Writing on the hotel terrasse on a quiet Sunday morning, as the music of a half dozen church services drifts over the walls of the gate. A rest day, or at least a rest morning, is a nice thing to have in a country where everything is just so…intense.
I feel at home here, though. It reminds me so much of Buja. The hills surrounding the city– although in Haiti they’re raw and sand-coloured, while in Burundi they’re a deep, cool green. The moto-taxis with no helmets. The colorful stucco walls of the shops. The tin roofs which glitter dully in the sun and fill the buildings with a deafening rumble when it rains. The people dressed in cast-off American and Canadian t-shirts, somehow spotlessly clean in a world covered in dust. The smell– dust, car exhaust and wood smoke. The companies ferrying their employees around in battered navy blue Toyota Hiace vans, exactly like the one I used to ride to work at the radio. When a Haitian asks me a question and I don’t catch what they’re saying, I automatically say “Sa?”–“Come again?” in Kirundi. Good things and bad things. The same solicitous reaching breathless desperation. I’m like a fish in familiar waters. I just had a beer with a Congolese journalist working for the UN radio system. For him, there was no culture shock– “Haiti is just a bit of Africa that drifted off into the sea.”
The security situation is a bit suspect for those who don’t know the area, especially foreigners, especially especially non-French-speaking foreigners like my mother. The hotel had set us up with a guide, Jean-Marie, a calm-faced older man who reminded me a bit of my father. His French wasn’t perfect, but it was better than his English. Over a bottle of Prestige– addictive Haitian lager– he told me that he’d nearly lost his wife in the 2010 earthquake when the market she was working in collapsed around her. He’s a really sweet man but sometimes he pretends to understand when he doesn’t, really, which leads to occasional difficulty.
The first morning, Jean-Marie dropped me off at a Canadian-run project for kids with intellectual disabilities, run by a Catholic lay minister from Quebec City. The parent organization in Quebec City is run by an elderly lady who has adopted more than 30 disabled kids. The woman who was sent down to run the Haitian project says she heard the voice of God calling her to volunteer. Since then, she says, she has been fighting with limited success to get herself to like this place. Her Haitian co-worker, a shy young man, stopped to chat with a friend of his as we were walking back from the spot where she picked me up. “Haitians,” she said with a scorn that surprised me. Later she vented about getting used to Port-au-Prince. “You can’t really trust a Haitian, they don’t always do what they say they will. And here, you can’t go out and walk alone at night, there are no stoplights, there’s no garbage collection, there’s a whole complicated system for riding the buses…”
During the interview which devolved into a general discussion of expat issues, I kept hearing this strange howling sound in the background.
“What IS that?” I asked Danielle.
“Oh, that’s just Alice.” Alice is a 15-year-old girl from Quebec with Down’s Syndrome, on an exchange trip. “She’s crying. She goes back tomorrow. She doesn’t want to leave.”
“What do you like best about Haiti, Alice?” I asked the girl later.
“The guys,” she said, throwing her arms gleefully around the waist of the Haitian guy, who smiled.
Perhaps it takes a person like Alice, a person without barriers, to best appreciate this place.
After the interview in Delmas was over, we went to the Port-au-Prince cemetery. It is not a place for quiet reverence. The Haitian use of space confounds me. The cemetery was an enormous garbage dump, piles of styrofoam containers and plastic water bags growing among the tombs. Herds of goats and families of chickens wandered calmly among the graves. Small children pissed. Time has not been kind to this country– mausoleums only 20 or 30 years old look hundreds of years old. Everywhere tombs were open, the rest of the dead disturbed by the earthquake or by grave robbers, bones visible. My mother nearly tripped over a pile of skulls, which would have sent her flying into the tomb of a woman buried in a white wedding dress. Singing rose like steam from a small blue falling-down chapel in the middle of the massive graveyard, a funeral, Catholic women in light blue headscarves chanting Ave Maria, but with a rock beat, clapping hands and swaying, a joyous sendoff.
A less joyous sendoff for the former President-for-Life François Duvalier, a doctor who conned Haiti’s rural, uneducated masses into believing he was himself a powerful vodou spirit. His con job, backed up by a dangerous and monipresent militia-security force, the Macoutes, outlived him. When Duvalier’s son and successor, Jean-Claude, was overthrown in 1986, a mob destroyed the mausoleum, leaving only an unmarked, knee-high covering of white stucco on the dirty ground.
Earthquake victims are buried in a surprisingly small mausoleum, originally built in 1990 as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or some such, holding hundreds of unknown Haitians.
Vodou shrines are scattered here and there throughout the cemetery– mostly at crossroads, which are seen as places of power. A goat’s skull, consecrated and showered with an offering of beans and rice. An old woman standing next to a sacred fire, offering blessings for a few gourdes. Wall shrines with the skeletal images of Bawon Samedi and Grann Brijit — the “father” and “mother” of the vodou pantheon– and the sinister shit disturber Bawon Kriminel painted on whitewashed walls. In the painting of Bawon Samedi and Grann Brijit, a banner above the dancing couple reads “Bonne fête à tous les morts.” Happy Death-Day. Happy Death-Day indeed. Death is not an object of deference here, more a silent companion. A quote from the French writer Victor Hugo is painted on the wall of the cemetery. It ends, “That which we think is the end is only the beginning.”
TO BE CONTINUED