Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hot and Heavy

The first thing my sister asked me when I got back: what it as hot as Haiti down there? Definitionally yes, since Haiti must be and can only be as hot as itself, but actually no, it was quite a bit cooler in Port-au-Prince than it has been over the last few weeks in say, New York or Washington. (Hot as Haiti was my grandmother’s favorite climatic expression. There were few times in the dog days of summer when it wasn’t ‘as hot as Haiti out there.’) Her second question was if I had met Wyclef Jean – to which all I had was that Bill Clinton was staying at the same hotel I was.

But what Haiti lacked in heat it made up in heavy. Haiti is a heavy country. A year and a half ago, and estimated 200,000 people were killed in the earthquake. This is the percentage equivalent of the United States losing the entire state of Arizona, or the combined population of Chicago and Los Angeles, at one time. Nearly all those were in a tightly packed section of six communes around the capital. The hotel where I stayed was in the process of being re-built after collapsing and killing 200 staff and guests. In addition, the country has been plagued with gang violence, multiple cholera epidemics, and almost statistically impossible levels of unemployment. Driving to work on morning, what the driver calls a ‘fight’ in the street is actually one guy standing there screaming at another while pointing a gun at his head. (Not to ruin the ambiance set up by the previous paragraph, but really? What could this guy have possibly done to you to piss you off that much at 9 am? Neither of you even own cars.)

But despite all the above, it is not a miserable country. It looks a lot like West Africa, which in its own way is frightening since I like to reason that one of the causes of poverty in West Africa is its remoteness, whereas from Port-au-Prince, I can get to Miami in less than two hours on American Airlines. But like a little green sprout growing in a lava field, life finds a way. And that is what Haiti feels like – healthy skin growing back over a bad scar. And like everywhere in the world, it is not immune to me stumbling through and inadvertently offending the populace. Like the morning where I got lost on my run and ended up in the middle of a displaced persons camp. Tank top, running shorts, no wallet or cell phone, standing there soaked in sweat among the tents, slightly goggle-eyed and mumbling ‘shit shit shit’ under my breath. They were nice about it – knew where I came from – and pointed me back.

Or the day that my official World Bank vehicle got pulled over for ‘illicit window tinting.’ (In a law dating back to the bad old days when kidnapping was rife, you need official permission for window tinting. Apparently it is harder to make a clean getaway through Port-au-Prince traffic with an MP’s wife screaming in your back seat if you don’t have tinting.) In any case, the cops (mounted on ATVs) pulled us over and used nails to scrap off the aftermarket tint while the driver went thermal on the sidewalk. I know I was only making the situation worse because I couldn’t stop giggling.

Or my absolute inability to grasp the concept of the Haitian dollar. I am not sure I have the story completely straight, but this is how it was explained to me (feel free to jump in and correct me on this if I am bit fuzzy on the details) : once upon a time Haiti had a currency (called the Haitian dollar) that was pegged 1:1 to the US dollar. But, as all good little MPA/IDs know, in order to maintain your peg, you need foreign currency reserves. And when those run out – that’s it for your peg. So Haiti ran out as some point, and had to float the currency. To make this more palatable, the government issued a new currency - ‘gourdes’ – at a rate of five gourdes to the old Haiti dollar. But people still liked the Haiti dollar, and even though it doesn’t exist anymore, they still generally post prices in it. But now it is no longer pegged to the US dollar and now hovers somewhere in the ~1.6 range. I have no proof that this whole elaborate system was just set up to rip me off of cigarettes, but I feel my circumstantial case is strong.

So that’s my five paragraph overview of 11 days in Haiti. It is most definitely *not* the worst place on earth – I am looking at you Choum, Mauritania. And now, after less than 48 hours in the US, I am in Ethiopia – on the third continent of my four continents in eight weeks summer 2011 tour.


Carol Curran said...

Go Kristen!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. My dad used to work in Haiti back in the early to mid 70's. Doesn't sound like much has changed.

Zaraszkonetis said...

I've never been to Choum, but my vote for worst place on earth goes to Dadaab refugee camp in Eastern Kenya 80 kms from the Somali border...(truth be told I've never been there, which discredits my argument a bit. But here's my justification -- I have been to the neighborhood (Dertu, 140 km from the Somali border), and I have been to the previously world's largest refugee camp (Kakuma, in NW Kenya), and combining my experience in both places (Dertu: hotter than Haiti, nothing but sand, heat, thorns, and camels; Kakuma: squalor, hopelessness, and overcrowding), I think we get the world's worst destination)...

JM said...

I couldn't agree more. I've been to both Choum and Port au Prince, and Choum wins, hands down.