It’s disconcerting, being a salaried mission co-worker living in Port-au-Prince. I awaken each day to the sound of the air conditioning turning off. I’m well rested and safe. Young women scurry quietly around the lodge making breakfast, wiping down floors and railings. Outside the lodge balcony, I hear the sounds of a rooster here or there, a child cries, workers chant as they walk up and down the mostly paved roads looking for employment opportunities.
Breakfast is delicious. Sometimes it is scrambled eggs with onion and pepper and yummy local spices, lightly toasted bread with grapefruit preserves and freshly sliced mango and melon. Other times it’s perfectly fried pancakes or French toast. The coffee always is hot and ready to drink. You also have a choice of a cool juice and, of course, iced water, Culligan water, the bottled kind that weak-stomached foreigners can consume without digestive worries.
Because I do not have regular transportation, sometimes someone has arranged to pick me up to take me shopping, out on errands or to church. One friend who lives here picked me up and took me out to a coffee shop! Think of Starbucks without the Starbucks brand. Wireless, cute little tables, pastries and a variety of hot and cold drinks.
A wide balcony at the front of the lodge looks out over the upper middle class neighborhood, but the workers who travel through on foot or in beat-up vehicles aren’t so fortunate. There’s an air of frustration among them: the fruit sellers, the bored un- or under-employed. It’s not so safe in the streets, even here.
But it is on my walks and rides around the city that I feel the disconnect. Though there is construction ongoing — Delmas 75 where I am staying and where I will live — is being improved, which means travel by car is often delayed and the flagman we’re accustomed to in the States isn’t working. If you see someone there to direct you, it’s often a passerby or even the guy on the front-end loader moving equipment. It’s catch-as-catch-can around these parts.
But get too far off the main roads and travel is rocky and dusty. Narrow roads connect neighborhoods. Hills are everywhere, steep and difficult to traverse, even in well built, four-wheel-drive trucks. Passengers bounce around while the driver holds on tight to the steering wheels.
Many, many swift and silent prayers are said.
And when I’m not girding myself from being tossed like a ragdoll and can look out the windows, I see that other part of Port-au-Prince, the part you see on the nightly news. The tent camps that arose after the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake are being reduced, but the residents haven’t moved up far. Many thousands now inhabit other camps in ragged homes, poorly built “stick” homes covered with rusted corrugated tin and old tarps.
The houses wear the tired look of overuse, and so do the people.
Dust is everywhere, but yet palm trees blow in the breeze. Point your gaze to the sky and you might be fooled into thinking you’re at the Caribbean resort we Americans are so much more familiar with.
It’s funny, the things I think of when I travel to different parts of this city. In 2002, I traveled to Antigua. As we often do, my friend Kay and I got out of the resort to see the countryside. We saw where most Antiguans live, peering at their small, cement homes located too close to the city streets. And inside, I could see the bright colors of the decorations. I determined then that I would have a Caribbean home — decorating with primary colors and beautiful, bright art. That never happened in the States, but now is my time.
In these camps I drove through on Sunday afternoon, there is a feeling of permanence, as if the residents are settled into this reality. Some of the canopies over the “homes” have been scalloped into a pretty design. Other designs have been cut through the tarps to serve as a window. There is a measure of style even in the deepest poverty.
Such poverty won’t be my reality, but it will never be far from me. The danger will be in how I attune my heart to what I can do to alleviate suffering, and what I will not be able to do. This will be a great challenge for me while I am here.