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Haiti 1999

Updated on January 26, 2010

The devastation currently affecting the nation of Haiti is heart wrenching. Thousands of lives were lost within minutes of the powerful earthquake. Countless more people are severely injured and psychologically and emotionally scarred for life. I personally know many Haitians and I have even traveled there in the year 1999. Through the past week or so I have been in contact with some of those people. I have also been searching my memories to recall some images of the places and things I experienced.

Upon arriving at the airport in Port Au Prince ten years ago I immediately became familiar with the similarities of the Caribbean lifestyle which was no different from any other island. It was a bustling environment made up of aggressive baggage handlers and taxi operators. We were getting picked up so that saved us time after getting our luggage as we were quickly on our way out of the airport. As someone new to the environment I couldn't help gawking at everything I saw. I had heard so many stories about Haiti, some true and others far fetched but I came expecting any and everything. The roads were half decent and most cars were fairly modern American, European, and Japanese. What surprised me were the amount of high end SUV's such as Isuzu troopers, Toyota Land Cruisers, and Jeeps. The people who had money obviously had plenty of it and lived in lavish homes in the hills overlooking the city. The dwindling middle class was trying to hang on for their dear lives while the poor were destitute.

Port-Au-Prince was a very overcrowded city at that time and was getting worse. Thousands of people pored in yearly from the countryside to seek opportunity. Many of whom end up living in slums or on the streets. I saw semblances of what used to be affluent neighborhoods with beautifully built homes behind concrete and iron fences. Sadly along some roads outside the gated larger homes squatters built small shacks. It was explained to me that these shacks were built by people who recently came into the city and cannot find places to live. The land along the road is government land so they build their shacks there and it's hard to move them. The problem came about through a spirit of socialism encouraged by former president Jean Bertrand Aristide who stated that all the land of Haiti belongs to the people. The upper class people became increasingly upset with Aristide and began plotting and conspiring on ways to oust him from office. They eventually got him out with foreign intervention mostly by the US who did not like the idea of more socialist regimes within the Americas. Aristide was kicked out but conditions never improved. With over 50,000 people per year flooding into the city from the provinces every year how could it. Open sewers ran along most streets and huge open dumps added to the bad smell and poor sanitary conditions of the down town. Huge pigs roamed the open sewers rummaging for food to eat.

Public transit took the form of modified pick up trucks and mini vans that were well over
loaded. Benches are welded into the backs of these pick-up trucks and a make shift canopy is added over the top. They looked very dangerous to me but most people young and old had no problem cramming into them. People even stood on the bumpers as long as they found a secure place to hang on for a usually bumpy ride. The mini vans were no different in terms of the amount of people willing to cram inside. Most of these buses were elaborately painted with murals on the sides while the backs were reserved for Jesus beautifully painted with flowing blond hair and blue eyes. I have nothing against religion except when it is over done and this was a perfect example for me. I could write a book on why I feel it is psychologically wrong to portray an image that has no similarity to the people all over the place. From what I know about Jesus he was a Middle Eastern Hebrew with bronze skin and curly woolly hair. Europeans re-made him in their image to strengthen their faith. When different cultures adopt Christianity why don't they have a more self representative image of Jesus. I don’t think you can find a blue eyed blond haired Jesus anywhere in Latin cultures.

Haitian culture is very religious with Catholic being the main denomination. There was religious symbolism everywhere. As you walked past many places you could see and hear prayer services going on everyday. With the level of poverty evident the people have no choice but to have faith. My problem with relying on faith alone though means that you accept your bad condition as God's will.

The house I stayed in was a solidly built concrete two story house on a back street. It had
all the fixtures of a modern house except water pressure. At one time there was but in recent years as infrastructure deteriorated the houses along that street lost their water service. The water source was now a single standpipe down the road. Every morning large buckets of water had to be collected and brought up to the house for the daily usage. It sounds bad but after awhile I got used to soaping myself up then scooping smaller buckets of water from one of the big bucket that was kept in the bath room then pouring it over my head to wash off.

Mornings I would go out onto the 2nd floor veranda of the house to watch the activities in the street below. Vendors would regularly pass in the morning heat displaying their wares in baskets on their heads. They would walk the streets for as long as it took to sell their items. There were fresh fruit and vegetables, ground provisions,  bread and baked goods, and even fresh fish and meats. Anything you can go to the market to get you can expect these guys to have available at your door step. School children were my favorite to watch though. They flooded the street everyday decked in colorful uniforms of all combination to represent the schools that they attended. They reminded me of gold fishes the way they were varied and properly composed.

Electricity came and went at will but most people didn't care. Many people had gas powered generators. As soon as the electricity would cut off these noisy beasts would power up like clock work. Most people were respectful at night to turn them off certain hours though. Then kerosene lamps and candles would light up the darkness. At night when I ventured out the streets were almost as busy as the day. Most shops were closed but people still walked about as if they had important places to go. With the amount of people and the lack of lighting I couldn't help thinking that this place should be more violent but it wasn't.

The people were generally very friendly and hospitable. Every home that I went to the people greeted me physically instead of just verbally. Men shook my hand while women young and old gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. That was just the tradition for ages. I do not speak French or Creole but In general I had a great time in Haiti. I went to beaches and visited historical sites steeped in tradition and colonial history. Only afterward did I reflect on the one stereotype that had spooked me the most before I went. Haitians are known to practice witchcraft in the form of voodoo but I saw no evidence of it while I was there. It was explained later that such things are mainly practiced by country folk.

Haitians have been hardened by many hardships so I am certain that they will rebound from this current one. I offer my sincere condolences to the people of Haiti in their hour of tragedy. Gather strength and have faith that the human spirit of kindness and compassion will pull through to provide a helping hand. You are a strong and resilient people.


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