I woke up earlier than usual, seven am, to catch breakfast at the Inn I’m staying at. My room door opens up straight into the lobby, so I was able to hear them setting up. I awkwardly tried to order breakfast in broken Kreyol-Spanish-English sitting next to a tall, blond, white woman. “My Kreyol is pretty bad. I speak too slow, and they speak too fast,” I said. She laughed and said that she didn’t speak Kreyol either, instead she knows a couple of kreyol words that you uses alongside her broken French, though I noticed that she had an Australian accent (or so I though). This naturally led into a conversation about why we were both here. I told her I was a PhD student from the U.S. interested in Haiti’s environment, climate change, and development efforts. She told me that she worked for Save the Children and that this wasn’t her first time in Haiti. Her job is set up in a way that she stays for two or three weeks in different places around the world. Suddenly her driver came in signaling to her that he was waiting outside, and she went back to her room before leaving the lobby. She looked back and waved and I waved back. A large brown man had walked into the lobby and was waiting for someone before he sat at the communal table. He was wearing a shirt that said “Earth Networks” so I of course had to ask him if that was the company he worked for. This was a talkative man. Upon asking simply, “Is Earth Networks the company you work for?” he replied, “Indeed it is…” and went on to talk about how they were installing some weather monitoring equipment…. to gauge lightening strikes… all in one breath. He didn’t dumb any of it down either. He seemed really into what he does. I asked him where he was based, and he told me Florida, along with other details about his life. He was born in Brooklyn and wondered why his Caribbean Island parents would ever move to a place so cold. I wondered where his parents must have been from, until he finally along the way said that he was Puerto Rican. We talked, though mostly him, about a bunch of different things in a short time window. He doesn’t like taxes, for the only fair taxes to him are sales tax. This is why he loves Florida. He hates the North because they give criminals too many rights…which made me wonder how he might have felt about Trayvon Martin and stand your ground law, but I chose not to ask. One must be careful not to show all of there progressive-radical cards at once. Before leaving, I asked the man and his translator, who had been quiet the whole time on his cell phone, for help getting to the grocery store. The translator directed me to the BIGGEST supermarket in Haiti and off I went.
On the way out, I passed a black couple, from the United States. She had a southern accent and her partner didn’t seem to have any accent, but he spoke Kreyol fluently. I was confused about how to get back in when I came back given the large cement walls and barbed wire enclosing our compound. That is when the security guard appeared out of nowhere and I noticed his small post through a tiny barred window on the other side of the large metal door.
I wanted to cross the street, but I didn’t really know how. An endless stream of cars and motorcycles with passengers kept incessantly up the hill. It is a terribly hard thing to do here. See back in Providence people mostly just step out in the middle of the road and expect the right-of-way. I didn’t get the feeling that that would work here. Everyone waited at length before crossing the road. There aren’t really any street rules here. The intersection just outside of my B and B has lights, but no one pays any attention to them, which leads to three or four cars merging at any given time on an intersection, and people speeding by who don’t want to turn, and the loud honking of horns. I decide to take my chances walking up the road without crossing in hopes that it would calm down up ahead.
I’m self-conscious. I wonder what people see when they look at me. Do they see a foreigner, or just another black man walking down the street. I intentionally packed plain clothes and black shoes, as to not draw attention to myself. People immediately speak Kreyol to me, but that is mostly because that is all that they know.
On the walk up to the grocery store, its around 8:30am, I notice people beginning to set up shop. There are men with red aprons on selling cellphone minutes, women selling fruit, men selling something made from sugar cane… I passed a man that was selling men’s dress shoes. There was a large group of men selling car tires, so I crossed the road, somehow safely. To my left, there was the Spanish embassy. I noticed UN vehicles and other embassy vehicles, noted because of the flag in the windshield window. On my right I passed a bank with men in uniform holding shotguns. I thought to myself, “Where the hell is the biggest supermarket in Haiti, because I don’t know where I’m going.” Reaching the top of the hill, I decided to turn back, and go to the bank with the armed guards. I walked up the hill into the parking lot only to find that this was the supermarket!! A supermarket guarded by men with shotguns. It was a large structure, though far smaller than a Stop and Shop in the United States. I got in line to use the ATM behind a white man wearing a grey shirt, shorts, and sandals. He took a while, which gave me time to look around. A security guard holding a shot gun walked by. That is when I noticed that the gun didn’t have ammunition; the clip was missing. Maybe they keep them unloaded on purpose and load them if they have to, or perhaps they never have ammo and the guns serve there purpose without ever needing to be used. Are the guns to keep people out, or to make those who shop there to feel safe?
As you walk into market, there is a pharmacy to your left, and there are all of the checkout aisles to the right. I immediately notice that all of the workers are black, except for a customer service representative who looks to me to be Latina, or at lease lighter skinned. Everything is priced in Haitian Gourdes. There are security guards speckled throughout the store, only this time without the guns. I immediately head towards the produce, and find a bunch of imported goods from the United States, at least when it came to green leafy vegetables. The same brands that I would find in the United States were present in the market, except they had more. They had stuff from France too. The majority of the stuff in the market was catering to “Westerners,” or “white people,” or people from “the Global North.” There were some Haitians shopping, but there were also people that were clearly not Haitian there too. What I found a little bizarre was that the market only had about 6 people shopping, but only at least triple that working. Perhaps this had to do with the time of day? I grabbed what I needed, some salad, a couple of bags of Kirkland (Costco brand?) almonds, Athenos Hummus, Prestige (Haiti’s only local beer), a couple of bags of chips, a carlton of Silk soy milk, toothpaste and headed to checkout. The woman cashier and her male bagger, weren’t too nice, but I don’t blame them. I’m sure they get sick of some of the people who frequent the shop. I wonder to myself if these working people can even afford to buy groceries from here, Carribean Supermarket. A small carton of soy milk cost $4.70, and my toothpaste cost $4.00, which happened to be the cheapest one. The Crest toothpaste was $10.00, or 470 Haitian Gourdes. This trip to the grocery store cost me more than what it usually cost me at Whole Foods! Damn. There is no way the average Haitian could shop here. Haiti has the lowest per capita income of any nation in the Western hemisphere, at $1,300 a year (by some estimates even lower). I just spent $35 on six items that will last only a day, two at most… Crazy. On the way out, I noticed what appeared to be managers. One of them was a lighter skinned, possibly latino man, and the other an Asian man. Race and ethnicity matters.
On the walk home I tried to pay attention to the physical environment. The side walks were nice and smooth in some places and cracked and uneven in others, dare I say even worse than Providence, ha. More street vendors were out selling food, food I as someone born and raised in the US wouldn’t dare eat. When I got closer to the intersection with my hotel I noticed an empty lot, where a building must have stood at some point, with trash thrown throughout. I still haven’t seen any birds other than the one, I saw yesterday at the airport. There are trees though, despite what I thought before coming to Haiti. The official statistic is that there is about 2% of tree cover left from Haiti’s originally forested landscape. In Petionville, the “suburb” that I’m staying in there are trees though. There are also above ground power lines. This to me indicates that people living in Petionville, which is about 300,000 have another means of energy generation. The typical story of deforestation in Haiti is that trees are cut down for charcoal for energy use, like cooking. Petionville has plenty of power, at least from my experience as a person staying in a bed and breakfast thus far, though an hour ago the power did shut off, but I heard a back up generator kick in. Still I’m trying to conserve…
After taking a lunch break and hanging out for a little while in my room, I decided it was time to go exploring on my own. I’d been hesitant because the man at breakfast was telling me about how he met a guy who hadn’t left the lodge other than to go to work, but since they were both here alone, they could go for a walk together safely. I’d also read things on the internet about abductions and robbery. I’ll admit I feel a bit first worldy. I’ve lived in some places that others in the United States fear for one reason or another, like Richmond, California, or even Central Falls, Rhode Island. Yet, here I am in Haiti with a little trepidation to go outside and walk around. After drinking one of the Haitian beers I bought to mellow my nerves, I decided it was time to face my ignorant American fears and go for a walk around Petionville. Maybe living in those places in the United States provided me with just enough courage to face that which others deem dangerous.
As I headed downstairs, I ran into the owner of the lodge for the first time, she asked where I was going, and I told her to the park. She followed by asking me if I was hungry, because she had a driver going to pick up some food for a customer soon. I told that I wasn't hungry, but she insisted that I take the ride down to the park. I have issues saying no. As I waited for the driver, I thought over and over, formulating my sentence in Haitian as properly as I could, “Mesi bokou, men m’ vle mache deyo a (Thank you very much, but I want to walk outside).” Just then she came out with the driver and told him to take me down on his way to Quarter Latin, the restaurant. In the car, it was much hotter than outside, because his air conditioner was blowing hot air! The trip took a bit longer than expected because he went the wrong way at first, but I eventually found some relief as I exited his old toyota (the kind you see in movies about places like Haiti or Africa). As I got out, I handed him some money, which he didn’t accept readily. As I went to cross the street, he signaled that the restaurant was the other direction. “Mwen pa vle manje (I don’t want to eat),” I said as I walked over to the park Boyer.
Plas Boyè, or Place Boyer was named after the ex-president and founder of Petionville. It is surrounded by people. All of them adults. Walking around the perimeter I passed through a group of younger adults selling some drink out of old hard alcohol containers, as they chatted and listened to Bob Marley blaring out of one of their cars. I’m struck by the amount of people that are just hanging out in the middle of the day, but to my surprise there were no children. Then I realized that what looked to be children’s play equipment, was actually exercise equipment, that NO ONE was interested in using. For a brief moment, I thought about it, but decided to keep on walking. The park had trees, which everyone sat or stood underneath. Haiti has an unbelievably high unemployment rate, some estimates as high as 90%, so its not sooooo surprising that the park was packed with adults midday. In terms of the landscape, this is a park with little to no grass. That is something I’ve noticed elsewhere: there isn’t really any grass in Haiti, for better or for worse.
I didn’t stay at the park long and decided to wander off, while still maintaining a sense of where I was. On this afternoon, as with any I’d imagine, the streets were packed with people selling things. I previously noted seeing people selling cell phone minutes, sugarcane stuff, shoes, belts, but on this walk I saw much more. Every so often you find the same sort of products being sold but by a different person. I walked by street vendors selling electronics, while blasting music out of the speakers they were selling, over and over again. Old books and magazines were being sold on the side of the road too. I spotted some in English and in French, with different titles. One thing stuck out though, the amount of old readers digests, probably from the 1990s and 2000s. There is a gendered element to the street vending phenomenon too. Women were mostly selling food, which there was a lot of, and men were the ones selling electronics and books and shoes. Everything the average Haitian needs on a daily basis, they seem to be getting from these street vendors, hell I even spotted several shoe repairmen working on broken sandals. No jobs means that they must create there own as entrepreneurs.
I was walking underneath this huge tree, when I heard a bizarre sound coming from above. Looking up, I spotted a huge blackbird resembling a crow, but the sound it was making certainly did not. Along the way I spotted a couple of smaller sparrow looking birds, but it still surprises me how little there really are. No doubt, biodiversity is an issue here.
Trekking further around a corner back towards my lodge, I spotted a bridge ahead on a one way street. As I got closer the side walk disappeared. I hesitated, but decided to just go ahead thinking maybe there’d be a river or stream, but there wasn’t. Just a huge river of trash and old debris, encased by concrete walls. Several men were sorting through the trash. Why was there no water here all though there clearly had to be at some point? I have no clue. I decided to go back around to another bridge crossing for another look down the waterless urban gorge. As I got closer I spelled something burning. Something that smelled of carcinogens. Plastic perhaps? That’s when I realized how overworked my lungs felt. I’d been exploring for a little over an hour and my lungs had a bit of burning that I’ve never felt in the polluted urban settings of the U.S. No doubt, air pollution is a problem here.
From the bridge I first spotted three huge pink and black speckled pigs eating something on top of a mound of trash and burnt wood. On the other side, there were goats tied to a couple of old rusty polls. These were urban domesticated animals wading through a stream of trash. A bit further down the road, and on my way back to the lodge, I noticed a stream of water rushing down the street. Petionville sits on the side of a large hill/mountain. Men were washing in it, while others used it to wash cars. The river was in the wrong place. Water, like the Haitian people I’ve observed so far, will always find a way.
Side note: I thought I’d have plenty do some prelim prep while here, but I’m exhausted.