of the city. I passed the President’s mansion before the earthquake felled its dome. I bussed through the central market where open hands poked through the windows grasping for alms while piles of merchandise and piles of refuse lay beyond, indistinguishable to the American eye. I have driven past the container port post earthquake where boatloads of trucks and bulldozers, gifts from many countries, sat shiny new on the docks but turned chalky grey the minute they hit the rubbled streets. I have rattled along that horrific boulevard whose median was lined with tents, where children who inadvertently stepped beyond their flap got clobbered by a vehicle.
That tent city is gone, but many remain. In some places new subdivisions have emerged. Subdivisions in PAP don’t have idyllic names like Eden’s Grove or Prescott Woods as we do in the States. These are rows upon rows of tarped or wooden cabins stenciled Oxfam or UN or USAID. My favorite is a sea of wooden cottages near the airport, twelve feet wide by sixteen feet long by eight feet high, painted a rainbow of colors to differentiate one from another. They have been occupied for almost a year now and are already looking Haitian as people add sheds off the back and connect them side by side with tarps and blankets. I give them two years, three tops, before the original structures are thoroughly buried beneath the aggregating additions.
On every trip to PAP I pass the main covered market, gift of the citizens of Venezuela. This Wal-Mart of Haiti is a vast terrain of goods extending as far as the eye can see. Rows of women sell bananas followed by rows of women selling breadfruit followed by rows of women selling discarded T-shirts followed by… you get the idea.
The weather report for PAP was accurate, but it lacked full disclosure. The sun was up there, a bleary yellow dot, but the haze was thick below. The temperature was ninety but the sweat of the throngs and the cracking flames of burning garbage made it feel hotter. It was stifling and humid. As my trusty driver Howard rocketed me through the city streets, horn blazing, I could not help but note how this is a fascinating experience for me; an observer passing through, absorbing all I can, simultaneously fascinated and ashamed by my fascination. But what of the thousands of people traipsing the streets all around me? For them this is not a passing experience. This is their reality.
We got out of Port Au Prince in record time. There was relatively little traffic. On every successive trip more earthquake debris is removed, more roads are repaved. Things are improving. Still, things are appalling.
Once Port Au Prince is behind, Haiti opens up as if the entire island were but one magnificent outstretched hand. It is hand in need, asking, begging, for help. But it is also a wise and weathered hand, a hand chiseled with pride and suffering into a surface of infinite character and depth. Route 2 is the life line along Haiti’s palm, stretching out of Port Au Prince extending to the far tip of the island, just as our own life lines emerge from the dubious folds between our fingers to spread out across the breadth of our own hand.
You cannot begin to fathom Haiti until you have witnessed Port Au Prince. But you have not seen Haiti at all until you pass through its capital and venture to the land beyond.