Haiti Fact #11:
The president-elect of Haiti, Jovenel Moise, is slated to take office at the beginning of February. He is part of Parti Haitien Tèt Kale, which translates as the Haitian Bald Head Party.
We spent last week in Port-au-Prince. One doesn’t hear much of anything good about that city. It is overcrowded, hot and choked by traffic jams, as well as not safe at night. Plus, the trip was for work. So I did not expect to have fun. It started with an overnight bus ride down from Cap-Haitien. Despite the driver’s swerving all over the empty roads to avoid potholes, I actually slept a little bit. Leaving the bus, we got a taxi to the hotel. I picked a driver who seemed nice and who gave us a great price. But when we arrived, he ripped me off with a trick so simple that I had honestly forgotten about it because I’ve never actually encountered it. After that, the moto we took to a grocery store ripped us off to a similar degree. So after only an hour in Port-au-Prince we had already achieved clueless foreigner status. That night we went out to visit with our coworker who was in town for the week too. Just walking down to his hotel without a problem made everything feel more doable. After one day in Port-au-Prince we could at least walk around during the day. I took that as a badly needed victory.
It turned out that the synod (church governing body) would not start until later than expected, providing some time to explore. Unfortunately, Port-au-Prince offers very little to do. But there is a history museum, so we went to that. The Museum of the Haitian National Pantheon (MUNAPAH in French) is small but worth seeing. That afternoon the synod started with a church service in the national cathedral. I even understood a decent amount of what the bishop said during his opening message. The following day was the main meeting. After hours of listening to Creole I found it increasingly difficult to try to understand. But the church government meeting was more exciting than I expected; even matters such as church laws and election procedures sparked passionate debate. A central purpose of our attendance, a meeting with the bishop, came at lunchtime. The meeting went fantastically and wrapped up work for the day very nicely. I went out with a few friends in Pétionville, which is to Port-au-Prince as Greenwich, CT is to NYC. I had a great time. Just the moto ride up to Pétionville was an experience. When I say “up to Pétionville,” I mean up. Port-au-Prince is located on a fairly small patch of flat land that quickly gives way to mountains as you go inland. On the way up, as the moto wove through traffic, I caught a birds-eye view of the grey concrete sprawl rolling over the foothills and up the moutains. I actually saw how massive Port-au-Prince is. Later that night I took a moto back down and saw the city lit up at night with the wind on my face, grateful for the experience. With the week’s work and meetings finished, we took one day to sightsee.
Like I said earlier, Port-au-Prince doesn’t offer much for sightseeing. We tried anyway though. One particular point of interest was the Nèg Mawon statue, which we managed to see despite it being formally closed off. Many of the previous tourist sights in Port-au-Prince collapsed in the earthquake. The mostly collapsed former Catholic cathedral is still fairly striking, while the ruins of the former Episcopal cathedral have been razed while reconstruction talks take place. The Presidential Palace, a former symbol of governmental power which collapsed in the earthquake, is another formerly iconic Port-au-Prince building that is gone now. So, like many aspects of life in Haiti, our experience took place in the shadow of the 2010 earthquake. We wrapped up the week by doing the most commonly recommended activity that Port-au-Prince offers: the band Ram at the Hotel Oloffson on Thursday nights. The show went late as I hung out and appreciated the music and unique atmosphere of the hotel. After a few strenuous days it made everything a little better. After a week of not so much vacation but rather of experiences, Ram was the grand finale. Only the journey home remained.
Herman Melville writes, “there is no quality in this world that is not what it merely is by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.” When I first read that in Moby Dick it resonated with me but seemed difficult to implement. How does one intentionally put discomfort into life? I learned about that on the way home. For the seven hour bus ride over the same speed bumps and mountains while swerving to avoid a different set of potholes, we had the added pleasure of listening to a group of guys in the back of the bus argue at the top of their lungs for at least four hours straight. It rotated between several topics: philosophical (“The problem isn’t Haiti, it’s Haitians”), sports, asking me if the USA would restart the draft, and accusing one of the verbal combatants of being bourgeoisie. That conversation proved that after a long enough, consistent exposure, the brain can tune out anything. The bus had more to offer though. Not only was it smaller and bumpier but the air conditioning broke and the only windows that opened were at the very front. But somehow, the windows kept ending up closed. Around five hours into the trip, one of the verbal combatants went up to open the window himself. But the guy sitting next to it slammed it shut again. A general outcry of rage was met with his promise that he would stop shutting the window as soon as they shut their mouths. The combatants defied this at first, for show I think, but conveniently quieted down within ten minutes. The rest of the trip, remarkably, was uneventful. Considering that the heat and yelling eventually became funny, I agree with Moby Dick on the importance of discomfort. Fortunately for me, in Haiti one does not need to seek it out.
A special thank you to these donors:
Rich LammlinDarlene James