Monday was my first day in Haiti for 16 years and what an experience it was. It felt like everything and nothing has changed.
What was most disconcerting was that I recognized almost nothing. I lived in Port-au-Prince for two years but I could have been coming into a whole different city on that half-hour ride from the airport.
That could be down to my failing memory, but it could also be that the city has changed so radically.
I was surprised how little earthquake damage is visible. I don’t know if that is because most of the worse-hit buildings have been torn down or if it’s because I just haven’t seen enough of the city yet. But I thought it would be worse.
A friend suggested – with typical Haitian black humor – that I never noticed the difference because when I lived there in the early 1990s the city was so dilapidated it already looked like an earthquake had hit it.
What was familiar was the heat and the dust and the chaos. Ninety degrees feels much hotter and the dust seems to form layer upon layer on your skin as the day goes on.
The roads are madness, with more cars and trucks and everyone challenging everyone else in a deadly game of vehicular chicken. I saw two accidents on my first day.
There seems to be much more commerce now, but that’s natural in today’s globalized and commercialized world. Cell phones are everywhere, as are billboards.
Haiti is much more expensive than I thought it would be. The small pension where I am staying is trying to charge me more than it cost for a night in the Sheraton Miami on Saturday. It has a toilet three feet from the bed, with no door between them. Most hotels are full because of an IDB conference here this week.
Apart from that, it feels good to be back. Haitians are some of the sweetest people I have ever met and they remain utterly charming.
I sat on the kerb outside my pension yesterday morning waiting for my ride. Just down the street, three or four people were talking. After about 15 minutes two of them, both young men, walked past me on the other side of the street. They gave me big smiles and a “Bon jour, monsieur!”
It was a beautiful start to my day and a lovely welcome back to my old home.