Impressions of Haiti
Isn't it Dangerous
As a visitor you aren't likely to be mugged on city streets and in the countryside you are most likely to be regarded with genuine friendliness and curiosity. Like anywhere common sense is advisable in not wandering about late at night and in avoiding the most desperate areas.
A Low Rise City
Scattered everywhere are superb examples of the classic gingerbread style with its pillars, balconies, verandahs, cupolas, steeply gabled roofs and characteristic decorative wooden fretwork. Many of the older structures are wood. Some are freshly painted, others as barren and weathered as a desert ghost town.
New construction goes on everywhere. All is concrete but often attractively combined with natural stonework. Occasionally the latter is masterfully fitted and executed. There are many partially finished houses where work has stopped for some time. Instead of borrowing everything up front and being saddled with debt and interest, many Haitians build in stages as they earn the money. In the absence of zoning, building codes, and other such impositions on freedom you can build what you want here. On result is some of the most unusual and innovative uses of concrete found anywhere.
The streets of Port-au-Prince are jammed with traffic, crowded with pedestrians and bustling with commercial activity. Though unemployment is high everybody works and panhandlers are unseen. Much of the economy is transacted on the streets. Sidewalk vendors sell produce, refreshments, clothes, art, crafts, and even furniture. Artists and craftspeople not only sell but often produce their products on the streetside.
Trash is everywhere but the people themselves are cleanly dressed and malnutrition is not apparent. Spotlessly dressed schoolchildren in their school uniforms are a common sight. Brightly dressed women carrying elegantly balanced loads on their heads are everywhere. Here and there one sees donkeys bringing produce from the countryside.
Public transport is served by the ubiquitous taptaps. Privately owned trucks, mini-buses, and vans fitted out to carry passengers. Taptaps are elaborately painted with brightly colored intricate designs. Commonly the design incorporates a conspicuous slogan. This is often of a religious nature as if their destination was The Pearly Gates.
Haiti is Wired
The Soul of an Artist
In Port-au-Prince my wife Meredith and I visited a number of galleries and craft centers. The quality, diversity and originality of the art was impressive. Equally impressive was its affordability. Beautiful paintings can be bought for fifty to a few hundred U.S. dollars. Works by top contemporary artists with an international reputation can be purchased in the range from five hundred to several thousand dollars. Classical works by artists no longer living have, of course, moved into the realm of collectors and can sell for many thousands (see Footnote 1).
The best galleries in Port-au-Prince are in the suburb of Pétionville at the base of the mountains to the S.E. of the city. Although primarily a residential area with many elegant homes exclusivity stops at the high walls which surround them. Amidst the homes are a variety of small businesses and the streets and sidewalks are bustling with vendors every sort. Tropical foliage lines the streets. Many are enveloped in a blaze of bougainvillea which litter streets and sidewalks with fluorescent petals (see Footnote 2).
A Drive in the Mountains
Continuing inland we enjoyed the cool mountain air. We stopped at a complex of shops run by a Baptist mission. Their effort was impressive. It included school, church, hospital, farm, shops, workshops and a large plant nursery involved with reforestation. The shops offered good quality farm produce and crafts at good prices. As a connoisseur of junk food I can recommend the hamburgers in their lunch room. We bought an elaborately carved chair for $25 U.S. A few weeks later in Washington D.C. we saw a very similar piece on special at $450 marked down from $750.
The mission maintained a small museum of Haitian ethnography. An exhibit on "voodoo" had this sign:
It's interesting how opinions so often seem to reveal more of truth about their source than about their subject.
Haiti by Helicopter
Though my own taste runs more to wilderness than to people and despite the deforestation and severe erosion I could not help but find a certain appeal in the Haitian landscape. The mountains with little farms and houses scattered across them possess a definite storybook quality. Combined with the friendliness and generosity of the people and their unique culture the result is a charm, a magic if you wish, which makes one see the beauty more so than the problems.
Magic and Mystery
The coastal scenery is varied. In the south there are long expanses of ironshore, low sea cliffs, sharp, rocky, and exposed to pounding waves. Poor soil and little water make such coast sparsely inhabited but goats and cattle graze the sparse vegetation. There are numerous beaches all around the coast. Some are outstanding. Anywhere else they would be swarming with tourists. Here they are empty save for occasional fishing villages with log canoes pulled up on the sand and sailboats at anchor just offshore.
While marine activity is not intense, right around the coast I saw scattered boats fishing, anchored, or underway. Except for ships in ports everything was powered by sail or paddle and was constructed of wood. The age of sail lives on in Haiti.
A Varied Terrain
In places the land became suddenly lush and verdant. These well watered alluvial plains support intense agriculture. At the opposite extreme is the barren desert terrain of the far northwest coast. Terraced rocky hills, red dirt and scattered cacti and thorny bushes edging a blue blue sea reminded one of parts of Baja California. At river mouths and along streams women washing clothes often appeared. From the amount spread out to dry it would seem there is no shortage of clothes and sheets in rural Haiti.
2 I recently read an item in The Economist regarding the burying of garbage in landfills resulting in anaerobic decomposition and toxins leaching into underground water supplies. The cost of cleaning these up in the future was expected to be enormous. It concluded that from an environmental standpoint it would be better to just throw our trash on the ground where exposure to air and UV results in a faster, more benign breakdown. Maybe the trash on the streets of Port-au-Prince isn't as bad as it looks. Perhaps it is we who need to re-adjust our esthetic sensitivities. Making all our packaging fluorescent magenta and salmon pink like bouganvillea petals might help. They look really nice on the street. Return
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