Boarding our direct flight to Port Au Prince (with its name “Big Blue Bus” emblazoned on the nose) I was looking forward to the trip, and hoping that our new crew we’re ready for it. The flight was filled with a mix of Haitians returning home, and a couple of other groups heading down to run clinics in remote mountain areas, and install solar energy systems. As the plane began its decent I glimpsed the familiar scenery: the Turks and Caicos islands with their luxury resorts seemingly a stone’s throw from the deforested and desolate landscape of Haiti.
In the terminal a local band was playing a catchy tune, and I felt excited to be back. The warm air was a welcome after the long New England winter and not so warm spring!
We were met by Stephenson, the driver (and much more) from UMass Haiti development studies center. Stephenson smoothed our way through the throng of men trying to pick up passengers, one “Mr Big” (I kid not, he had a nametag!) being particularly insistent. I remember my rising fear on previous arrivals to Haiti, and Peru. I reminded myself that these are just people trying to make a living, and walked out in to the even more chaotic parking lot following our friend to the waiting mini-van. I could sense that our group had mixed feelings, but they all kept a stiff upper lip and soon we were on our way.
Into the chaos of PaP with its bustling streets packed with colorful market stalls –or what passes for stalls – but this is not your hipster farmers market. Fruit, old clothes, vehicle parts, roasting meat, live chickens, broken stuff of every description occupied every surface. All of it for sale. Dogs running around, pigs and goats cooling off in the open stream/sewage channels choked with trash. But beneath it all a kind of order and ordinariness could be discerned. Something I hadn’t noticed at all on my first arrival last summer. This is life here, and the people going about their business were clean and clad in clean clothes, they had nicer haircuts than me (although that’s a low bar!). Teenagers chatted with friends, boys gave girls rides on mopeds. The sense of threat and menace that had surrounded me last time was absent. I saw carpenters making doors and chairs, using traditional tools just like my dad, in their open-air workshops.
Mechanics fixing cars so wrecked that it was hard to imagine bothering to try. Probably risking their health constantly for lack of proper tools or safety equipment. How do you even get a tire off the rim with no power tools? A large group sat on the ground weaving baskets, hats, but no time to stop and buy any today.
We all noticed the sole foreign business – an improbable Mercedes dealership, and the nearby fortified UN compound –whose own website says they will not leave the compound under any circumstances – without armored cars and soldiers – makes me wonder if they’re exactly on the pulse of the nation.
As we progressed into the countryside we saw a lot of construction. Always rough cinderblock structures, most with the appearance of having been abandoned halfway through. From work on my own house I could recognize the often frustrating gap between the initial vision and how the job actually goes. I wondered about the families that had imagined moving into a new home. Are they still waiting? Did they move away? Will someone return one day and keep building?
Spectacular views crossing the mountains and rounding the coast. Frequent slow downs for villages where it was always market time.
Eventually after 5 or so hours the bus lurched and bumped its way into Le Cayes. A jubilant reunion with our friends at the center. A very different feeling from my arrival a year ago when I had closed the door to our room and told my wife Christine we’d obviously be leaving at first light next day. Luckily we didn’t, and ended up finding a wonderful city, despite its obvious challenges, and many new friends. Its only a week and no one has easy solutions to Haiti’s problems. I hope the UMass Lowell students spread the word about Haiti, and continue to build the friendship between our countries.