An interview cancelled on me at the last minute yesterday and I had two hours to kill.
I grabbed the chance to take a walk by some of my old haunts, in front of the Holiday Inn where I spent nights on the balcony hunkered down recording the firefights outside; past the now destroyed Palace Hotel, where I spent my first nights in Haiti wondering why the lights wouldn’t work (the answer was there was no electricity); and along rue Capois, past the also demolished French Embassy, the Museum of Haitian Art and up towards the Oloffson, the legendary old gingerbread hotel featured in Graham Green’s novel The Comedians.
That mid afternoon stroll reminded me of a fascinating thing about Haiti; people look you in the eye. In most countries people are petrified to look at a stranger. Here they engage you, hold your gaze, almost willing you to say something.
Kids will often make a comment, or smile. I’m sure that’s because I am white. I obviously stand out in this overwhelmingly black nation. But it’s not just that I am white, it’s also that I am walking. In Haiti, to be white is to be rich and to be rich is to stay off the streets, away from the heat, the poverty, the dust and the danger.
Many of the foreigners who live here now don’t walk. Some are not even allowed to walk. Their NGO bosses forbid them because they think it’s too dangerous.
I think they’re missing out on a fundamental part of Haiti. OK, there are rarely any pavements and when there are they are covered in vendors or cars or smouldering garbage. It’s mercilessly hot. It’s painfully noisy. And there’s that lingering smell of dust, exhaust fumes and garbage.
But it’s eye-wateringly fascinating and getting in among it is vital if you want to properly understand the country and its people.
I love walking in Port-au-Prince and one of the reasons is that you never know what’s going to happen.
As I walked along rue Capois yesterday, a small kid came up to me and held out his hand looking for money. I smiled and slapped his hand in a high five (or low five in this case). I kept on walking but held out my palm behind me for him to give me a low five back. Instead, he grabbed my hand and started to walk along beside me.
I ruffled his hair and told him I didn’t have anything for him and we both smiled and he ran back to where he was standing. I can’t imagine that happening anywhere else.
A few blocks further on, there were two guys sitting alongside a truck parked on the pavement. They were wearing purple robes and shaking maracas. One had two razor blades in his mouth that he kept flicking out with his tongue. The other had a pile of broken glass in front of him. I had no idea what they were doing. I gestured if I could take their picture and they nodded yes (see the pic above).
Some of the things you come across on Haiti’s streets are pretty memorable. Yesterday’s walk reminded me of an old saying that I thought summed up the mystery of the country just perfectly.
“When in Haiti, believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.”