Monday, September 12, 2005

More notes from Haiti from last week

Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2005.

We drove to Petite Anse, a nice little hellhole on the seashore. Petite Anse is a slum of twig and mud shacks sitting directly on the beach. A sort of no-man’s land. Prime beachfront property, with assorted junk littering the sands, from rusting car parts to trash to discarded bleach containers. Pigs freely wander along the surf. A surreal sort of tableau. Pork chop a la brine.

I talked with two families. The first was a sad-faced, weary mom who lives a bit inland, meaning, she lives more than five feet from the shoreline. Her son sleeps under the bed sometimes. It’s his refuge. He likes to hide there. They also put him under there when it rains to keep him dry because the house, like all of them, leak. Drip, drip, drip on the bed while the son beneath it sleeps and stays dry.

I discover later that this beachfront area of Petite Anse is in higher land and isn’t as bad off as the area we will later. That area is built on a mangrove swamp and floods. The beach is littered with human and animal feces, trash, you name it. This thick, sluggish stream oozes through the sand and dumps out into the ocean. It’s sort of greenish.

Visited a family living in a house built right on the shoreline, less than two feet from the surf. Waves crash alongside it when it storms. One mom says she asks God to make the storm go away because she’s scared.

This section of Petite Anse is a mess. No drinking water, no sanitation, trash everywhere, feces, animal and human. We wander along the sands, trailed by a crowd of curious faces. We are the pied pipers of humanitarianism.

I think of the coastline of my country, the smashed timbers of broken houses, the smashed lives, people crowded into the Superdome in New Orleans like animals to ride out the hurricane. Squeezed together in those conditions, they lived for five days like these people. When you take away basic human services, like food, water and sanitation, this is what happens. I am walking along a disaster area, except this is a man-made disaster area existing for decades. Naked children run besides us naked, staring with curious eyes.

Wednesday, 12:30 p.m. We return to the hotel. I realize a foul odor is clinging to my shoes. I stepped in feces. Human or animal, or both? I clean it off with stoic sadness, thinking of the filth in New Orleans, people living in survival conditions. People here in Haiti have endured them for years. The silent cries of the poor and marginalized go ignored, and so life goes on along the prime beachfront property. Surviving another day in the little hellhole by the sunny shore.

Trying not to get depressed. The arched doorways and little wood entranceways and inner courtyards remind me of New Orleans. Creole to Creole. Palms and tile work, cool blue floral tile and serene yellow paint. Haitian art hangs on the walls. An ironwork candle sconce adorns a polished oak table. There’s a blue glass vase filled with birds of paradise on the coffee table set up in the lobby.

I feel utterly drained, as though someone siphoned the life from me. I don’t even have enough energy to feel sad anymore. I wonder what will happen to my writing. Will it wither and die, like lost hope?

Okay, I need to write about the place where I am instead of my own personal woes. The hotel. The crisp swish of a straw broom against the street. The stillness of the morning air disturbed by a cool ocean breeze. Sunlight pooling on the blue and red tile floor. Quiet murmurs of people breakfasting in the dining room next to the lobby, the clink of silverware against china. The slam of a door upstairs, tread on the stairs. The everpresent acrid smell of morning fires in the slums preparing meager meals.

A painting. Three blue faces hanging on a wall before me. Heart faced, pursed red lips, sultry eyes staring sightlessly. Three faces encapsulated in a blue shell, human flowers caught in a vase. Seeds are planted. Ideas, sperm, revolution?

4 p.m.?

I had thought that anything I could see could not equal the misery and suffering taking place now in my own country with the post hurricane disaster.

I was wrong.

There is worse. There is living with it daily. Red-headed children suffering from protein deficiency who live in houses that are virtual islands cut off from everyone else because of water rising from the ocean each day. A 12 year old girl with old, wise eyes and her two little sisters, with their extended bellies and their reddish orange hair.

A narrow twin bed covered with a blue bedspread that sleeps four. A table inside an airless shack neatly piled with tins, glasses and plastic kitchen ware. A dirt floor that slopes downward, and blue plastic chairs next to the bed.

The glazed look of children who are hungry. Three days without eating is the record for them. How do you record memories in your life? Three days without eating. Orange hair sprouting on a small skull, sad colors reflecting suffering and hunger.

All the people in Petite Anse are displaced refugees, displaced by poverty, hunger and looking for opportunity. A polar opposite of the hurricane refugees in Louisiana. Those people fled their smashed homes and flooding in New Orleans. These people fled their smashed lives in the barren countryside and came to an area where there is constant flooding. Yet they keep hoping for a better day, a better life.

We asked one woman, “Why did you leave don don? Is this better for you?”

She said, “Not yet but it could be. There is nowhere that living is not hard. Everywhere you go life is hard.”

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