Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Tourism and taxis

Crossing the mountains in a clapped out tap tap with 9 seats but carrying 20 is a horrendous experience -  one that I would repeat in an instant. There is something exhilarating about a situation you cannot control and embracing it. Packed to the point of claustrophobia, our stubborn little van crawled its way to the top of each hill then hurled its way down the other side barely missing the edge. There was no time to appreciate the passing landscape, but I know it is stunning. Lush mountains, babbling brooks and waterfalls.

Despite having our windows wide open I inhaled more exhaust than air and there was a good amount of retching from the back. To make matters worse the lady to my left kept vomiting into a little bottle and making the sign of the cross. Our driver blared out rap music, the air was hot and and heavy and I had eaten something strange for breakfast. So extreme and painful was every bump and turn that it was not long before we were laughing uncontrollably, there was little else to do.

Our fellow passengers must have thought these 2 blancs were crazy as we laughed through the pain, but they embraced us both warmly when we finally arrived in Port au prince and wished us well. Although many people here are initially weary of foreigners and stare at you with blank looks, they soon warm to you, and such shared experiences help a good deal.

It took us 3 hours to arrive but we had made it. But having said goodbye we were faced with yet another intense scene, for moments after being dropped off we were spotted and a cry of 'Blancs' went out. The surrounding crowd turned and the word was passed from person to person. All around us we could hear people shouting 'Blancs, blancs blancs', as they rushed towards us. Apparently foreigners do not visit this part of town and in an instant every street vendor was heading towards us - we cowered.

We had arrived at the main bus terminal of port au prince, a dirty, loud and crowded hub for rural haitians flocking to the city. Covered partly in corrugated iron it leans to one side and seems ready to fall.  Many people have sought refuge in port au prince and most of them have ended up either here or in camps. Both however are better choices than the abject poverty people face in the hills where almost no aid has arrived. The scene was both sad and intimidating.

Desperate to sell us an array of gruesome looking foods and dirty water, people pushed and shoved and tugged at our clothes as we tried to haul our bags to the other side. To our rescue came Ronny, a tiny little man who came darting through the crowd towards us. Despite his size he cleared a path, bustled us into his car and removed us from the groping hands. People continued to reach in and bang at the windows but we made it away. Soon after we were being welcomed back into the familiar surroundings of the hotel oloffson, looking a damn sight worse than when we had left, but feeling like real travelers.

Once again I was reminded of John Mills in Ice cold from Alex and as we staggered towards the bar we were met with familiar faces. It felt as if nobody had moved since our departure and their drinks were still full, but I did pick out a few new faces. Most notable among them was a group of high schoolers from virginia playing UNO, and a grizzled drunk shouting about evil in the world. As I write this now he is still at it, and his poor haitian mistress looks aghast at what her evening must hold. The high schoolers have since taken refuge in their rooms.

I have promised myself to rest here for only a few days. I am back briefly to write a piece on the world cup fervor that has swept this country, for the place is alive and buzzing. With 80% unemployment this is now something for them to do and they are ecstatic. Screens are going up around the city and this seems to have brought a brief respite from the hardships they face daily. For haitians it seems to be both therapy and an opiate.

You must excuse the last few days of silence. The pace of life here is as slow as our tap tap and also contagious. Energy is easily sapped, and I am beginning to understand the laziness.  Days drift by at their own varied pace and the heat is unavoidable - the fact that I can not be near the loo as well as an internet connection also causes problems.

I have come from the city of Jacmel where life is as slow as it gets. This was the second biggest tourist hub on the island before the quake, and I believe that one day it can be so again. Much of its tourism in the last couple of years has been from lonely canadian women looking for companionship, yet it offers so much more. For example there is the country's biggest transvestite community, its biggest artist community (usually enveloped in a haze of pot) and picture perfect beaches. It has drug runners, a film school and mountain waterfalls. It also has some of the poorest camps, some of the worst malnourishment and many orphans. However for socially conscious tourists this should be the first destination. It is beautiful and unspoiled. For my own part I was able to help in the camps handing out nappies and translating for a charity building schools - I feel less like a voyeur.

We met a wonderfully eclectic group of people there. The town drunk is a man named Anderson and we befriended him one day only to save him the next. It was early one morning when we found him staggering in the middle of a busy intersection with cars rushing past him on all sides. He had stopped to light a cigarette but passed glazed eyes was not succeeding. We helped him to the side of the road, bought him some food and left him to sleep. I doubt he ever did.

We then prevented a man from having 'God' tattooed on this eyelids - not only would it have been a home made affair and dangerous, but he would have lost all chance of employment. I think he went ahead anyway yet I felt better for having tried. Bizarrely this was a man I had seen in the voodoo dance the night before.

Most surprisingly we met a jamaican englishman from hackney whose boat had been wrecked off the coast some months ago. He has since been living in a camp with the locals with no money and no way home. I will return to find out more, but do not yet understand why he has not contacted the embassy - something isn't right, and there is an article in this. He seemed stoned and happy. Yet pleaded for help.

Tourism here has now dried up but in the past this country was once thriving. On the North coast is a port called Labadee. It is a private resort leased to a US cruise company, Royal Caribbean International. Since 1986 ship after ship has brought thousands of Americans to enjoy a sun soaked, booze fueled couple of days, yet for publicity reasons none of them ever knew they were in Haiti. Advertisements referred to it as an island, crew members were told not to say anything, and it was cut off from the locals by high walls and a private security force. To even mention the name Haiti is a death knell for companies.

While this sounds incredible it is also understandable. Very few people see a war ravaged country as their idea of paradise, yet bearing in mind that the cruise company has contributed the largest proportion of Haiti's tourism revenue for decades, so be it. What this does show is one of the biggest problems facing the future of this country and the difficulties that potential tourism faces. In time I believe this can change. I believe that if the nation can be rebuilt and if the locals can embrace foreigners they might recreate a haven that once saw Mick Jagger, Van Damme and Graham Greene call this place idyllic. 

Life within the NGO compounds remains strange and cut off. It is far removed from the realities of the street, although they move around the camps at ease. Last night I had dinner with a wonderful spanish girl I met on the plane. Her NGO does not allow her to leave the compound and so it was that we were chaperoned around town by french military. It was a bizarre date to say the least and at 9 she was ushered out the door after a fast farewell. Perhaps it was the 2 kidnappings the night before, but it still felt it extreme. I was left alone to find a ride home and when my moto taxi broke down in darkened alley I began to wonder if I too should take more care.

This is a country full of extremes yet I would encourage everyone to visit.

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