Imagine Wilkinsburg. Now imagine somebody carpet bombed it. And there's some bouganvilla. That's Port-au-Prince. Really. Holy Mother of God. It's funny what you don't know you don't know. I thought I might be vaguely familiar with Haiti, since I've studied it on and off for a few years. I didn't know shit about shit, as they say.
Rubble. Trash. Slap-shod homemade concrete mortar and cement block walls covered in rusty razor wire. The rust looks like old blood. Dust, choking dust. People, so many people, walking with huge plastic tubs on their heads, looking tired. Many, many women and small children selling sketchy looking fruit, or strangely twisted bread, or small pieces of candy, or plastic strainers, or old shoes. Men in dress shirts and trousers, standing idle on the sidewalk or playing cards or walking. A long, jolting bus ride from Port-au-Prince through Petionville, up the mountains.
So much rubble. So much trash. everywhere, choking the flowers that try to fight up between the cracks. A hog. A huge, black hairy hog, the size of a love seat, rooting in the discards among the concrete boulders and mini boulders and bowling ball-sized boulders that form the ground. Her timoun-- her children, rooting nearby. Roosters and chickens and chicks, all over the place. A young cow, tethered to a post. The rumbling of the bus, rolling like a boat, pitching violently as if it was in the middle of a choppy ocean.
Haiti initially seemed to me, and still does as of Day 1- today-- like the moon, or a place so foreign and upside down that traveling across the country is like sailing a violent sea. The dust is in your throat and you start to wheeze. You are in the back of giant bus with the windows down with all your stuff and your beautiful Haitian translator, and you want to be happy to be here at last-- and you are-- but you are in shock.
Holy crap. Is that a baby on the front of a motorcycle, balancing between her father's legs? Why are all of these people crowding around that crazy looking stage, backed with plywood and plastered in graffitti? There is a building, pancaked, the heavy ceiling still suffocating the floor. There's another-- there are more of these than not. Most buildings seem half-constructed, yet there are people in them.
Our translator points to mountains, far off and to the right. "Where we are going!" he announces. It seems far, far away.
As we climb the mountain in the little bus, the air begins to clear. The houses begin to coalesce and become more whole, although the amount of glinty sharp razor wire seems to increase on fences. There are stone fences now, topped with half-shattered soda bottles. They look lethal. The road becomes paved for a moment. We gasp when we see a sidewalk for the first time. Our translator tells us that the rich people live here. It is obvious that the higher you climb the better you live.
We are in Petionville. I look around, having learned that this was a well-to-do neighborhood, and the home of the golf course-turned-tent village that Sean Penn lived in. My travelling companions, a doctor, three nurses, a business woman, a rabbi, two English as a Second Learner teachers and two artists-- of which I am counting myself as one-- argue over how to pronounce it. "Petion-ville" and "pet-i-on-ville" are both accepted. Massive coconut trees and banana trees hang with fruit. A tangled barbed wire fence has been overtaken by a red mandevilla, yellow throated. Sometimes the smell of jasmine flirts and then is gone.
A huge black cloud threatens and the light fades fast. We are all longing to get to the mission-- we are so tired, and all of this Haitian reality combines with fatigue is not incredibly fun. Finally we take a sharp right down what seems like a cliff. We are facing a massive gate, but we don't pay much attention to it because a man with the biggest gun I have ever seen guards it. It reaches from his collar bone to his feet. Razor wire marks the high cement block walls around a building. The guard smiles, opens the gate and pulls in.
Leon Pamphile, the Haitian Pittsburgher who began Functioning Literacy Ministries, turns around in his bus seat. He smiles. "You are home," he says. "Welcome."