Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Day One in Haiti - Port-au-Prince

Adam and I have decided to keep a fairly detailed account of our trip to Haiti. We will write each day and post updates when we have internet access. Since we will be experiencing so much in the next two weeks, we figured we would post it as it happens, rather than try to summarize the entire trip for our family and friends. Just to warn you, we both take turns writing this and often switch writers in mid-paragraph, so you might get confused as to which “I” we are meaning (this is Karen right now). We’re also hoping to include some pictures and videos, but the majority of those will probably be shared when we get home. Enjoy!

After an uneventful flight on Air France, complete with a much-needed nap for both of us, we arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. As we walked off the plane, a five-piece island band greeted us – we were very excited. After trying to figure out the French/Creole form for immigration, we discovered that we had filled out the wrong side. Sure enough, when we flipped it over there were also instructions in English! We were one of the first off the plane, but the last through immigration because of it, but that’s okay because we had plenty of time to wait for our baggage. There were about three flights arriving at the same time, two baggage carousels turning without any luggage on them, and one door where employees were making a line of baggage. After taking turns walking back and forth between all of the possible baggage areas, we finally were able to find our flight’s luggage. Keep in mind that nothing is really posted as to which flight is assigned to which carousel, so there were a lot of confused people. We easily found our bags, strapped on our backpacks and headed out. We went through customs, but hadn’t received a form to fill out, so the guard just waved us through. Even before leaving the customs room, we were immediately asked by a man if we needed a taxi. Our hotel had mentioned they were only two minutes away from the airport and we had a map, so we had been tentatively planning on walking, but during our indecisiveness, the man just had us follow him and we decided we might as well get to our first destination quickly. Boy, are we glad we did! As soon as we walked out of the airport, we had to walk through at least 50 other taxi drivers offering their services. On top of that, on the wall outside of the airport, a huge group of locals were waiting to observe all of the goings on at the airport. We had a hard time maneuvering the parking lot, so it was a smart idea to get a taxi since the roads aren’t exactly clear to understand (our map would have been pointless and we would have been lost).

We were dropped off at a private taxi that Julma was driving. While public taxis cost about $0.75 a trip, private taxis start off at $20 one-way. This was after Adam haggled them down from $25, but he wouldn’t budge from $20. And to be honest, what can we do? There’s no way we can get around on our own and we certainly don’t understand the bus and public taxi routes, so we have learned to kiss our Andrew Jacksons away fairly quickly. Julma was immediately impressed by Adam’s Creole and shocked to hear that this was his first time in Haiti. I was able to show off the few things I know by asking him the time and how old he was (he just turned 58 in August, but he looks like he’s in his early 40s!). As we drove through the maze of roads that makes up Port-au-Prince, we were again very grateful we weren’t walking. The main roads are paved and have 2-3 lanes of traffic. I use the term lane loosely because nobody seems to stay on a designated route on the road. Taxis, buses, and tap-taps (small trucks with very limited covered seating/standing room) weave in and out and all around. Pedestrians and stray dogs do their best to avoid being hit. The horn is a very useful driving tool here. It is used to let pedestrians know they’re in the way, large trucks and buses that they’re driving too slowly, and to say hello to your cousin. Julma explained that very few accidents happen here because everybody hates when the flow of traffic has to go around a big accident. I would be surprised if drivers even stop if they hit each other and both cars can still drive.

Speaking of cars, our “taxi” is actually a jerky manual transmission diesel engine SUV of some sort without any seatbelts in the back seat and a speedometer that is pegged at 5mph. The ride is fair considering the massive potholes the size of wading pools and constant dodging of the car or pedestrian who cuts out into traffic. The driver also had to watch out for the hogs, goats, and chickens that occasionally cross the road (and yes, we made jokes to each other about why it was crossing). When we finally reached our hotel, our driver honked loud and long for the security gate to open up. The Palm Inn Hotel is basically a compound, but a very nice, pretty, relaxing one, complete with swimming pool, hammock, restaurant, and baby foot (we’re not quite sure what that is either, but it’s listed under their amenities on the website, so we figure it’s gotta be pretty good!). We paid for our room (they charged us $20 more than was listed on their website…again with the Andrew Jacksons), dropped off our backpacks, and hopped right back into Julma’s taxi so we could exchange our money and have something other than $20 bills.

After another bumpy ride, we made it to a bank. Once inside, we were scanned with a metal detector and Julma led us straight to the counter, past about 25 Haitians that were already waiting in line. The woman at the counter curtly told us where the line began and we got there! We hadn’t really wanted to jump ahead, but unfortunately Haitian culture still tends to privilege lighter skin. We’re glad the bank lady treated us as equals. So far, I’ve seen only four other white people in Port-au-Prince (and three were in a passing taxi), not counting the strong UN presence that is in the city. At the bank, there were two UN peacekeepers from Brazil and a truck with their colleagues waiting in the parking lot. After waiting in line for 15 minutes, making minimal progress, Julma got tired of waiting and had us go next door to another bank (he explained that they are the same bank, just with different names, but we still have no idea how that all worked). Adam was able to quickly exchange some of our money after very little wait and we headed once again to our hotel. The ironic thing about exchanging our US dollars to Haitian gourdes is that everyone is asking us to pay in US dollars and quoting US prices. We downloaded a currency converter application for our iPod to prevent any “misunderstandings” with the exchange.

We decided to try out our hotel’s restaurant for lunch since we hadn’t eaten since 7 AM. It’s an outdoor veranda with beautiful scenery and no one in sight. That’s right. We’re pretty sure we were the only ones checked into the hotel (although we think more have arrived now). We were slightly disappointed to see the menu items and their lack of authentic Haitian dishes and even more sad to see the prices. But, we ARE at a hotel and one thing seems to be universal with hotels – overcharge. We both ordered club sandwiches, which consisted of four layers of Always Save white bread slices, fried egg, bacon, tomatoes, lettuce, ham, and slathered in Haitian ketchup (it’s much sweeter than American). We practically had to disengage our jaw to get even one bite of this stacked sandwich. When we were finished, we got overcharged for lunch (we hadn’t downloaded our handy currency exchange app yet, so we figured out after we got back to our room).

Since we’re leaving Port-au-Prince tomorrow, we wanted to take advantage of the afternoon and see the historical sites of Port-au-Prince. After a failed attempt to get a hold of a guide that Adam’s old mission companion recommended, we decided to cough up the Jacksons and call our new friend Julma to take us around. He was able to not only maneuver the roads, but also pointed out different places of interest and would stop in the middle of the road for us to hop out and take pictures. While we normally like to take our time to explore, we quickly learned to jump out, snap a picture, and hop back in. At the National Cathedral (our first stop), we had a couple people come up and speak quickly in Creole (Adam later translated what they were saying to me – “Give me food or money instead of pictures”), but because I didn’t understand I just learned to sadly ignore them and jump back in the car. Our grand tour included the Palais National (the Haitian White House) and several statues of significant figures in Haitian history. Our driver was also quick to point out buildings and other projects that former President Aristide started but did not finish (Julma wasn’t a big fan of Aristide and was glad to see him ousted from power in 2004). Our tour also took us through several neighborhoods, many of them in various stages of decay. We do need to remember that Haiti is a 3rd world country so seeing things like people bathing on the side of the road and piles of refuse in the street are to be expected. My visions of what I thought Haiti would look like and what I’ve seen today are different. They aren’t drastically different, but it just makes me sad to see how so many Haitians live in such difficult circumstances. The sewage in the streets and hogs near our hotel really took Karen by surprise too.

Since we got back earlier than expected and didn’t really know where else to go or want to pay the extra money to go anywhere else, we decided to do what we do best. Nap. The weather here is perfect and in the upper 80s, so we decided to take advantage of Palm Inn’s hammock and sleep the rest of the afternoon away. Sadly, that was not in the cards. Adam got in the hammock first, which immediately lowered to about three inches above the ground. After I climbed in, we had to carefully situate ourselves to get comfortable, which never really happened. Add to that hungry mosquitoes and we decided we’d stick with our bed in our room. That meant having to get out of the hammock, which was another ordeal in its own right. Still, we managed to get a good two-hour nap in before heading back to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner.

While the lunch selection had been anything but Haitian, it got a little better at dinner. Adam ordered Shrimp Creole and I got Chicken Creole. It came with rice that was grown just north of here (and the best tasting rice EVER!), French fries, a “salad” (lettuce with carrots grated on top of it), and that same Always Save bread from lunch. Service is always a bit more laidback we’ve discovered in Haiti and our meal took about an hour and a half from when we ordered to when we paid. Since we were in our hotel compound, we had the restaurant all to ourselves…until the cats came. That’s right. As soon as our food came about four stray cats came out of nowhere and began to purr at our feet. For about two seconds it was cute, until they began hissing at each other, starting fights, and starting to climb on my chair (I think they knew that I had no idea what to do around animals, so I became an easy target). Adam tried to rescue me by kicking the chair next to us and stamping his feet, but they just moved away from him and closer to me. Right as I was envisioning these crazy cats fighting at my feet, getting caught in the cross-fire, and having to rush to some Haitian hospital for stitches (yes, I have an active imagination), an employee came to our rescue, stomping at the cats and clapping. That did the trick and I was able to enjoy my chicken without any worry of an angry cat attack.

Since we’re leaving for the bus station at 6 AM tomorrow morning, we had to order our breakfast tonight. French toast with Haitian orange juice – it’s just sitting on our counter waiting for the morning! Our hotel’s website had mentioned specifically that breakfast was included in the price of the room, so we made sure to remind the restaurant of that when we ordered and they went along with it. I have a feeling we may have had to pay for it had we kept our mouths shut. One of the hardest parts about this trip so far is that Adam has to be the sole communicator. Talk about pressure! Normally, we make a pretty good team when it comes to haggling or saving money. It makes it even harder that I made a lot of the reservations and am familiar with what the prices should be and what’s included, but that can be hard to communicate through Adam when everything happens so quickly and in another language. Haggling is also difficult in Haiti because we aren’t completely sure what something should cost. It’s hard to distinguish a price that’s targeted to native Haitians versus White American Tourists. We also know that the people here don’t have a lot of money and we don’t want to be too stingy, but we definitely don’t have the kind of money they think we do! This trip will definitely cost us a lot more than we had originally planned.

That’s been all the excitement for today. We are happy to be here and to experience such a different way of life, but hope that when we travel to Cap Haitien tomorrow we will be able to explore a little more freely (and cheaply). We are definitely looking forward to our time in Jacmel next week where we will be in a much smaller town and working with a school that is just down the block from our hotel!

No comments: