Travelling to countries that conventional wisdom tells you are dangerous and should be avoided is always interesting. Mainly because it reinforces the opinion that conventional wisdom is usually wrong. Sometimes based on opinions of people that have not experienced the very thing they are expounding their wisdom on. Yes, Haiti is the poorest in the western hemisphere, it has a history of political unrest and corruption (not uncommon in this part of the world) and a propensity for being hammered by natural disasters. And yet, it’s a country of incredible generosity, stunning landscapes and huge potential.
With downtown Port au Prince taking up most of the flat land situated on the shores of the Bay of PaP, the rest of the sprawling city is perched on the hills separating the urban sprawl from the rural villages of Kenskoff and Furcy, hills I will be walking later on, on my way to Jacmel in the south.
Looking back down to the bay from the towering neighbourhoods in the south makes the city feel vast. A blanket of concrete and wooden shacks draped over the natural contours of the hills, and these hills are not gently sloping foothills. Walking around can be a tiring proposition especially in the humid caribbean heat.
After arriving overland from the Dominican Republic through a border crossing that was about what can be expected – had better, had worse, we spent our first night in relative luxury. Having been through the lively border crossing, and chaos of rush hour traffic, we were sitting in a very plush restaurant with a friend of a friend who works in the city. The juxtaposition of the restaurant and the city we had just travelled through was a little jarring, but not unpleasant to have a cold prestige in hand (winner of world’s best american style lager beer two years in a row) and a relatively calm atmosphere. Like most plush places in PaP, it was mainly populated with aid workers and NGO’s with the odd business man and a few middle class Haitians.
The evening came to sum up the feelings I will take away from PaP – there is very little middle ground in this city. You are either down on the plain, fighting for every gourde with the majority of people, or you are one of the very wealthy few, living out of expensive hotels and Miami style 4×4’s. Unfortunately it seems the life of an NGO worker fits into the latter of these two descriptions, and while I am sure many NGO’s do amazing work here, there sheer number of them here is staggering and I can start to see where a lot of the money that is sent here to Haiti is spent.
So, your either safely locked behind gates and 2 metre fences, driving around in blacked out 4×4’s, or you’re not. You’re on the street in the hustle and bustle and the filth and the smells, having experienced the former on the first night we decided the rest of our time would be spent on the street. The next day we got ourselves onto the main road and took our first tap tap down, literally straight down, to down town. Tap taps are named so because when you reach your destination you simply tap tap (occasionally the odd maverick will add in a third tap here) somewhere you think the driver may hear. A simple shout of MERCI CHAUFFEUR will suffice in the unlikely event your tap tapping hasn’t been received. Often drivers are very kind and provide an instrument on which to tap tap against the glass of their cab, in our case it was a toothbrush which had seen better days.
The earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010 was centered here in PaP and it must have been truly terrifying. As with most developing countries the building here are not fit to pass structural building regulations, never mind the colossal forces of the earths tectonic plates. This is apparent when wandering around the downtown area of Port au Prince, which is still littered with dilapidated buildings, crooked and cracked to reveal their concrete and steel innards. Marche Fer (Iron Market) is in sharp contrast to this, a towering steel structure painted red and white towering over it’s sorry neighbours.
A fascinating city and a welcome that will not be forgotten. Certainly an exception rather than a rule with regards to Haitian cities as we would come to find out. But nowhere we will visit in Haiti provides such an example of the acute problems the country faces; housing, sanitation and water.
At this point I should point out that downtown PaP is not the kind of place you walk around flashing your expensive camera and jazzy (let’s bring back the 90’s!) video camera. So apologies for the lack of photos breaking up this blubbering mass of prose. To add to this the few photos that were taken are generally, bad. But don’t worry you will soon become accustomed to this poor level of photography as the screen on my camera is now broken. So without a view finder and unable to see what it is that I am taking, my photos going forwards will be of a similar poor standard.