Monday, January 24, 2011

Haiti: Tent Cities

The tent cities are everywhere. They crowd into any accessible open space: fields, nature strips, public parks, anywhere. There’s a large park by a cathedral in the center of wealthy Pétionville, and the tent city that now crowds every inch of it emphasizes all the more plainly the chasm between Haiti’s rich and poor. The center of downtown Port-Au-Prince had many of the older and lovelier buildings in the city, including some stately public buildings like the now famously crumbled Presidential Palace and the national museum. These last two especially are ringed with broad avenues, spreading parks, and several large circular intersections with monuments in the middle (think of l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris). The parks and gardens used to be well tended and green, with lush trees and flowers and flowing fountains. Rousevelt told me it used to be the most beautiful place in Haiti.

Now, of course, the parks and plazas are a crowded labyrinth of tents and shanty-shacks, and the trees are watered by wash water. Some flowers still bloom, but generally other smells overwhelm their fragrance: smoke from cooking fires, food being prepared, exhaust, unwashed bodies, garbage, and sewage. The fountains are dry. Water flows instead from a row of taps springing from the occasional Oxfam or Red Cross water tank system, where people us wash themselves, their clothes, their dishes, and anything else. One child I saw had covered himself with soap and was sliding around on his belly on the wet pavement, having a ball. The NGO-built latrines are unmistakable. They come in banks of four or five, all in a row, identical and probably inadequate. The camp president guided us through this tent city, which is a very good thing: The boys and I would definitely have gotten lost on our own.

The shanties have their own kind of beauty, or at least visual interest. The collage of chicken wire and faded paint on wood with corrugated metal and lace curtains is strangely compelling. Residents make concerted home improvement efforts even to their tarps and tents. They scallop the edges of the plastic sheeting that forms their roof and cut elaborate and decorative window shapes into the walls of their tents. These window shapes are inspired by the wrought iron windows and gates that are so much a part of Haitian architecture.

I stayed for nearly two weeks in my own tent, in the yard of a house that is surrounded by two tent cities (see “where I stayed”). The sense of community seemed very strong in this neighborhood, perhaps because people live in such close proximity to one another. Of course I was homesick, but even as a foreigner I wasn’t exactly lonely. I was always aware of the people around me, and could usually tell what they were doing. It’s quite a contrast to the private isolation in which most New Yorkers live: I can’t imagine these neighbors not knowing one another. The structures are so open that all sounds carry easily: if a church is holding services, everyone in the neighborhood can (and often does) sing along with the hymns. Even in the relative privacy of my tent, my senses were full of the sounds and smells of people living. I woke at sunrise to the sound of roosters, footsteps on gravel, and other sounds of people waking up and moving around. I heard pots being lifted and set down, and people’s voices as they greeted each other.

The camp was busy but quiet in the mid-to-late afternoon. The sounds of hammering, chickens making a ruckus, and kids shouting sifted through a continual murmur of voices. I would hear someone dumping out the wash water and a diesel engine roaring on the other side of the small valley, it’s sound strangely muted by the distance (I could usually hear its suspension, too, and even its cargo bouncing around in the back). The ground is packed so hard it’s like clay, and it’s full of rocks. Everything is the color of light yellowy taupe and cement, and gray and blue from the tarps. There’s dust everywhere, and a purplish-gray haze of dust, smoke, and air pollution over everything. People seem to eat two meals a day (one in the morning, and one in the late afternoon), and I could smell chicken cooking in preparation. Behind the food smells, the air would be thick with the smell of open fires in every household burning whatever is at hand.

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