There were many things I expected from Haiti but meeting Jimmy Buffett was not one of them. However it was while sipping a drink on the veranda of the hotel Oloffson, following this amazing encounter that I became aware of the fact that there would be 2 very different ways in which to report from this country.
One was from inside this oasis of calm, around a swimming pool surrounded by NGO workers, UN staff, fair weather journalists, and the odd celebrity. It is here that they congregate, drink, screw, dance and do an awful lot of talking. The other option was to jump head first into the tented cities, government offices, voodoo chapels and black markets, to paint a picture of a world that is harsh, corrupt, cruel yet also resilient and charming. The truth is though that these two worlds are intimately intwined, and that the decisions that effect this nation are so often made from behind the high walls of this very charming hotel. One cannot therefore tell the story of this tragedy without looking at both sides.
The Oloffson is an amazing place, unchanged for decades. It is a huge white wooden mansion with covered verandas and lush gardens that would not look out of place on Bourbon st. The doors are marked with the names of celebrities who have stayed here, with poor Van Damme being relegated to a back room next to my own. The hotel, on a hill overlooking the city was relatively untouched during the earthquake although there is a floor to ceiling crack in my bedroom wall through which I can spy on the people next door. The characters within the hotel are as special as the hotel itself.
The self styled doyen here is an old lady called Ginny, a photo journalist from the US. Before sundown her shrill NY accent can be heard shouting at the staff "A gin for Ginny" before swearing down the phone at a photo editor not willing to pay up or a driver who is late. People tend to smile politely at her but give her a wide berth - this is one battle axe not to be trifled with. There's another lady who sits with Ginny and may or may not be sleeping with her too. Every morning she spends breakfast flitting from table to table trying to piggy back on other peoples excursions though always being rejected by each.
There is also a young black man from a big US bank, trying to rebuild the financial system here. He was immaculately dressed and bizarrely lamenting the difficulties of being a white man in Haiti. I don't know if it was the drinks or his ivy league education but I didn't have it in me to to disagree. There's an enormous bald man from America called Odin who is here to sell wooden parrots to a chain of US supermarkets. Judging by the conversation I overheard, his clients are now balking at the $100,000 that it will cost to set this up. Charity and business do not always mix.
Then we have the owner, a tall white haitian with a thick gray curly mass of hair on his shoulders. Born in NY he is the lead singer of a famous voodoo band. I have yet to learn much about him, but have no doubt that he knows this city and its inhabitants better than most - a slightly aloof yet fascinating man. I am reminded here of hotel Rwanda and a day by the pool in Kigali, and I intend to know him well.
This morning christian missionaries with long beards skirted meekly past a Jordanian general, while an enormous mastiff, with a horrible protruding vagina snored on the floor. Vivaldi's Spring blared from the speakers almost managing to drown out the horns and cries from outside. Looking at this scene, it is easy to understand why so many Haitians are skeptical of aid workers and the promises they make. The private jets at the airport will do little to dispel this unfortunate image.
But before I go any further, I must say that it is very easy to be cynical about the reconstruction effort. That it is in the hands of Bill Clinton makes it an even easier target, but the fact must always remain that none of these people need to be here, none of them need to help or to care, yet they all do. And if all they ask is an oasis to retire to at the end of the day who can blame them. As Brother Buffett told me this morning in his soft alabama lilt "everybody needs an Oasis sometimes".
I have been watching the interaction between locals and westerners here with much interest. I've heard many people on both sides complaining about the other. Haitians think that not enough is being done for them, while aid workers think the Haitians are ungracious. Many claim that they expect everything but show little or no gratitude, while haitians (and many aid workers alike) are wondering what happened to the $20 billion raised, and are horrified that they still live in such destitute poverty. I hope to find out soon why there is such inaction, such waste and so little getting done, my feeling though is that it is a combination of bureaucracy and a corrupt local government.
The first interaction I saw between locals and foreigners was on board the flight here - it was an amusing picture. There were only a handful of westerners and they were the only ones adhering to designated seating. Watching a polite aid worker on his first trip to the country telling an elderly haitian lady that in fact seat 26B was his, entertained me to no end. He never got it back. As we took off a number of old ladies started to wail and wave their hands in the air. This continued until landing, getting louder with every bit of turbulence.
Outside the hotel, the city is devastated. I know you will all have seen pictures or have impressions about the devastation but the scale is more than even I can fathom. Tented cities with hundreds of thousands of people angle deep in mud, buildings in huge sections of the town simply flattened, but not yet cleared. Huge piles of rubble in every road and people trying as best they can to keep life moving, but with every industry destroyed what can they do? Little food, little water, little hope. Just 5 minutes from the airport I drove past a crumpled body, dead on the street. Nobody stopped. I overheard someone today asking "What about the bodies?" The response was, "The dead look after themselves".
The constant, savage sound of voodoo drums is both terrifying and hypnotic. It is a manic sound that beats and beats and beats inside your head and through to the bone. It is repetitive, continual, and as it pounds through your head it is easy to see how people become possessed.
It is said that this country is 80% christian and 100% voodoo and last night was proof of that. I had been asked by some texan missionaries to attend a performance at a nearby christian refugee camp, and with nothing else to do decided to join. What we expected however and what we got could not have been more different. It was the most eery performance I have seen and left us drained and exhausted. In the case of the Texans, who had been looking forward to a christian sing along, it left them scared and angry.
In a small dark room at the centre of this foul and muddy camp the dancers leapt and fell and swayed for over an hour. Not once did the drums stop beating or the men stop dancing. They portrayed every character from Haiti's culture, and overseeing it all was Baron Samedi; god of the dead. We watched as they mimicked human sacrifice, slave murders, and otherworldly possessions. They prayed both to the ground as well as the heavens, and they contorted their bodies in ways I thought not possible. As the night continued the evangelicals beside me began to huddle together as the dancers slapped the ground, cracked whips and beat their chests.
The frenzy grew and grew and reached its peak as Samedi blew flames towards our heads. The heat was intense and if any of our group had not realised this was a celebration of paganism they certainly did then. One of the girls screamed and clutched at her pastor, he in turn had a look of horror on his face and shielded her from this blasphemy.
Soaked in sweat these dancers got closer and closer to the group. A one armed man began to body pop and then bizarrely dropped to the floor and did the worm. The lights went out but the drums continued, they got louder and louder and in the candle light all we could see were big white grinning mouths. I desperately wanted this to end, and was not sure I could take much more. At the same time however I feared the silence that would follow, and when it finally came it was as if something had left us. I was mesmerized. Nobody moved and nobody spoke, we just sat there in the dark before eventually filtering out one by one. I looked down at my notebook and saw deep teeth marks in the cover.
That this performance was not at odds with their christian belief is amazing, but then so much about this land is at odds with itself. It is also amazing to think that this was not a real voodoo ceremony, for that I will have to go inland.
I politely declined the offer of an evening prayer session and left the texans. I headed straight for the only hotel with a bar, for if anything warrants a drink it was this. Walking alone through darkened Haitian streets after such craziness was strange indeed. The streets in the old town are all deserted - barely one house in the area is safe following the quake. I had a feeling people were lurking in the shadows though and I quickened my pace.
Walking into the hotel I was thrown into another amazing scene - it was a Haitian wedding. At the centre of the group were 2 men sitting face to face. They were reading french poetry back and forth in quick tempo while women in white frilly dresses looked on and swayed. I don't really know what was going on but intend to find out.
I had arranged to meet a friend who runs a maternity clinic. She texted me soon after I arrived to say she would be late. She was at her clinic and about to deliver a dead baby - her 5th that week. When she arrived soon after I found out that the mother had refused to deliver. She had wanted to keep her still born a little longer.
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.
Cite soleil is not a place to be trifled with and a hard place to enter. Until recently it was known as the most dangerous bario in the world, and running gun battles were continuous. It has been immortalized in various films and little aid has reached it since the earthquake. It is a dirty, impoverished shanty town and drugs are rife.
So it was with trepidation that I went in, hat pulled low, and camera hidden. I had found a guide who lived there and had offered, for a sizeable fee to show us around. In a stroke of good fortune, the man who we had prevented tattooing his eyelid was originally from soleil and his family still lived there. One of his brothers, Wally had agreed to lead us in.
The police here have made much of their success in ridding the area of bandits, including the king pin himself, Avis. Although hundreds of them escaped from prison during the quake, Avis has since died in a shoot out and most others have fled to the hills. Police have been told to fire on sight if anyone is recognized, so few have remained. They now patrol regularly, though the international troops will not go in. For my own safety I was comforted by the knowledge that only aid workers are now being kidnapped - journalists are worth a lot less. Tragically, the daughter of the head of a big charity was taken a few days ago, and there has yet been no word.
The first thing that struck me as we approached was the smell. Never in my life have I experienced such rank and foul odours as I did there. It seeped into the mouth and down to the lungs and at times I wanted to throw up. I was to afraid to offend anyone however and tried instead to hold my breath. We had left the main road and driven down a canal which was little more than a sewage dump. Yet children played in the street and foraged with dogs, while next to them lay rotting animal carcasses.
We left the bike and went in on foot. The first thing I noticed was the bullet holes littering the walls. They were sprayed across doorways and windows in what could only have been indiscriminate murder. Gang signs were on many surfaces and as we walked by people kept calling out "Kabri" and bleating. Kabri is one of the nations favourite dishes - goat and we were told it meant that we too would taste good.
Most people slouched in doorways and lazed in the shade that offered no rest from the heat. Some of them smoked drugs, others played dominos. One man idled past us with a small yellow bird that he had fashioned into a neckless using a piece of wire. It was attached by the legs and was still alive. Every face turned as we passed and stared with a mixture of curiosity and hate as if to say what right have you to observe our misery.
Despite my initial fear however everything went smoothly. We passed Avis' hide out, Wycelff's house, met the local crazy man and interviewed a few thugs. For them, nothing has changed since the quake. The area was not hit that badly and there were very few real buildings to collapse. They merely pushed their homes up again and hijacked some aid convoys.
Moving continuously we wound among the small and cluttered streets and came finally to the main road that led through the centre. More dead animals and mountains of rubbish lined the streets. It was along here that the dead were taken after the earthquake and about 10 trucks a day brought piles of bodies to be burnt in the hills. 300,000 dead estimated.
Following a harrowing couple of hours we left and went back to the hotel. It took us only 15 minutes but felt like a world away. When the devastation and poverty of Port au prince feels comforting, you know that something has changed inside.
What strikes me most is the resilience of everybody I see. They have learned over so many decades to live hand to mouth, day to day and as if each could be their last. They always make do, can sleep anywhere and most are smiling. Children play and hold your hand. They look up not with envy or anger, but with hope and more hope. They are at heart a laid back people and I believe also peaceful.
Such hope and expectation however is not always a good thing. It begins to create a reliance on foreign aid, and the general consensus here is that aid programs must encourage self sufficiency. While the west can and must provide a lot of the goods they must also avoid doling things out.
Another big problem is that a number of charities are arriving with temporary housing that is made to last for only a few years. Some has not been hurricane tested and is liable to fall apart when the rains arrive, yet the government has for some reason O.K.'d it. Everybody here knows that there is no such thing as temporary housing in Haiti, for when you give someone a structure they will stay in it till it crumbles.
Huddled beneath a black tarp in a small open boat under the midday sun was not where I had hoped to find myself. Better suited for a somalian pirate attack than a ferry ride, the boat creaked and chugged its way across the sea. It had been almost an hour since we had left the bustling wharf of Les Cayes and I was beginning to get claustrophobic.
Huddled around me in the unbearable midday heat were 20 rural haitians, a few chickens, and many boxes of fruit, and despite the cover we were getting stung by the sea water. The boat swayed this way and that, and every few minutes our captain shouted 'left' or 'right', as he commanded us to redress the balance. As with all forms of transport in this country, be it on 2 wheels, 4 wheels or water, no vehicle leaves until overburdened and uncomfortable.
If you have ever seen a photo of african refugees trying to reach europe you will have a vague idea of what this was like, and I began to wonder if we too might end up adrift. Quite what everyone made of my presence I'm not sure but it was an adventure indeed and we were all in it together. At one point when the waves got bigger a bottle of Taffia was passed round and we each took a swig. It is a cheap and heavy rum that does little to quench thirst, but peoples spirits rose.
I have read that life in Haiti hesitates on the verge between tragedy and comedy, and as these words came to mind I laughed
Les Cayes was once known for producing the best rum in the world and I have heard that this is where the term 'OK' comes from. Shipments arriving in NY marked 'Aux Cayes', would contain the finest rums and be left unopened. This is of course the Haitian version, but one I quite like.
I had counted only 3 life jackets as a fisherman had carried me ably towards the boat on his shoulders. The small wooden jetty was rotten, falling into the sea and no use to anybody. The little port was filthy, and flies covered everything. Men urinated in the mud where they pleased and mopeds revved their little engines among the beggars and the street vendors. At first I was just relieved to be out of the melee and away from prying hands, but what lay ahead was worse.
Just offshore a container ship was unloading large sacks into waiting dugouts and about 20 of them vied for position; it was a noisy and aggressive scene, and I was pleased to push through them and reach open water. As we set off into the ocean I was reminded of Agoue, the voodoo divinty of water. Nobody had yet offered him a gift as is customary, so as the sea got choppier I hoped that I was not destined to become Jonah.
As things got worse I lowered my head, huddled among the others and prayed we had enough fuel. Every few minutes I allowed myself a peek over the edge to see if we were any closer, but at 5 knots and with a strong current this never seemed to happen.
At one point a small baby was passed up through the group, and being at the front it was wedged by my side. It soon began to bawl, whether because of the heat, the wet, her skin dissorder or me I don't know, but I was beginning to regret this trip. When people began to argue around me under the dark cover I felt this was an adventure too far.
I was trying to reach the little island of Vache, famed for it's beauty, and wanting my trip to be as authentic as possible had declined the offer of a private boat. I had told the people expecting me that I would find my own way to the hotel, yet this was not how I had imagined it. The journey had become both precarious and very lonely and out in the middle of ocean I was missing a friendly face or an english voice. I was even missing the little bus that had been my home for the previous 5 hours, and the regular jolts of the dirt road as I travelled through the mountains. Not even the taffia was calming my nerves.
Eventually however and much to my relief we made land and the first stop was mine. We pulled up near a beach as beautiful as any I have seen and I was again carried ashore. "Tout servis" they insisted. For once refusing additional payment.
I was the only one who got off here and as I turned around the boat was already pulling away. There were not buildings in sight, and I shouted after them the name of the hotel "Belle View?" They pointed inland and up the mountain and laughed.
Soaking wet, sunburnt and thirsty I slung my bag over my shoulder and headed into the woods up a little path. Soon I heard voices and found myself in a small village. Once again a cry of 'Blanc' went out and children came rushing. Receptions such as this get tiresome every minute of the day and I am getting desperate for some privacy.
A few minutes later I had been escorted to the hotel and found myself in yet another Haitian oasis, a little paradise. We were high on a peninsula overlooking a turqouise sea, lush hills, coconut trees and a small fishing village. It could not have been a more welcoming sight.
Hearing the children, a portly haitian lady popped her head out of a window under a low straw roof. "Monsieur Benjamin?", she inquired with surprise. I was dirty, wet, and the salt water had matted my hair into a wild mane. I hadn't changed in a couple of days and here I was emerging from the trees alone. She rushed to greet me. "We expected somebody a lot older" were her first words, and I soon understood why.
It turns out that this hotel caters for one specific type of guest - middle aged French men, single and wearing speedos. How could I have got it so wrong! Underneath the prices for water skiing, scuba diving and kayakking (none of which seem to be on offer) is a price for a speed boat to 'Madame Bernards'. I haven't yet inquired about this, but judging by the few girls who came in last night I think it is not for sightseeing.
I fell asleep early and was mauled by mosquitos. It had been quite a day and one that had ended as bizarrely as it had begun - at the home of a famous haitiaan rapper in port au prince.
Gemini is his name and he once recorded with Wycleff - in Haiti that makes you a god. He had very kindly offered to put me up for the evening in his ramshackle house and it was a wonderful experience. Sitting on a burned out car freestyling in creole (him not me) was surreal. Despite the rats around us and the regular powercuts he kept going for a good 30 minutes, and we had soon amassed a large crowd (as much to gawk at me, as to hear him).
He had asked only for a bottle of rum as payment and this also made us many new friends. A couple of women offered us their company but muttering something about a wife back home I refused. This seemed to make no difference however and they persisted. To my relief there was a Lakers game that evening and we rushed off to buy petrol for a generator.
We talked for hours about Haiti, its problems and its future. I have found that outside the aid workers and politicians there is little optimism here. Haitians focus predominantly on the bad rather than the good, and never ask how they might improve their own lives. This may seem callous on my part for they have endured much, but not once have I seen real optimism. They seem to have become used to living in misery and can imagine nothing else. It is sad.
Not once have I seen them embrace the aid that is flowing in and use it as an opportunity to build a new future. Not once have I seen them lead a project; they want it all done for them. In this culture it seems that 2 wrongs make a right, and I am starting to believe what I have been told a couple of times: "Haitians can be a barbaric people".
All over the country I have been seeing graffiti saying 'Bon retour JC Duvalier'. When I asked Gemini and his friends I was told that many people would like to see the return of a strong leader. They believe that under Baby Doc they saw better days; they had security and less poverty. Corruption among the police and politicians was no worse than it is now and for this reason hardly anyone intends to vote in the next election. "Preval is a drunk" many of them say, "and who will be different"? I do not agree with them for a minute, they have forgotten the horrors of dictatorship, yet the grass it seems is always greener.
At the end of the night Gemini insisted I take his bed. Despite protestations that I would sleep on the floor he would hear none of it. Despite everything that I have written today, there is a hospitality here that feels at odds with the cold reception you often feel. I finally accepted the bed and woke a few hours later with just enough time to queue for the bucket of water and sliver of soap in the alley.
I saw yesterday the true nature of poverty in this country. Outside the main ports and the towns I have visited so far, people live a wretched existence that seems not to have changed for decades. No aid has arrived nor does it seem to be coming, for this part of the country was ignored by the earthquake as it has been ignored by everyone else. All the aid has been earmarked for earthquake hit zones yet it is needed just as much elsewhere.
I was traveling across the Massif de la Hotte, an inhospitable range of mountains that cuts off the South Western tip from the rest of the country. It is a trip I would wish on nobody, for there are no roads, merely dirt paths and tap tap's have no suspension. They have been building a road to connect this part of the country to the rest, but it seems that little is getting done.
There is an old Haitian saying, 'Beyond mountains there lie mountains', for in this country having overcome one obstacle there are always countless more. This journey showed me the literal truth of these words as well as the endless problems facing the country.
I was waiting for my tap tap to arrive in Les Cayes knowing that it would pull over for only a minute. It was market day, and the sounds and smells of the stalls were overpowering. One second I could taste fruit in the air and there was a sweet smell of vegetation, but the next I was choking on the smell of meat in the midday sun, and being deafened by the cries of street sellers. Blood dripped off makeshift wooden tables standing below hanging carcasses, while children and dogs played in the street. The police were doing their rounds, and appeared to be helping themselves from the stalls as they pleased. When they saw me taking photos they leant against their car and eyed me suspiciously, beers in hand.
A group of us were jostling for the few spaces that would free up when the bus arrived. I knew full well that any overflow would end up on the roof and that bloody well wasn't going to be me. When the bus came into view the crowd started to get rowdy and I decided perhaps a bribe would serve me better than a fight.
Luckily for me though the multi coloured bus named 'Redemption' ground to a halt 200 metres past us, and we all took off running. I could see the driver laughing as we dashed towards him; I suppose there can be few other amusements in his line of work. Everyone else was hauling huge bags of maize behind them, or were large women, and being completely unchivalrous I sprinted as fast as I could. I arrived first and for no extra price found a seat and jammed myself in. I was delighted, for although bribes only ever amount to a few dollars I am reluctant to pay them.
At the back door people were still scrambling, and as the bus started its engine a few people were not on. One man had been hauled off at the last minute and had his place taken, and he was not happy. The door was slammed in his face and he ran behind the bus screaming; his maize was on board but he was not. People in the street barely even noticed, and continued selling. This is the way of the tap tap, a couple of people smiled to themselves. He finally made it onto the back ladder and continued to pound at the door until we were travelling at about 30 miles an hour, at which point he gave in and climbed to the roof. Others were not so lucky though and ran hopelessly behind us in the dust.
Once again I was delighted it is the world cup, for if ever there was an ice breaker this is it. I have purchased a small brazilian flag and whenever talk turns to football I pull it out to a chorus of cheers. On this occasion my flag served me well and soon most of us were friends. There are always some people in Haiti though who will never crack a smile. They look at you with suspicion and distaste, and it is these people who intimidate me, it is these people who worry me, and it is these people who have machetes. I have therefore taken to making allegiances early on and sticking to the friendly people.
As we left the city we left the tarmac and the bus climbed quickly into the mountains. Outside I began to notice a change. Villages were now little more than a collection of shacks covered with banana leaves and most people were practically naked. Barely any of them had shoes and of those that did some were wearing pieces of tyre attached with string. Haitians are an ingenious people and reuse every bit of material they find. Old shoe soles are perfect for hinging doors, while old bicycle wheels can sharpen even the bluntest machete, be fashioned into rudimentary bellows, or used as a hula hoop.
At every village people run alongside passing buses, desperate to sell a small handful of corn or a couple of sweets. There are two kinds of people among them; those with a look of desperation on their faces and those who appear resigned to their poverty. A dollar out of the window is the least I can do, and elicits cries of joy. The only things in abundance here are mangos and bananas and families often eat nothing else for days on end. As we continued to speed higher up, the ride got worse and the poverty more acute. By the middle of the trip, in the middle of nowhere, the only villages we passed were temporary housing for the men and boys building the new road. It was as close to slavery as I have ever seen.
In the scorching sun, boys in their mid teens were lifting large rocks with their bare hands and carrying them barefooted through thick red mud. Straining under the weight they would carry them to a cart that was pulled, not by oxen or donkeys, but by other men over to a larger pile of rocks. Here, more boys waited to smash them with hammers before laying the small pieces back on the road. I have never seen more tiring work or more inhospitable terrain, and I was reminded of an African diamond mine.
Every mile or so there were warning signs for explosions, and every now and then we heard a rumble. I felt as if I was a character in the Mexican film "The Wrath of God" (Wrath of Evil?) and each turn or bridge we crossed got tighter than the last. Wheels often slid and corners were close, however the bus wouldn't slow down, instead it sped it up. By this point the ride was so uncomfortable that I was beginning to bruise and we hurled along the mountain. Another tap tap pulled up behind us and tried to overtake. As it did so everybody began to lean out the windows and shout "Aller, aller" at our driver. It baffled me that they would want to go any faster, but assuming it was a race and wanting to join in I did the same. Head out of the window I got a good view down the cliff but nevertheless belted out encouragement. After my second "aller" people turned and stared. I was apparently not to be included in this fun and sat back down sheepishly.
I soon realized why they were urging the driver on though, because when we were finally overtaken we were engulfed in a thick dust that was put up by the other bus. It was miserable and everyone was soon caked in dirt, my hair turned to dreadlocks. People were coughing and urging the driver to get back in front, and so again we sped up. Someone then broke a bottle of petrol as the bus pounded up and down continuously so there was now also a strong smell of gas.
I wrapped a t-shirt around my head but it didn't help and I soon began to feel nauseous. For some reason I have recently become an insomniac and have barely slept for the last couple of days, so when occasionally my head would be thrown against the metal side I cursed my decision to take this road. I have also been taking immodium and was praying that it would continue to do its job, at least until the journey was over, but the way this was going I had little hope. Sure enough having held on as long as I could I had to cry out, "pisser, pisser", it was near enough the truth. The cry was passed on to the driver and as we stopped everyone cried out "Blanc veut pisser, blanc veut pisser" and stared. They laughed at me as I scrambled off, and watched as I crouched in the dirt.
I had barely finished when I heard the engine roar into action. As I scrambled to do my trousers up the bus began pulling away and I sprinted to catch up. Whether it was a joke or if they would have left me I don't know, but I've played the same trick in the past and may finally have got my comeuppance. I jumped in the open back door and did my best to make light of the situation, but inside I was fuming. Everyone else had found it hilarious and they were still laughing. I laughed with them but my sense of adventure had long since gone and I was now being mocked by a busload of Hatians. I wanted only to sleep, but the constant, painful jolting and swaying made this impossible. I was holding on with both hands. I finally put on my ipod and withdrew. Caccini's Ave Maria was a suitably mournful song with which to watch the misery outside.
The last mountain town we passed must have been the site of an epidemic, for I have never seen so many handicaps. There were a number of people with bloated heads, and deformed faces. Many seemed crippled and appeared to creep in their doorways reminding me of Moreau's Island. For once nobody approached the bus and the other passengers remained silent. Despite asking where we were, I could not understand their creole responses and was happy to keep moving. I caught a glimpse of a white priest dressed in a cassock and wish I could have spoken to him. What brings missionaries to these inhospitable parts of the world bemuses me, yet I am also in awe.
After 4 and a half hours we arrived. I have found that travelling from one town to another has taught me a lot more than stopping in them, and while I do not intend to take that route ever again I was glad I had. There was no fond farewell this time, i was in too fowl a mood, so I jumped straight onto a moto taxi and headed to the home where I was staying. In this town mopeds and people share the roads with donkeys, cows, pigs and chickens so it took a while to navigate. As with the rest of the country piles of rubbish lie in the streets and and nobody works. Blancs are even more of a rarity.
I had been given an introduction to stay with a Pasteur David and had been in touch only a few days before. But arriving at the compound I was told that everyone had left for the States and I could not come in. I don't know what went wrong in communication but standing there, with the metal gate closed in front of me, tired, stranded, hungry and alone I was at a loss. A crowd of curious locals; boys, men and girls came to look. They do it everywhere and it's infuriating but if you ask what they want they just stare at you. I tried to shoo them away this time, but must have looked ridiculous for they just laughed. I felt at a loss.
I finally managed to find my own hotel, not easy in a town like this. It was expensive and dirty, and the most welcoming place I have known. The staff when I arrived were warm, kind, and the food was delicious. I slept soundly and I no longer feel ill. Today I am as optimistic as ever and excited about continuing. Tomorrow I explore what is left of the home of Alexandre Dumas, whose family had slaves at a nearby plantation.
My body has finally given in and I'm bedridden. I'm pretty sure it was the dubious looking meal the rappers prepared for me, but they were so pleased to offer it I couldn't say no.
This post will therefore remain short.
I last left you in Jeremie, a quiet town where I found little to do. It was beautiful but uninspiring. Old colonial streets and a charming cathedral were the highlights but the french were so busy in Haiti that these are found everywhere. At least people didn't snarl at you there the way they do in Port au Prince, and the city felt a little safer.
Hoping for something more remote I set off into the surrounding mountains in search of the home of Alexandre Dumas. (Snr). The family's plantation, L'habitiacion Madere, was near a small village called La Tiboliere, and although I knew it no longer existed I was curious to see where the family were from, the landscape that inspired them, and the conditions under which their slaves once worked. The ruins were apparently still intact so I was optimistic.
La Tiboliere is perched high in the hills. It has a population of a few thousand, but as most homes are spread deep into forest and it has only one dirt road, you could easily mistake it for a village of 10 families. The one solid structure is a large pink church with turrets that rise from the trees, and tower above the thick vegetation. It seems that every hamlet in this country has a grandiose church and it often dwarfs all around it. I can't help but feel that every religious denomination has tried at one point to 'save' the haitians, and that they have all sought to out-do each other. Catholics and protestants in particular have gone to battle over haitian souls, and there is bad blood between them. Mormons, latter day saints, baptists and buddhists have also given it a go, but none have removed the prevalence of voodooism.
My moped driver told me that he knew people who could put me up, and as anything would have been better than the moped ride down I spent the night in the hut of a lovely old woman. She hasn't seen many blancs before and did nothing but grin at me; we said barely a word to one other. Amazingly I slept soundly on her floor, my holland and holland bag once again doubling up as bedding. The mosquitos ate better than I did that night and breakfast was leftovers. I set off the next day having washed out of the family's communal bucket and still never having spoken a word to my host.
Someone had said they could lead me to L'habitacion Madere, but as so often happens here we merely walked in circles until he demanded money. The Haitians can be real bastards sometimes, and I want to strangle half of them.
I was close to the plantation, I knew that, and must certainly have trod in the footsteps of at least one Dumas, but much to my disappointment and despite walking for 3 hours I never saw anything resembling a house, or a memorial. Apparently there had once been one, but it was stolen - everything here has been used to patch up homes.
The landscape in the region was inhospitable, the air heavy, the heat unbearable. I can imagine a plantation being only slightly miserable if there are people to fan you, no strenuous labour and plenty of rum. Yet shackles, servitude and whips in this environment are beyond my comprehension. I rushed down to the airfield in time to catch my plane to Port au Prince. I needed movement, I needed change.
I call it a plane but it was more like a metal box with wings. I thought about how many times I had read about flights full of missionaries going down in far away lands, and then I counted the number of missionaries sitting around me. 5 out of 7 passengers. I hoped they were praying.
The pilot did little to settle my nerves. He was a spanish man who looked about 70. He wore 4 different pairs of sunglasses during the 30 minute flight, he had a towel round his neck like a ww2 ace, and told us to use telephones - "No hay problem". I wanted to know how he had ended up flying for tortug air in haiti, but he was smoking before the plane had stopped and an elderly canadian missionary was pestering me as we got off. She was convinced I was a boy scout and wanted to know where we had met and what chapter I belonged to. After telling her I was trying to earn my last badge here, I rushed into the terminal and back to the comparative sanity of Port au Prince.
I headed straight to the home of my rapper friend, had another impromptu freestyle, was goaded into walking to the end of the road and back and finding rum, and finally was fed something foul that made every sinew wretch. The next day I checked back into the Olofson and collapsed. I was in a dire state.
I remained like that for a couple of days with no sympathy from any of the staff. In fact they found it amusing - again - bastards!
I finally headed back south to Jacmel for a couple of days to finish some interviews. I'm here now and have been commissioned to write a piece for the Sun. I am finally an auteur!
Today I won money on a fighting rooster I have named Spartacus. I miss everything and everyone, though Kurt Vonnegut has kept me company.