Monday, January 24, 2011

Haiti: Port-Au-Prince and Pétionville

Like LA, its first world sister in poor air quality, Port-Au-Prince sits at the bottom of a half-bowl formed by mountains in close proximity to the sea. The city feels bigger than it is because it takes so long to get from one place to another (awful roads combined with dense and unruly traffic). Chickens and goats wander everywhere and are especially thick in the residential neighborhoods. Both are used mainly for meat.

Port-Au-Prince is a bizarre combination of visual monotony and shocking contrast. Everywhere you see collapsed houses and piles of rubble that have not been touched since the earthquake. Next to such a house, you may very well see a newly re-built mansion. Next to either, a shack constructed of tarps and tin that houses five people. The discontinuity almost becomes monotonous. Until your eyes adjust and you learn how to look, every street looks the same. This is doubly true in residential areas with no houses, collapsed or otherwise: just street after street, dusty and rocky, lined with Shelter-Boxes and tents and endless endless tarps.* For me, at least, three weeks was barely long enough to start to remember particular locations. Even then my mental map is little more than a series of street corners I’ve somehow learned to identify; a particular row of tents next to a curved white concrete wall, a place that sells tires wrapped in strips of shiny Mylar paper, a fork in the road just before it becomes paved.

Inland from Port-Au-Prince on the foothill slopes of the mountains sits the wealthier suburb known as Pétionville. I first went to Pétionville on my third day in Haiti, up until which point I’d seen only tent cities. The incredible contrast was disorienting. Though it’s obvious that Pétionville is in a developing country, it is in much better shape than Port-Au-Prince. There are fully paved roads with working traffic signals, prosperous markets, even luxury stores and an American style supermarket complete with Pepperidge Farm cookies. There are also a lot of walled mansions on quiet, tree-lined streets. This is where the majority of Haiti’s elite live. Because its infrastructure is so much better, it’s also where most of the international NGOs have their offices.

Roughly half the vehicles that clog the streets are tap-taps (see “where I stayed”), very beat up private vehicles, or larger busses nicknamed “Obamas” because they appeared in Port-Au-Prince around the same time President Obama was sworn into office. A staggering number of white four-wheel drives sporting various NGO logo comprise the rest of the traffic. I started keeping lists of NGOs whose logos I spotted in Haiti, and whether I saw them on a truck, on a building, or on a tarp or a tent. Though all three lists are too long to transcribe, I saw all the names you’d expect to see,** plus a few surprises: I was delighted to see Islamic Relief Services and the Tai Chi Federation of Taiwan, and I also saw donations of supplies from Rotary International and a number of different governments. And then, of course, there’s the UN. The UN in its various incarnations probably has as many vehicles in Port-Au-Prince and Pétionville as all the international NGOs combined. In my goofier moments I imagined creating a bingo board with all the NGO and UN agency acronyms. I could send it down with future volunteers: when you see the logo you check it off, and whoever gets five in a row wins. Given that the winners in this agency fun-fest are supposed to be the Haitian people, however, Bingo is a bit tacky.

*After a while you can start to identify the donating organization by the color of the tarp: light royal blue is Samaritans’ Purse, gray with darker gray stripes is USAID, and tan tents are from the Brasilian Civil Defense, while cerulean blue tents are from the People’s Republic of China. The rest are mostly plain gray and dusty white at this point, regardless of logo.

**Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders), Red Cross, International Rescue Committee, World Vision, Save The Children, CARE, Catholic Relief Services, PLAN, AmeriCares, and a host of smaller organizations

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