I arrived in Port-au-Prince on an overcast day, and so, the ocean mirrored the sky's light grey-blue hues, not the vivid Caribbean blue of tourist brochures. Some of Haiti's problems are clearly visible from the air. The bare earth and the rusty coloured inland waters are signs of deforestation and of landslides. I can well imagine that the floods caused by hurricane Gustav's onslaught over the past few days will have washed away a lot of precious top-soil, and polluted some of the fresh water sources with the blood of the land.
The moment I landed, I knew I was in a developing country. No question. The airport is a collection of rusted outbuildings, with a no-frills, concrete arrivals terminal. Stepping off the plane I was met by the moist heat – with temperatures in the high 80's and humidity in the 90's, the atmosphere wasn't sticky, it was wet. Inhaling, my nostrils filled with hot air, and the aroma of wood smoke. This was so familiar from my time in Africa that I felt I had come home.
The pass angers were inside the airport for over two hours, waiting for luggage that didn't arrive but 'would be on the next flight, due to arrive in 10 minutes.., the flight after that; 15 minutes... soon.' It was absolute chaos, in the unlit interior, sans air conditioning, with an increasing volume of luggage that had been destined for other cities, in other countries, and a growing swarm of travellers. Most of the people on the flights were Haitian nationals. Among them were a few missionaries, and a nun here an there. Next to me, there was a Brazilian man, who was with MINUSTA (the UN stabalisation mission). On the opposite side of the carousel, a UN peacekeeper in camouflage gear and blue helmet.
As far as I could see, there were no toilet facilities, and there certainly weren't any shops. Sweat was glistening on fore-heads, coursing down backs, and running down thighs.
I got through customs without issue, and was physically restrained on my way out of the airport by a set of Haitian hands on my trolley. He 'needed' my luggage. Forget it pal. He wanted my baggage tags. Why? And if you think you are getting the tag for the case that didn't arrive, you can think gain. After challenging the lean Haitian, who sighed theatrically and threw up his hands in despair, I did surrender the tag for the case I had with me.
Proceeding into the fenced yard, I was met by a porter, holding a sign with my name on it. Negotiating the trolley over the uneven ground, he led me to a secure paring lot, with high walls and gates. We were admitted by gatekeeper and past by rows and rows of 4-by-4's and SUV's. I was greeted by GLA's friendly driver, Ernst, James, the directors foster son, and an armed guard, who stood out in a smart tan uniform; his mission (and he chose to accept it) was to get me through the city safely.
After waiting another hour or so, for a lady who had been due in on my flight to meet her new son, a toddler she was adopting from GLA's orphanage, we set off across Port-au-prince.
I wish I could have taken pictures. I wasn't sure it was safe to be waving a digital camera around, so I didn't. I was wide-eyed with wonder. The poverty in the airport district is striking. The areas of Port-au-Prince we drove through were crumbling. Crumbling pavements, worn, pot-holed roads, eroded breeze-block walls. This though, is a vibrant city, with bright hand-painted shop fronts. 'VIP Unisex Salon', 'The superior institute of American English and Computing','Sipure water.'
We passed by slowly, in nose-to-tail trundling traffic, among battered vehicles. Some were without head lights, many had long since lost break lights, and indicator lights. This last issue though is minor, since no-one seems to use indicators. Horns are blasted frequently, though. If there is a high way code, or rules of any sort that govern how one behaves on Haitian roads, it was not apparent that day. Drivers give way if they feel so inclined, and if no-one gives way to you, you simply edge your vehicle in the direction you want to go in, and you go, even if that puts you in the way oncoming traffic. Ernst was, unflappably, and showed signs of being only mildly perturbed. From the state of the vehicles, it was clear there are a lot of accidents. One car had a splintered windscreen. There were a number of UN vehicles: mostly troop carriers, most not carrying troops. I saw only one, lone UN soldier paroling the streets. I get the feeling I may have seen a nicer side of the city.
The Haitian “Tap-Taps are a sight to behold. Most are modified pick- up trucks with camper van canopies. The back is kitted out with benches, and the vehicle bodies and canopies are painted in bright murals, and many religious slogans and bible verses.
As the line of traffic slowly snaked along, a moving panorama of Port-au-Prince played out across the windscreen and the vehicle widows. All along the route, vendors sold their wares. Fresh fruit, vegetables, and wooden crafts under tarpaulins. Across the street, paintings hanging on a breeze block wall. Cell-phone top-up cards in home made booths. New and used clothing hanging from trees. Some vendors walked up and down the rows of traffic, selling soft drinks and plantain chips. Rubbish lined the streets. Skeletal digs sniffed and the sweaty, sweltering, rotting heaps, and a teenage girl in a shapeless raggedy dress and bare feet sorted through it with a stick.
Women carried there loads on their heads, and they moved so gracefully that they almost seemed to float. There was a post Gustav rain shower, and many people were wearing shower caps and even bin bags over their heads; apparently, Haitians do not like getting wet!
Suddenly, the street widened and, buildings were profesionally built and meticulously maintained. The signs above the shops were commercially produced. There were parks with slides and swing sets for the children. We were in the suburb of Petion-ville. Our guard got out here, and we turned left up the Kenscoff mountain road. It was a winding twisting, bumpy road up to the orphanage. The rainy season has recently come to an end, so there is plenty of greenery. As we climbed, the temperature dropped a few degrees. There was a dip in the road, and then a big metal gate. With a honk of the horn, the gate was opened. We had arrived.