Letters From Haiti

We were just standing around in somebody's yard, as I recall. I didn't know the guy but I was eating his food and drinking his beer. I was talking to my friend Dan, a furniture refinisher, artist, and skull collector, and he said, "We're going to Haiti." I didn't know who "we" was so I included myself. "All right," I said.

But I was dreaming. I realized the day Dan said he'd got the tickets that I didn't have any money. Nor did I have time to be doing such a thing. Also I was a little nervous, what with all the Serpent and the Rainbow and Duvalier stories I'd heard. Then someone said, "Oh, there's an election campaign going on while you're down there. You'll probably get shot." Someone else had an even funnier scenario: my last public appearance would be a grainy newspaper photograph of a head on a stick in the middle of a politically enraged mob. Ha ha.

Times have changed since the Sixties - not that I'm that old, but almost. Back in those days, if you told someone you were going to Haiti, they sould say, "Okay, great." But now everybody I told just said, "Why? What for? Why bother?" One guy said, "What are you gonna do there?" I said I'd probably go to nightclubs and take my cappuccino in sidewalk cafes. I said I thought Haiti might be the 27th arrondissement of Paris or something. I was being sarcastic.

It seems that over the last ten years we have progressed from a "Why not?" liberalism to a "What for?" conservatism. I don't know why. I did notice that Time that week had some article about our nervous American society, impending war, economic collapse, racial tension, AIDS, and mounting instances of cultural backsliding snowballing into a mass sense of despair. So why are people questioning my motives? Maybe it's the curse of the aging baby boom that we question all romantic yearnings. I don't know. I kept looking at my plane ticket - Port-au-Prince. You can't get more romantic or exotic than that.

The plane landed safely and everyone applauded - a strange and disconcerting custom. Maybe it was just my imagination, but there seemed to be weeds growing in the cracks of the tarmac at the Port-au-Prince airport.

A tired-looking banjo band was there to greet us, but our guide/friend Pierre wasn't. Lots of people were willing to take his place, though. One of these people hustled us to an expensive cab that took us to a hotel we couldn't afford, and then we had to pay another artificially expensive fare to get to a hotel we could afford in the center of the city.

It took me only a few minutes of being in Haiti to realize I didn't understand French any more. (Like I ever did.) But then, it's not really that hard to communicate. People usually know what you want. They might try to overcharge you for it, but they know what you want. It also didn't take long to realize we were about the only tourists. The tourists don't come around any more - everyone said that - so a lot of the hotels aren't open any more. The ones that are open (that we could afford) are all pretty much the same. Our hotel room had the standard blue-green walls, evenly smeared with dirt right up to the ceiling. The wash basin had mosquito larvae in it. There wasn't any running water unless you asked for it. Once in the morning and then again in the afternoon someone came around and flushed the toilets.

The next morning we stepped out onto the Rue de Centre. The din is the first thing that gets you, then the sun. The sun is like a hammer, but the noise is worse - insistent, mercantile. The whole of central Port-au-Prince is a vast, riotous marketplace selling every conceivable kind of foreign-made clothing, imported toothpaste, bottles of pills, tall sticks covered with watches. There are women with five-gallon buckets of ice water on their heads that you can't drink. In fact, virtually anything you might need is being sold, but probably nothing you would want. Space is at a premium. People push their baskets and stalls out of the way for cars to pass, then they push them right back, sometimes leaving nothing but a narrow footpath. The streets are piled high with a mixture of garbage and palm fronds, and the sewage flows freely beneath your feet.

It was the rainy season, of course. It always is when I go somewhere. The streets were mud. My shoes weren't dry a single day in the two weeks I was there. My eyes watered and my head ached from the diesel fumes and carbon monoxide. Transportation is a tangled mess, but it's also art. The taptaps (buses) of Port-au-Prince are the best art in Haiti, looking like mobile religious versions of sideshow banners with uplifting Christian mottos and/or catchy American disco phrases in French, Creole, or English. You can learn English these days anywhere in the world, I suppose, simply by studying the T-shirts people wear. It's a weird kind of English, but it's our English I guess, which is maybe kind of sad. I don't know if Haiti is known for its cuisine, but I doubt it. One of the few tourist brochures we had (Haiti is not even mentioned in some of the major guides to the Caribbean) assured us we would ruin our teeth on the leathery meals, but this didn't happen. The boiled plaintains were a little dense, but everything else was actually good. All the restaurants have the same menu: chicken, pork, fish, goat and conch meat, boiled or charred, and served with rice or plaintain and avocado.

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