Friday, September 3, 2010

Not Even the President Escaped Devastation

Day 7 continued (Saturday, Aug. 7)

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

I felt a bump. It happened in the blink of an eye. I looked down to find a boy about 12 years old, dark as midnight on a starless night, looking up at me. “Hey, don’t do that,” I said to him in a firm English voice, thinking he was pick-pocketing me. Of course, he probably didn’t understand me, because most Haitians speak Creole. He stood smack dab in the middle of a group of 12 American tourists, bunched tightly, looking about at the rubble around us.

I reached into my zippered pocket, and my cell phone was gone. Our Haitian interpreter, Fred, acted quickly, prodding the boy for answers and trying to scare him into cooperating.

“He doesn’t have it,” someone in our group said. “That kid over there has it,” pointing to a boy 20 yards away in the street, halfway between our side of the street and the other, a large (read thousands) tent city.

Fred, still thinking quickly, pulled out his wallet that contained a fake badge from his days as a security guard. Later, he said he yelled at the boy that he was a policeman and if he ran, he would arrest him. The boy froze, then slowly started inching backward.

It was my turn to act quickly. I sprinted toward him as fast as my 51-year-old, sweating profusely body could go. The boy turned and ran just. All I could think of was to say stop in Spanish. “Alto!” I yelled. The boy dropped my cell phone in the street, and I was never so thankful. Thankful that I got my cell phone back and that I didn’t have to run any more. That 20 yards winded me.

A few minutes later, Fred pulled me aside and told me how lucky I was. “Had you gone another 20 yards, you would have been in the middle of all those Haitians. Had (the boy) screamed out, the Haitians would have come to his rescue.” The implication was that I was a bigger, White American seemingly taking advantage of this scrawny, probably hungry, probably orphaned, Haitian boy with no shoes.

I couldn’t help thinking about those two boys, working in tandem as pickpockets for food, for survival. I immediately thought of “the artful Dodger” in the classic Charles Dickens book “Oliver Twist.”

That was the highlight of our afternoon touring Port-au-Prince. At 11, we left the orphanage, stopped off at the hotel to freshen up and change clothes, and by 2, we were in Haiti’s capital.

Touring Port-au-Prince on our last day in Haiti was our reward for our hard work here and … surviving. One of our guides, Jean, promised us a decent meal at a “safe” restaurant. We stopped there, got out, but the sandwich/pizza/burger joint was tiny, seating perhaps 20 people. We had 25 in our group. The owner was unwilling to let us take over the place and displace his regular customers, so we moved on.

Whenever we stop and get out of the vans, people stop us and ask questions. Who are you? Why are you here? How do you like it here? Some of the Haitians can be downright funny. They laugh and joke with us because … “Why would you come to this?” one of them said. Some of the Haitians were genuine in wanting to chat with us. Sometimes, we realized they were cordial because they wanted money, but most of the time, they were just friendly nationals.

Frankly, Port-au-Prince is disgusting in every sense of the word. Billions of dollars, more money than was donated to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2004, has flooded into Haiti, population 9 million people before the earthquake, yet little has changed in eight months. In a August 22, 2010 article, the Washington Post said 230,000 people have left Port-au-Prince for outlying areas. The story said it is believed that 1.3 million people are living in tents in Haiti. That’s one-tenth of the total population. Everywhere we drove in Port-au-Prince, we saw tent cities. Between the medians on the main thoroughfare, in city parks, on bridges, next to rivers.

Before the January 12 earthquake, Port-au-Prince was home to 2.3 million people. The BBC Network reports that 230,000 people died from the earthquake, and it is believed that tens of thousands are still buried in the rubble. Everywhere we walked, we could smell the stench of dead bodies.

Our church sent teams of people to work in a 55,000 person tent city in Port-au-Prince, and the space it filled was no bigger than a couple of football fields. Allies of maybe 10 feet separated tents that were usually about 10 feet by 10 feet. The next tent was no more than a foot away. As far as the eye could see, blue tents filled your vision. Sometimes, you could see what organization had given the tents away, such as Samaritan’s Purse or the Red Cross.

Walking around the capital, it is hard not to feel deep sympathy for these people. Our group would talk awhile, then feel rage at how this country had gotten to this point. Haiti has been pretty much this way for centuries, mostly because of a corrupt political system. The nation has nearly a 50-percent literacy rate.

Jean and Fred, our interpreters would tell us the background about what we were seeing. Jean pointed out the national stadium, where the national soccer team played before the earthquake. He says he played semi-pro soccer earlier in his life and had played there “once or twice.” We walked past what Jean described as a once beautiful city park that once was a place for families to come and relax on hot evenings or weekends. Now, a mega tent city resides there and no grass can be seen anywhere. The national museum was closed, though not because of rubble. The Presidential Palace was in shambles, as was the national treasury and the national cabinet building, all within a few blocks from each other.

Jean got a kick out of seeing the crumbled treasury building. “We don’t have to pay taxes anymore, because there isn’t anyone to collect them.” He was speaking in jest. Or was he.

A single patrol guard stood near the tattered Presidential Palace, easily as large as the White House. The Post story quoted President Peval as never having walked across the street to talk to people in the mega tent city Champ de Mars. While we were in Leogane, President Clinton traveled to Haiti to represent his nonprofit and make a sizable donation to the cause. Every time we saw a helicopter, we joked that it was Clinton. Even Clinton got out and walked about the rubble. But not the president of Haiti.

The Haitian presidential elections are coming up in the fall. One of the people running is a popular rapper, Wyclef Jean. The joke was that he couldn’t be any worse than Peval, who is described as “distant” by the locals.

As we drove around, most of what we saw was more devastation. We could see green hillsides in the distance, and our interpreters said there were still pockets of Port-au-Prince that remained undamaged, mostly homes of the affluent. Our interpreters described the aristocracy as being mostly uncaring about the poverty around them.

We saw lot of big homes hiding behind sturdy gates and tall walls, keeping them away from the population around them. The rich speak French, considered more proper than the pauper Creole.

Our interpreters said the displaced include many of the rich. Jean said he knew of doctors, lawyers and businessmen who live in the tent cities because their homes and business crumbled in the earthquake, and they have nowhere to go. (Jean himself lost his teaching job in Leogane, because the school was destroyed by the earthquake.)

By mid-afternoon, we made it to our destination: MacEpis, a wannabe Haitian McDonald’s. One half of the roughly 2,000-square foot restaurant was reserved for ice cream and desserts, with the other half for hamburgers, fries and sodas. All week long, I had craved a cheeseburger, so I ordered a … cheeseburger, fries and a Coke. After waiting a good half hour, my beloved burger finally arrived, with bacon and cheese.

This truly was a sad day. I nearly cried. The burger was awful, easily the worst hamburger I’ve ever eaten. The bacon was chewy and unedible. The French fries, though, weren’t bad. A Coke is a Coke, even in Haiti. We were told it was safe to drink the carbonated drinks here because the restaurant has a good reputation. (It was safe, as the guards outside carried scatter guns.) In other words, the water was safe. I got a tiny scoop of ice cream for dessert, but it wasn’t the same as Haagen Dazs.

I left with a full stomach, but with memories of more bad food. I refused to claim this as my burger fix. I would have to wait until Miami 24 hours later for that luxury. Ugh.

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