March 30, 2007

Rainy season in the Cité Soleil

Arrival in the Third World is always discombobulating, especially when the world in question is a mere hundred-minute flight from Miami. Across the turquoise, cloud-shadowed Caribbean; a quick descent over silted river mouths and sardine-packed tin-roof slums; and out into the sundrenched heat of Toussaint Louverture International, airport code PAP for Port-au-Prince, Haiti's sprawling, sweltering, seething capital, the poorest and most violent city in the entire Western Hemisphere.


Arrival

The streets of a new city are always alien and intimidating, and tenfold so here. Fortunately my friend L. was there to meet me at the airport with her on-loan driver Xavier, a courtly fortysomething man who piloted us in his seriously weathered Toyota Corolla through a city that at first was all slum. Potholed, mud-puddled streets; packs of feral dogs prowling waist-high mounds of trash; mangled, skeletal remains of ancient car crashes, thick with rust; stores set in rotting concrete buildings, walled with iron bars; high walls topped with barbed wire and broken glass. It was easy to see why Xavier checked to see the doors were locked before departing the airport.

But there were the taptaps, too. Haiti's roads are full of these dazzlingly painting pickup trucks and minibuses, filigreed murals on wheels depicting Biblical scenes, soccer stars, American flags and Nike swooshes, each vehicle emblazoned with its own name: HYPOTHESE, ROMANS 3:51, POURQUOI, DIEU AVANT TOUT, DON'T FOLLOW ME. The predilection for bright art doesn't end with their public transit. Walls are covered with murals, or tiled with paintings for sale, and even the poorest people dress in vibrant colours.

Like most hilly cities, Port-au-Prince maintains a tight correlation between altitude and wealth. Sewage runs downhill, and there's plenty of it, especially now in rainy season. We climbed past big schools, private and mission-run, and the city transformed itself into a labyrinth of steeply winding streets lined with high walls and clogged with private, NGO, and UN vehicles. Poorer pedestrians and slack-legged street vendors occupied the narrow and uneven sidewalks. We passed through three sets of gates into the somewhat fortress-like compound where L. lives.


Insecurity

L. is a communications specialist for Unicef. In the two months she has lived in Haiti, half her staff have been victims of attempted kidnappings. Within the last year, another co-worker has huddled in her bathroom and exchanged gunfire with would-be robbers; another ransomed her son at knifepoint. L. has to1 be driven to and from work, and verify her safety by radio every night. She is not allowed to even walk the streets of her neighbourhood lest she establish a pattern kidnappers could exploit. Whole swathes of the city, particularly the dreaded Cité Soleil, are "red zones," entirely off limits; going there is an on-the-spot firing offense. Other areas, and any out-of-town excursions, are "yellow zone," must be cleared in advance by UN security.

1well, is supposed to - but she has never been particularly inclined towards following rules.

Is it really that dangerous? Well, no. Mostly. These security constraints are dictated more by Unicef's insurers than by a rational risk-benefit analysis. Private-sector expats live much more relaxed lives. It's generally Haitians, not foreigners, who are kidnapped. Cité Soleil, by all accounts, really is that bad, a sea of gangs and anarchy that verges on war-zone status - the one person I spoke to who had actually been there spent the entirety of his visit in an armoured car, wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet - but when I went wandering around L.'s 'hood, I didn't feel the least bit unsafe, except for traffic.

How much violence is being forestalled by the presence of MUNISTAH, the UN peacekeeping force of 8,000 troops and 10,000 staff, is an open question. It's safe to say that these international troops have not been well received. Haitians derisively call them TURISTAH, and resent their heavy hand; expats sardonically observe that their only notable contribution to Haiti has been full employment for prostitutes.

Mind you, the NGO/diplomatic/expat community are no sexual saints themselves, and that goes for both sexes. "If I see one more fortysomething Frenchwoman with a twentysomething Haitian toyboy," L. says, "I'm going to throw up."


Diplomacy

Constrained by security fears and economic stratification, Haiti's expats live in a tiny bubble, a world of a few dozen cafés, restaurants, supermarkets, hotels and embassies, plus their own gated residences and workplaces, and the cars and drivers who ferry them back and forth. There's no shortage of activities - the night I arrived, we hopped from a house party bidding farewell to a Unicef dignitary off to Mauritania, to a flamenco performance at the Institut Francaise, and could have gone to a bar afterwards - but the faces are always the same: UN, NGOs, private-sector expats on aid-financed reconstruction projects, diplomats, and Haiti's vanishingly small upper class of sophisticates and slickster frat-boy types. It's often best not to ask where their money comes from. Sometimes it's old money; sometimes it's from overseas - and some comes from drugs. (Although curiously, despite Haiti's role as a major smuggling nexus, most of the pot in Port-au-Prince apparently comes from Jamaica.)

A huge proportion of Haiti's (legal) GDP comes from its overseas diaspora. Another massive chunk comes from international aid. Between the two groups you get an interesting crowd armed with interesting passports. L. herself has a sky-blue UN "laissez-passer," which exempts her from all taxes and visa fees (pretty much worldwide; UN income is tax-free even in NYC) and empowers her to demand immedate personal immigration/customs service whenever she enters a country. But even that pales next to the diplomatic passports wielded by the very nice and very funny Spanish couple we dined with on Monday at Chez Woo, Haiti's one Chinese restaurant. Can you say "diplomatic pouch"?

In a city full of larger-than-life characters, perhaps the largest is L.'s immediate neighbour, Madame L, who once lived in the high-ceilinged, wood-panelled, colonial-style house where L. now rents a room. Then Mme L's hyperrich husband built a magnificent open-concept mansion across the cobbled road, and the old house where L. now lives was rented to one René Préval, who has since moved to Haiti's official presidential residence. Mme L and the president remain friends ... despite the persistent swirling rumours that M. Préval was behind the assassination of Mme. L.'s husband some years ago. Today, Madame L is a formidable figure: grey-haired, rich-voiced, clearly once a great beauty, she radiates presence. She has no formal position, and says she has no time or patience for politics - but diplomats and politicans of all stripes to this day pay court at her Sunday power brunches, where she serves Independence Soup. It's tasty stuff. I probably would have enjoyed it more if she hadn't been so intimidating.


Jacmel

Sunday dawned bright and clear, so we decided to try for the beaches of Jacmel. Conveniently, L. already had her security clearance, and the radio reported the city was safe to traverse. We borrowed another friend's 4WD and driver - an easy-going guy our age named Wilfrid, unlike Xavier more friend than employee - and embarked on the two-hour drive to the south coast.

Traffic in Port-au-Prince is remarkably bad, but its drivers tend to collaborate rather than compete to navigate through the jams and around the potholes. Once out of the city the road parallels the surreally blue Caribbean, then climbs into misty and verdant mountains, past tiny settlements, green fields and banana plantations, along a dizzying and seemingly endless series of hairpin switchbacks (fortunately, the road here is excellent, and most have cost a freakin' fortune to build) until finally descending into Jacmel. Even in this laid-back tropical town, the shops and restaurants are caged by iron bars, but we can at least walk the streets and swim in the salty ocean, and play a pickup game of soccer with scarily good Haitian teenagers at one of the town's two beaches not plagued by lethal riptides. It's actually pretty paradisical.

In midafternoon, after a meal of barbecue, rice, beans, and bread, dark clouds begin to gather. Mercifully the heavy rain does not begin until after we have descended from the mountains, but the drive back still takes an extra hour. Tropical downpours are disastrous in a poor and steeply hilly city like Port-au-Prince: slopes and streets erode, the city floods with sewages, walls and whole buildings collapse to the subsiding ground, and traffic becomes paralytic. By the time we get back L. has missed her daily security check. But there is a silver lining to this muddy puddle; Luc's concert, which we thought we would miss, has been postponed.


Lucky Luc

Luc is Luc (aka Luck) Mervil, a Haitian-born Montrealer and one of the brightest stars in Quebec's galaxy of musical védettes, in town to play a few shows in his homeland. Notably, he performed in Cité Soleil (under the watchful eye of scores of heavily armed MUNISTAH) and was doing another show in Champ-de-Mars, a big public square in downtown Port-au-Prince. Of course attending the show is a grievous security violation, but L. decides she's willing to risk it. Wilfrid has gone home to his wife and kids, but fortunately V. is ready to ride to the rescue. A Quebecois hydraulic engineer and SNC-Lavalin employee, here to rebuild Haiti's ravaged water networks, V. is a huge Luck Mervil fan, and is armed with his own car and a relatively cavalier attitude towards the mean streets of Port-au-Prince - he once told L., "If I get kidnapped, I don't want you paying a penny more than five thousand Canadian dollars for me."

His Daihatsu 4WD carries us to the field of concrete that is Champ-de-Mars. The stage is professionally set, with mountains of amplifiers and big widescreen projection TVs. Vendors sell bottles of Prestige beer, or plastic cups of unidentified alcohol dispensed from plastic jerrycans. The air is thick with secondhand marijuana, the crowd is sketchy but nonviolent, and the reggae band that opens is fantastic. Then Luc leaps onstage, radiating nova-like charisma that rivals Mme L.'s, , and the crowd goes wild singing along with the barrel-chested, gravel-voiced chanteur. It's a great show. The rain starts up again midway through his show, but no one really seems to care; everyone goes home exultant.


Graham Greene Was Here

Port-au-Prince's Hotel Oloffson is ramshackle but grand. "With its towers and balconies and wooden fretwork decorations it had the air of a Charles Addams house ... You expected a witch to open the door to you or a maniac butler, with a bat dangling from the chandelier behind him." So said none other than Graham Greene, who lived the Oloffson while writing his Haiti-set novel The Comedians (which to my shame I have not yet read, though it's obviously now at the top of my to-read list), half of which takes place in a thinly disguised Oloffson, and much of the rest in the hill station of Kenzkoff above the city. A plaque indicates the room where the great man lived and wrote. The door was open, so I went in, discovered the hard way it remains an active and occupied hotel room, and beat a quick retreat.

With L. at work, I borrowed Xavier from her friend and headed up to Kenzkoff. Communication was difficult. My French is wholly adequate for people who speak it as a second language (though wholly inadequate around mother-tongue French speakers) but Xavier speaks almost no French at all; instead he speaks Haitian creole, which descends from French, but is virtually incomprehensible to me. Apparently it's very similar to the Quebecois joual, equally virtually incomprehensible to me. We made it up into the damp and green and glorious mountains, found that everything was closed on Monday, and beat a hasty retreat back to P-a-P, and eventually its Museum of Independence.


Context

(mostly oversimplified from Wikipedia)

Haiti was the second American country to declare its independence, and the only country ever forged from a successful slave rebellion. Alas, that remains the brightest and most hopeful moment in the nation's history. Wealthy Germans soon took over its economy - until 1915, when the Americans invaded. They occupied Haiti for twenty years.

Modern Haitian history begins in 1957 when Dr. Francois Duvalier (aka "Papa Doc") came to power in a suspect election. Seven years later he declared himself president for life. His secret police, the Tontons Macoutes - "Uncle Knapsacks," after a local bogeyman - kept his iron fist on the levers of power. When Papa Doc died in 1971, his nineteen-year-old son Jean-Claude, aka "Baby Doc," took over the country, and soon became one of the most infamous, capricious, corrupt, wasteful and murderous tyrants in modern history, rivalled only by Idi Amin and Jean-Bedel Bokassa off the top of my head.

A series of coups and corrupt administrations followed the fall of the Duvalier regime. In 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide came to power, was deposed in a coup, and was reimposed by a new American invasion. He was succeeded by Préval in 1996, who notably served his term and left his office when it was over (the only leader in the history of Haiti to do so.) Aristide returned to power in 2001 after contested elections; in 2004, he was overthrown by armed rebels and fled the country, and the USA again sent in troops. (Aristide claims he was deposed and kidnapped by the Americans.) Widespread violence engulfed the country for a couple years. Eventually it simmered down and the peacekeepers came in (with at best mixed results, as noted above.)

Power in Haiti has always been wielded in part by unofficial violent forces - gang leaders, private armies, secret police, etc. - and influenced by voodoo culture as well. It's a messy, complicated place, and few non-Haitians pretend to really understand it.


Getaway

I rode back to Toussaint Laverture in an official UNICEF vehicle, and American Airlines carried me away. From the sky the country is utterly gorgeous. If it ever stabilizes it will be the adventure travel capital of the hemisphere; glorious beaches, good diving, mountains, terrific people, colonial-era ruins, smooth roads - what's not to like? I look forward to the day when there are "slum experience" hostels in Cité Soleil, as there are in South Africa's townships. But after only four days there I can tell you this much: that ain't gonna be anytime soon.


Lemme finish with a piece of increasingly greybearded advice for all you youngsters: if you wish to have an interesting thirties, spend your twenties hanging out with ambitious misfits, 'cause they're where the action's gonna be at.

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