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Wyatt Smith, Keegan Traveling Fellow

Wyatt Smith

2010-2011 Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellow
Vanderbilt University

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Apr '11

Motobikes, Haircuts, and Discomfort in Haiti

My first full day in Haiti proves eye opening. The hardships, while uncomfortable, are not overwhelming: the showers are frigid, the heat suffocating, the electrical grid undependable, and the public transport limited. But thanks to my Haitian hosts, I have access to a bed, clean water, and occaisionally, an Internet cafe. So it’s downright luxurious when compared to those living in massive refugee tent camps in the center of alleged ”nice districts.” An encounter with them last night has been quite impacting on my initial impressions of inequality and poverty in the Haitian state.

Yesterday morning begins with ease, as my Friday night hosts Joanne and Jean Paul drop me at a quality Internet cafe in the NGO-center of Petion-Ville on their way out of town for a weekend in Jacmel. There, I sit down for a few hours of research on Haitian history and observe the comings and goings of locals on a Satuday, many of whom are crowding around various televisions across the downtown area to cheer and jeer a high profile soccer match.

Then, out on the street, a friendly guy in his 30’s introduces himself as “Junior” and helps me locate a Haitian cell phone, hair cut, and place for lunch. As we clip through my to-do list, Junior engages in an impromptu interview with me. An excellent English speaker, he tells me that he returned home in 2009 after spending 15 years working as a computer technician in Canada. Due to the fallout from earthquake and what he termed “corruption in society,” he says that work opportunities have not come easy.

“People give jobs to those who they know, not necessarily the best qualified,” he complains, citing a familiar charge against private and public sector hiring practices across the developing world. It was not evident, however, that he has spent an inordinate amount of time in the job search process.

Junior offers his impressions on the recent presidential election, in which popular Haitian singer Michel Martelly defied conventional wisdom in besting an experienced opponent to win in a March runoff.

“He will do well for Haiti, unlike the other politicians,” he assures me, impressing me on the depth of “Sweet Mickey’s” commitment to Haitian development. “He spent his own money to help the refugees after the earthquake, while [then President René Préval] did not do so much as lift his little finger.”

Junior, like other Haitians I would later meet, is unmoved by criticisms of Martelly as an inexperienced, lightly credentialed candidate for the presidency. “The elites call him unintelligent,” he says, “because they cannot match his popularity.”

I can tell he is warming to me out of reasons of self-interest rather than friendship, but I don’t blame him for trying. Instead, I ask a series of questions about his experiences in the wake of the tragic disaster, to learn more about his situation.

“I was getting a can of juice inside a store on the afternoon the quake,” Junior says, “when the whole building began rocking back and forth. I was cursing myself for coming inside. Couldn’t believe I was going to die for a can of juice.”

Junior accuses local businesses of capitalizing on the tragedy. “Everyone was raising their prices, two or three times what they had been before the earthquake,” he says. ”They capitalized as people were starving. It was ugly, man.”

“The worst part,” he continues, “was trying to locate friends and family. You couldn’t talk to anyone because the phones were down. A huge mess.”

After escorting me to a local barbershop, where a young guy named Nixon obliged my request for a haircut by running a buzzer with a relatively high 6 mm guard all over my head, Junior accepts a small gift of 250 Gourde ($5) from me and we part ways. After the interview, I don’t mind breaking my self-imposed rule of giving out food rather than money. He proves worth it for the translation assistance, alone.

For two hours, I try to connect with my second host, a 27 year old Haitian woman named Sonia who, like my host the night prior, I meet on the CouchSurfer website. In communicating her address to me over email, she translates her address as “Dead Brother Route” instead of the Creole, “Rue des Freres.” This understandably confuses the moto-taxi driver I hire to drive me to her place, and we have to stop on the side of the road several times to check back with her for directions.

The moto-taxi is the sort of transportation I try to avoid, when possible. Basically a dirtbike with large racks on the back for 1-2 passengers, it is part motorcycle, part taxi. You ride sans helmet and hope that the driver stays true and other motorists blindside you in a more formidable vehicle. Like a car.

But apart from the tap-taps, a series of pickup trucks with converted wooden benches in their beds, the moto-taxis are the only game in town in Petion-Ville.’ Since I don’t know the exact route to Sonia’s place, I hop behind the moto-taxi driver with bags in my lap, say a quick prayer, and hope for the best. The driver makes liberal use of his horn to warn/harass other motorists, generally stays below excessive speeds, and for the most part obeys traffic laws. Luckily, my good fortune continues to hold out.

After arriving Sonia’s home, a simple, four room apartment she shares with a live-in housekeeper named Odella, she invites me to join her for a movie at the Brazilian Theater in eastern Petion-Ville. I comply and we hop aboard separate moto-taxis, speeding back in the direction I had come.

The Brazilian Theater is a stately single story, white building abutting a park filled to capacity with refugee tents. We head inside for a screening of documentary about a Brazilian popular musician, Caetano Velusa. I hadn’t heard of him before the movie, but apparently he is the Portugese equivalent of Paul McCartney. It was an unexpected experience, less than a day into my Haiti visit, sitting in a language school for a screening of a story in Portguese and French about a South American cultural icon.

Afterwards, as we walk out of the theater, Sonia asks me if I would like to eat dinner. It’s around 7pm and I am definitely hungry, so I agree as we navigate around the refugee camp towards a row of restaurants.

“Do you know Quartier?” she asks, referencing the restaurant a block ahead. While her English is not perfect, it far exceeds my French, so I say that it sounds great, not understanding that by asking, she was assuming that I would be taking her out to dinner.

Inside, I confront a spectacle of a restaurant better suited to the French Quarter of New Orleans than the desperately impoverished Haitian country. Waiters in smart, white coats serve glasses of wine to patrons seated at candlelight tables while a saxophonist seranades in the background. As we sit, I am open mouthed with shock, but she seems so confident in the restaurant, as if she comes here all of the time, that I don’t issue a word of protest.

The waiters bring out menues listing prices in Haitian dollars, a peculiar but common practice in a country that has operated on the Haitian Gourde (worth 5 times less) for decades. I order the least expensive item on the menu, beef medallions, and fortunately Sonia does as well. By this point, I have discovered that tonight’s meal at this French gourmet restaurant will be my treat.

Over dinner, I learn that she works for the Brazilian embassy in Haiti (hence the Portugese language center), that she balancing work with university studies (hence her inability to get in touch earlier in the day, when she had an exam), and that she lost her mother in the earthquake. The last piece of information is the hardest to react to, but then again I am finding that few were spared from some connection to the death toll.

I decide not to let being stiffed with the bill get to me long before it arrives. After all, I am a guest in her home and it’s not likely that she dines at Le Quartier regularly given her current living situation. Still, the place itself bothers me deeply. Outside, less than 100 feet away, one thousand “internally displaced people”, as the euphemism terms them, are huddling in tarpaulin-reinforced tents, trying to make it through another night. And inside, surrounded by tables of Haiti’s elite and a cohort of aid workers, all are enjoying Saturday evening meals of fine steak and wine whilst a sax player works the garden. The disparity is so real, so close…and I feel sick for contributing.

The bill arrives at an eye-popping 2800 Gourde; at $69, it is three day’s worth of budget for me (and three weeks income for the average Haitian, according to CIA Factbook). And while I try not to show my discomfort, I can’t help stopping Sonia when she moves to send her unfinished beef medallions and roasted potatoes back to the kitchen, asking instead for the waitress to wrap it up for us to take away.

Emerging from the opulence and back into the very real world, I walk slowly to the outer edges of the refugee camp and offer a “bon soir” to a lady standing in the darkness. “C’est por vous,” I say, offering the tinfoil-wrapped entree to the woman. Confused, she does not accept it.

I say in English, “It is from Quartier. Beef medaillions.”

Suddenly, a woman hustles over from the darkness on the left, where a group of young boys and mothers are all watching me intently. She grabs the foil, turns it to the light emanating from a nearby steet lamp, and squeals, “Le Quartier!”

I back off quickly as the second woman throws her arms into the air in celebration. The first is still standing there, silently. The boys say something to me in Creole, but I am on the street too rapidly to understand their meaning.

Sonia looks at me, smiling. “So you are really human?”

Perhaps she meant to say something else, and her meaning came out lost in translation. I sure hope she believed in my humanity all along.

Either way, it’s now a day later, and I am still paying.

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