Lush, green mountains surround Port-au-Prince. The sun in the sky is bright. The city rolls down the flanks of these mountains to the ocean. As soon as I am riding for the first time through the streets of Port-au-Prince, I realize that my perspective is not a great one: I won’t ever really know what the city was like before this earthquake. There are crumbled buildings everywhere, but some are overgrown with vines and shrubs and I begin to doubt my ability to judge the destruction: sometimes I am not sure if I am seeing the damage of the earthquake, or of longstanding poverty.
Along every road, where there is often very little room, there are people walking. Women carrying plastic tubs or bags on their heads. Small children holding hands with their older brothers or sisters, having to keep up with their pace in flip flops.
On the road, a motley assortment of tap taps — pickup trucks with benches built into the bed, and a canopy strapped overhead — pick up and drop off passengers. For many, this is the cheapest transportation around, costing about 10 gourdes (or about 25 cents) to get from one part of town to another. The pickups sag under the weight of probably 8-10 people all crowded in together. Each are decorated according to the owner’s taste — presumably — with colorful paint jobs and decals and phrases printed across the windshield or sides.
The main roads are paved but carved with enormous potholes. Even trucks have to take them incredibly slow — so slow sometimes you wonder if you’ll be able to get out. Compared to the U.S., driving seems loose and improvisational, with headlights and horns used for communicating “Be careful I’m coming head-on into your lane” or “Hey, I’m coming around this blind corner now, so watch out.”
The “shortcuts” or what the roads are called that aren’t paved, are dirt, narrow, craggy with rocks and holes, sometimes winding their way along cliffs. There are small shops and small merchant stands next to the road that sell everything from motorcycle tires to decorative paintings. Goats gingerly pick through piles of rubble and garbage; a dog scratches its back by squirming in the dust.
Camps are all around the city. To search for the color blue in the cityscape is the easiest way to see them. Of course, there are other colors of tents, but blue seems to be the most common. One camp, with its blue rows of tents, I saw teetered almost impossibly along a steep ridge — it seemed so easy for it to just slide into the crevasse below. And with the way the rains come here, I can see it could be just too easy.
There is a camp just a block up from the Mercy Corps office, where people have settled in what used to be a city park. That’s a dark realization: Port-au-Prince has few if any parks anymore, only camps.
Camp life is here in the midst of all the other everyday city life: An elderly woman, her back curved with age, bending to pick up again two large buckets of water that she is slowly carrying back to her tent. A young woman, lying on her side in a tent, eats a meal from a plate on the floor next to her. Every tree in the park has ropes running off it in all directions, to support the many tarps that seemingly stretch over every square inch of the park. Space is at a premium.
When it begins to pour — the rainy season has arrived and storms come everyday — I see two boys about six years old, naked, one riding a bicycle, the other running alongside.
I’ve begun to love the sound of the Creole language. I am enjoying listening to my Haitian colleagues’ conversations: bubbling, energetic and warm. They are working hard everyday to help their country rebuild.