Few foreigners resided permanently in Port-au-Prince when I lived there from 1993 to 1995. There were four or five full-time journalists, numerous priests and pastors (few of whom I saw, much less knew), and the odd aid worker.
That changed when the UN Human Rights Mission came into town and scores of young and eager diplomats arrived.
But still, those numbers pale into insignificance compared to the thousands of foreigners, largely aid workers, who are living in Haiti today.
Whole industries and businesses have been built on ensuring their lives are less Haitian and more comfortable. There is a lot of resentment over what they are doing (or not doing) and how much they are getting paid for it.
Back in the 1990s, Port-au-Prince was in my mind divided into two parts. The downtown area was distinct from the rest. It was the political and commercial area, where the shops and businesses were, and where the embassies and parliament were, too. It was a manic cacophony of sound and fury by day and deadly silent by night.
Up the hill in the cooler air, away from the chaos, the slums and the garbage that washed down the mountainsides when it rained, was Petionville.
Petionville was where the rich stayed and it was much more sedate. There was one road up to the main plaza, with its Caribbean style hotel and old church, and another road down. Both of them were lined with restaurants and art galleries.
Today, the situation has been inverted. Petionville is unrecognizable from the quiet relation it once was. The downtown area was among the worst hit in the earthquake and so businesses and incoming NGOs have set up shop in Petionville. (Apparently the exodus began a few years earlier when crime and insecurity hit their peak, sending merchants fleeing.)
Now, Petionville is every bit as bustling and chaotic as the downtown was. The streets in and out are jammed with traffic. There are stores on every corner. Gyms, supermarkets, patisseries, and beauty salons proliferate. Much of the commerce has sprung up to meet the needs of the NGOs and their workforce.
Traffic was so bad today that I had to take a mototaxi to one interview. The driver said he was the first blan, or foreigner, he’d ever given a ride to. The sun was merciless and needless to say there were no helmets.
The ride took five minutes but it was hair raising and my Creole came flooding back to me. Or at least one word did. Dousman, Dousman, I shouted in the driver’s ear as he revved away from one stalled traffic jam after another. Slowly, slowly.
Not a word you’d associate with today’s Petionville.