Christmas in New York
What does the lonely planet have to say about dangers and annoyances in Haïti? The following is a paragraph out of the 'Dominican Republic & Haiti' edition october 2008:
"...rather than crime or gang violence, Port au Prince's worst problem for visitors is actually the traffic. The jams, the drivers treating the roads like a war zone, the potholes and the endless procession of vendors, beggars and street kids all conspire to make getting from A to B an exhausting process. Sidewalks are jam-packed, frequently forcing pedestrians oto the roads and into the paths of oncoming taptaps..."
This is a correct observation. But why not show you how it really is? Every day I take a mototaxi to drive me up the hill to Pétionville. Pétionville is the new commercial center for the whole of Port au Prince. Sen Mak picks me up at 7.30 am at home and shows up again at 4.30 pm at work. So I took my camera and started filming this daily ritual...
This is me going to work. Mostly it's boring, but today my mototaxi Sen Mak was involved in an accident before picking me up at home. So he arrived late with a bike that was quite damaged, had to drop me off at a mototaxi meeting point at Delmas 75 from where I continued the trip on the back of another mototaxi. Funny thing, above all, was that I left the house with my helmet on already, expecting Sen Mak to show up at any moment. But as you can see in the video I had to walk for over a mile or two before I could jump on his bike. People walking in the street reacted strangely while I was filming. I thought at first that it was the camera that shook them off, but afterwards I realized it must have been the helmet on a walkin' blancs head...
This is me going back home after work. A couple of minutes before arriving at my place, we are stopped by police controlling traffic. The officers were very anxious about me filming on the back of a mototaxi. They demanded an explanation. I just told them the truth: "I'm recording this for my mother, so that she knows my whereabouts and gets to know my daily trip to my office." That did the trick, we were allowed to move on...
Christmas in New York
Still being a novice in Haiti, I find it easier to find transport to New York than to Jacmel, a nice coastal city 80 miles to the south of Port au Prince. I needed an escape and booked a flight to NY. Arriving at the Port au Prince airport with a mototaxi, the American Airlines officer refused to give me my boarding pass because I did not have the ESTA number, from jan 2010 onwards required for all European passengers. "You can quickly arrange it on this website", he told me. "Unfortunately there is no such thing as internet in this airport." So I called the AA customer service for advice. As it happens, anyone can fill in the form online, as long as he or she has the information required. So I started making phonecalls, first to my Belgian colleagues here in Haiti, but none of them was able to connect to internet. Finally it had to be done over an international cellphone connection to Belgium. Ingrid had to put her glass of cava down, go to the computer and fill in the document. Came out a number. I wrote it down, gave it to the AA officer and yes, sir here's your boarding card. Costed Ingrid 14 usd - talking about a special Christmas gift! - and me about the same amount of money for making all those calls.
And so it happened that on the 24th of december, while in Belgium families opened their first bottles of wine, I flew at 30.000 feet above the Bahama's and saw a beautiful sunset, while listening to "Oxigene", by Jean Michel Jarre. After a 4 hour flight I arrived at Parveens' late that evening.
I had the most wonderful time over there. It's like you start wondering again why suddenly everything just works. Electricity, water, internet, gas, heat, television, speakers, pandora music, candlelight, food, drinks. It's all there, and in abundance.
As if to add to the scenery, it started snowing on Christmas day. Not just a tiny little bit, but a real blizzard hit the city. Although I was not dressed for cold, let alone snow, I found it to be magical. One night we had Mérida, a friend of Parveen, coming over for dinner. She brought us some home made tamales (she's from Ecuador) and cheese and sweets. We never made it through the tamales, because Parveen (she's from Bangladesh) already had prepared a very spicy Indian Dahl with chicken liver and rice.
I enjoyed the kind of conversations these girls had. The New York scene, it appears, is much about who's gay and who's straight. If one has to believe Parveen and Mérida, almost all of their male friends are gay. Meet a guy who looks cute, he's gay. Barbers: gay of course. Then Mérida tells this story about how she once got a painful whiplash. She was having her hair cut and while laying with her head back so her barber could wash her hair, they were chitchatting. At one point he mentions his girlfriend. "WHAT, you're not gay?" Auch, my neck!
By the time Mérida was ready to walk back home it was midnight and snow was like all over the place. We decided to walk her halfway but I couldn't even make it that far, too freaking cold for my summer goretex coat. On top of that I was victim of a female snowball attack. New York can be hard, yes. Like the lunatics were taking over the city at that point.
Next morning it finally had stopped snowing. But oh my god what a beautiful landscape outside! Snow absorbes sound: absolute silence in New York. Cars were reduced to ornaments under piles of snow. We crowled our way to Parveens' favorite place for coffee and almond croissants, but the owner (he's from Algeria) could only offer us coffee ("for free, you courageous people") because there had not been any delivery of whatsoever food. On the street you could see tens of people shovelling their way through the snow and also families with children and fathers and mothers taking pictures of their kittens in the snow.
I went to the sales at Macy's to buy an extra sweater and a pair of trousers and went shopping at B&H, which is by far the largest audio & video supermarket in the States. Wanted to visit the Moma (museum of modern arts) too, but that day the train service had such huge delays that we preferred to watch "Frida" and "A single man" (for sure he's gay) and order in Thai food. Last evening we went to a Japanese restaurant on Broadway where I asked for a real fork to eat my raw fish. On the wall there was this projection of a documentary (Planet Earth) on underwater life.
Am I really eating this?
Thank you Parveen. I owe you.
You ask me how things are going in Haiti?
Well, look at the presidential palace. Buildings like these are supposed to represent a country, no? Since the earthquake the palace has become a ruin. And the government, well the government has been decaptivated just like the building itself. How can you be in control if international humanitarian aid has so much more money to spend than the government itself can offer? Bill Clinton, being head of the Haiti Relief Plan is sitting on a huge pile of money to help Haiti but only a tiny little bit of it went to the reinforcement of the Haitian government. And then of course you create suspicious Haitians; they think their government is corrupt and stole all the money. Follows a cascade of reactions that ends with, well, a country that is broke and where its population is dependant to a great extend on foreign help. Foreign help that is mostly white. 'Blanc'.
You ask me how things are going in Haiti?
Well, look at the elections that took place nearly two weeks ago, on november 28th. International observation teams reported a lot of irregularities. People who did the effort to walk 3 hours to their voting centre did not find their names on the list, but some of them did find people on the list that died during the eartquake on january 12. They did some nasty tricks with voting boxes and even though the CEP (Centre Electoral Provisoir) found nothing suspicious to report on the elections, a lot of human rights organisations think otherwise.
Or, look at the Paul Collier plan, praised by President Preval and other leaders. This Oxford University professor laid out a 19 page report that focusses on building factories that export to the United States. That's the start of a new Haiti, he's convinced. But these garment factories would just be havens for exploitative labor. Some of those factories are already there. Workers make a salary of 2 USD a day. Is this the future for them or for us?
You ask me how things are going in Haiti?
Well, ask the black people: not good. More than a million of them still live in tents after the earthquake devastated their houses. Where is the help they promised? More than 1000 Haitians died from cholera recently. Most of them don't have acces to good education or good healthcare.
And ask the white people: not good. There's a lot of white people hiding under blue helmets in Haiti. Most of the Haitians are fed up with the Minustah, the bluehelmets. The so-called peacekeeping 'blancs' stay at home when it gets too hot on the streets. 'Minustah is Cholera': you see those slogans everywhere on the streets. Maybe black people are right when they ironically talk about Haiti as a huge playground for international ngo's.
I'm part of all this. I'm not Minustah but I'm white and I work for a Haitian social communication organisation and I'm being paid by a Belgian ngo. Think of it. There's a very good chance that I make more money than my boss...
When I looked around me the last couple of weeks, I see a cancer. That cancer is Port au Prince. The city was build with 200.000 people in mind. Today the population in the city is ten times that number. Since there's so many ngo's around in Port au Prince, not many of those poor people out there take the future in his or her own hands. They sit beside their house or what's left of it and they hope to get some money. From the 'blancs'. I definately see another picture outside Port au Prince. In Léogane for instance, where the epicentre of the earthquake was localized, there's more activity. People, Haitians, are rebuilding their houses. En encouraging message, I think.
When I look around me today, I only see walls. The walls of my appartment. On wednesday the CEP announced the results of the elections. Number one: Mirlande Manigat. Number two: Jude Céléstin; And number three: the very popular Michel Martelly. Since that moment all the roads towards Port au Prince are blocked and groups in favor of Martelly are protesting against the other groups and the other groups are protesting against, well, the other groups. Way too dangerous to get involved into that. So we are all staying at home. Especially the 'blancs'.
Democracy in Haiti? Not for today, if you ask me.
There is only peace in a beautiful sunset in Port au Prince
© Hans Manshoven
Last time I gave you a rather vague orientation on where I would stay exactly. Today I did some extra research on GoogleMaps and I'm happy to be able to point you towards our house. If you click here, the house is under the blue pin.
While preparing my trip to Haiti, I gathered a lot of information on Haiti. A lot of misery is what I read and saw, and a lot of hope too.
Some nice "did you know's" also to make yourself look intelligent. Did you know for instance that Port au Prince was a blank area on GoogleMaps before jan 12, 2010 with only an indication of two main roads? Several months later, thanks to the work of hundreds of volunteers that tried not to get lost in the days after the earthquake, you will find a detailled streetmap with indications of hospitals, police offices, the presidential palace,...
And somewhere up the hill lies Piétonville, where starting mid october 2010 I will start living in an appartment close to Route Delmas 75. On GoogleMaps it looks like this.