Monday, March 05, 2012

Port au Prince

It was a big, ugly mess. Times fourteen. In all directions. Yes, there were piles of rubble and broken walls where there once were buildings. But it was also the type of place that was so poor and bedraggled that those piles of rubble could have just as easily predated the earthquake.

And no matter how many times I've seen abject poverty, it's always a culture shock when I'm first in the middle of it. Why can't these people get it together? And Maureen was not taking kindly to the people not taking her kindly. Why didn't they smile back when she was trying to be so friendly?

I knew from experience that some countries look surly but are friendly underneath. Turkey and Uzbekistan, for instance. More pertinently, much of West Africa. Of course, that didn't mean that just because people look surly that therefore they must be nice, either.

The taxi had taken us to the Oloffson Hotel, easily the most famous one in Haiti. It was a giant, Victorian lace mansion built in 1886. Since 1936 it had been a famous meeting place for artsy, creative types when they weren't hanging out in Havana or Kingston. The first impression, however, was that it was a giant pile of crap. For $100 a night one expects floors that don't creak and an a/c that purrs at less than 100 decibils. Still it did have a certain charm, not to mention a veranda outside the room with a barely passable rocking chair and a breeze and a view out over the ugliness.

Right now it was around 5:30 and I was taking Maureen to a pizza place that I had found on a previous stroll around the neighborhood. She had come along begrudgingly, since she was feeling a little sickish, not to mention starving. So she was a little taken aback when the waiter said that they didn't have pizza, especially because the name of the place was Eu Verre Pizza. Then they said that pizzas didn't happen until 8. So it was back to the Oloffson for whatever food we could find there.

By the time we made it back to the room, however, Maureen didn't feel like eating anything. Nausea and bowel evacuation and throwing up time. I went to the lobby to use the wifi to call American Airlines to see if we could change our tickets by two days. Yes, for $700. When I returned to the room, though, she was feeling better. No fever, either. Looked like we had dodged the dysentary bullet.

Saturday morning she was still feeling a little woozy. And I knew that even in the best of circumstances she didn't much cotton to meandering around hot, depressingly poor cities. So I went out solo to sample the charms of Port au Prince.

Yesterday our taxi had driven through the 'capital' part of the capital city, the 10 acre or so of open park which housed the presidential palace, etc. Now the presidential palace was still collapsed, looking like it had been built specifically for some Armeggadon movie. The rest of the former park was occupied by Haiti's most famous tent city. Again, this wasn't like a boy scout encampment; it was just an endless vista of cheap plastic and tarpaulins, with narrow little alleyways cut through so that each resident could get to their little piece of hell. And this wasn't the rainy season, either.

Since I thought it maybe a little gauche to enter into one of the alleys and peer into their living quarters, I kept on strolling. After all, my main goal today was to make it to Petionville, the 'upper class' part of Port au Prince that was about 6 km up the hill. Supposedly there were taptap minibuses that did the route. On the way to where the LP said they were, I passed another of the hotels I might have booked, the Park. I asked to see a room. It was a horrible dark concrete hole that most hardened backpackers would pass on. Price: $88. The Oloffson was starting to look like a pretty good deal.

And guess what? The LP had been dead wrong about the taptap routes. So now I decided to flag down one of the ubiquitous motos (motorcycles where you ride on the back). I negotiated a price (one doesn't need to know the 'real' price to know that the first price that they're going to give a 'blanc' is at least double that), sat on the back, and took off.
At the first lurch I was reminded of the fact that I hadn't been a moto passenger for a long time, and my advancing years might have severely weakened my sense of balance. But I soon got the hang of sitting like a bag of concrete again.

Most capital cities in poor countries have a certain area where the rich people and the expats can hang out, where you can sit in air conditioned comfort and have solicitous waiters politely serve you. If nothing else, for a brief moment you are not overpowered by the stench and the falling apartness of everything. This had been my fantasy for Petionville. Once again I was wrong.
Yes, the ambience was slightly more uptown than the rest of Port au Prince. But the difference was quantitative, not qualitative. And it was still a mess by the standards of anywhere else in the world. In fact, the major distinguishing feature was the huge numbers of way upmarket SUVs crowding the narrow streets. And since Haiti's only major industry seems to be the acceptance of foreign aid, you'll be happy to know just exactly where that money you sent after the earthquake ended up.

The amazing restaurants that the LP had gushed about turned out to be not so wonderful at all. And at $15 for a plate of spaghetti I wasn't all that hungry. So after an hour or two of walking around I flagged down another moto and had him take me directly back to the Oloffson. Maureen was feeling much better now, so we wasted the rest of the day rocking and eating and rocking.

I was up bright and early Sunday morning for the breakfast bar (corn flakes, bad coffee, and bad bread and jam). Soon a nattily dressed older guy sat at a nearby table and looked like he was familiar with everyone. Thinking that he might be the owner of the joint, I went and introduced myself. Turns out that he was from Santa Fe, and shortly two other Santa Fe-ians showed up. Seems like they had started a small NGO to build houses here. Well, at least Maureen would have some nice new friends to hang out with today.

As for me, I was going to try to make a quick dash and back to the seaside town of Jacmel, one of the few other 'must see' places in Haiti. The earthquake's epicenter had been on the road to there, so I wasn't expecting much. Still, I'd get to see the countryside in a very uncomfortable manner.

The corner from where the taptaps went was about a mile away from the Oloffson, and somehow I found it on my first attempt. By now I had determined that Port au Prince wasn't really a city as we know it. That is to say, there was no downtown, no city services, hardly any buildings taller than two stories. Different areas were just slightly different shades of woebegone. On the other hand, as per personal safety, there was absolutely nothing to worry about. As in West Africa, it is quite astounding how well behaved people can be under such awful circumstances. And although the passersby do appear glum and drawn into themselves, if you stop and ask them something, they are usually polite and helpful. Except of course that the vast majority cannot speak English or French.

I lucked out when I got to the Jacmel depot. The small, gaily painted sort-of-small-bus only had a couple of seats left to fill, and for some reason nobody in Haiti wants to sit in the front. So I snagged the hump seat next to the driver and didn't have to be squashed in the back with all the rest.

The trip took about 2 hr 15 minutes. First we crawled out of Port au Prince, then along the flat north coast of Haiti's southern peninsula, then over a pretty high ridge of hills, then down to Jacmel. Well, 2 km short of Jacmel. One has to take a moto the rest of the way.

It's a town of around 30,000, having lost around 500 to the quake. Like most of the rest of Haiti, it looked like it had been in much better shape 80 years ago. Certainly the horribly rundown gingerbread Victorian houses with their balconies and ornate grill work had seen better days. And here it looked like absolutely nothing had been fixed since the earthquake: every third or fourth lot was a pile of undisturbed rubble.

The central market was a twisted mass of rusted iron. Although, who knew, maybe tomorrow (Monday) it would be full and bustling. As previously noted, Haiti's decrepitude was complete long before any earthquake.

I walked down to the beach, which in any other country would have been quite pleasant and commercialized. There was little garbage a la Cap Haitien, but only a few kids in the surf in the distance. I completed my tour of the town and hailed a moto back to the bus stop.

This time I lucked out even better and got shotgun in an almost full bus. On the way back I looked out over the hills. Beautiful tropical climate, but almost total desolation. They'd been stripped bare of all vegetation and topsoil. Really, this poor country was hopeless.

Back to the Oloffson. Wait 15 minutes for the cold water to turn warm. A relaxing shower, then dinner--where else?--also at the Oloffson. The only question to ask, Do I get the spaghetti or the cheese sandwich?

There had never been anything on the docket for Monday, and having now seen everything of conceivable interest here, now there was even less. I'm not much of a swimming pool person, but it seemed wackily appropriate to take a dip here at the Oloffson. Especially because the water was highly chlorinated.

A little while later, Constantine, our new, old ex-hippie friend from Santa Fe, strolled over and led us back to their little base of operations. His other two amigos were Teddy, a 72 year old native Haitian American whose family's old house they were using, and Jesse, a 41 year old 'kid' who had been recruited because he just happened to already possess hundreds of molds for casting extremely light weight concrete blocks. They had just scored a contract to build 20 houses for the Methodists, and now they were in the middle of figuring out just exactly how they were going to get it done on time.

It was a pleasant afternoon, and as Maureen and I walked back to the hotel I was kind of glad that we had this extra day. Because by now the shock of being in the middle of a horribly ugly and desperate environment had worn off, and I now had a much better feel for what it was like to really be in Haiti.

Mind you, that doesn't mean that I'd recommend it to you for your next holiday. Remember, I've been to places--Madagascar, Pakistan, Cambodia, most of West Africa--that are as poor or poorer, and it still took me a week to adjust. But I could now see the country, if not as a citizen (because I, like you, can always leave), then at least from the inside out. Something that most aid workers and UN personnel never get to do.

Which takes me to the next point. Which is:


Who's responsible for this mess?



The easiest thing to do is to blame the Americans. After all, they ran the country from 1916-1936. And they're responsible for all the wrongs in poor countries, right? But when you actually study the histories of American interventions, they usually start with naive idealism (I mean, no capitalist could ever imagine that any money could be made off of Haiti), are followed through with unbelievable incompetence and ignorance of the local culture, and end with our abominably short attention spans having us drop the ball and leading us away from the even larger mess that we've made of everything.







But Americans didn't denude the hillsides. Americans didn't create an atomized society of all against all, Americans didn't create a social structure of a real 1% lording it over the 99%. That was all in place long before the U.S. ever showed up.







So who is to blame? How about the liberals. Namely the liberals of 1800. Because, unlike the Christians who started and successfully accomplished the Anti-Slavery movement, those early liberals (think 'libertarian') didn't believe in sin or equality of souls. Rather they had an of ideological belief that 'personal liberty' was some sort of magical elixir that would solve all of life's problems in one fell swoop. So when the slaves of St Dominique revolted this was seen in liberal circles back in Europe as a glorious burst of freedom.







Never mind that their new black leaders treated them worse than the French had. Never mind that, having been brought there from all parts of Africa, there was no coherent culture that any of them could belong to. Never mind that the French had made zero attempt to teach them anything. 'Freedom' was the obvious end in itself.







By the way, there's nothing racist in pointing out the African slaves were absolutely unprepared to take care of themselves. In the year 600 the Franks were the most pathetically backward of all the Germanic tribes. And it took them over 1000 years to become the snooty, imperialist Frenchmen that we all know and love. Cultural progress is a very long, slow grind.







Especially if there is no one to help you. And by brutally killing all the white people on the island, the Haitians made sure that no one was going to try to help. Not to mention that by killing many of the Spanish settlers in the eastern part of Hispaniola, the people of the DR today have little sympathy for them.


It's a tough thing to figure out. On the one hand, you can't really blame someone for the culture that they happen to have been born into. On the other, it's difficult to deny that a culture is the sum total of all the individuals in it. One doesn't want to blame the victim, as it were, but the simple sociological fact is that social cohesion is the principal determinant in a society's advancement. In 1953 South Korea was easily among the poorest countries in the world. They had also been traumatized by 40 years of brutal Japanese rule and then the Korean War. But they did have social cohesion.



Haiti doesn't. In fact, it has about the least I've seen in all my travels. (Which, by the way, does not mean that I didn't have some pleasant interactions with some. And it's also important to point out that when Haitians come to the U.S. they are famously hard and sober workers. So this shows that Haitians certainly want to be civilized social beings, and will be when given the chance. But that just underlines what a failure the country of Haiti in practice is.)



Unfortunately, the countries providing aid have just as weird an ideological attitude in their liberal democratic ways as the Commies used to have in theirs. Somehow 'free and fair elections' will magically solve all problems. When the most highly educated experts on the country don't even have a clue. But just have a 'free and fair election' and then you can walk away. Problem solved.



The Haitians have come to hate the NGOs. How can all that money have been donated for their cause and absolutely nothing change? They are convinced that the U.S. most have some evil plan to keep them poor, since obviously America could substantially affect matters with just the spare change in its figurative couch. (They can't conceive that the mighty U.S. of A. could just be foolish and incompetent.) They hate the UN, since all they ever do is drive around in white SUVs. They know that the people in Petionville have those really fancy cars that they didn't have before the earthquake.



Now I don't mean to suggest that everyone who comes to help Haiti is a fraud. Standing in line at the airport with all the church people, it was easy to see that many of them could care less about converting souls and were deeply involved with orphanages and water projects and the like. At the same time, there are many, many instances of fresh faced college kids and the like coming down for a week or two and accomplishing absolutely nothing. Obviously their airfare, etc., could have been used for actual construction. And it's telling that in all my ambles I never saw another white person actually out on the street or casually intermingling with the Haitians.



So what would I do? When I was in West Africa, I concluded that if I had billions to dole out, I would principally put the money into better roads and nutrition. And it turns out that experts agree that you do get the most bang for the buck by targeting nutrition. But the most important thing I would do would be to try to inculcate what used to be called bourgeois values. Family values. Religious values. (Contrary to modern ideas, at least in poor countries, the difference I've seen in happiness between believers and non-believers is absurdly dramatic.)



Of course, the way things are rolling these days that's not going to happen. Nor does Haiti have any oil or topsoil or education or anything else that could help it lift itself up. And to the extent that the country 'modernizes', that just means more pornography to instantly download. Not exactly what you need in an already atomized society.



So I'm glad I went. Now I know what's going on. But I'd have to be a much better person than I am to really want to go back.

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