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Spin the Globe: Brett Martin on the Real Port-au-Prince, Haiti

AFAR chose a destination at random and sent writer Brett Martin with 24-hours’ notice to the most challenging island in the Caribbean.

I HAVE BEEN IN in Port-au-Prince,Haiti, for 16 hours and I am at a funeral.

The service, for a onetime minister in Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government, is at the Cathedral of St. Pierre in Pétionville, the relatively affluent suburb just outside the city center. The church’s creamy stucco exterior and pointed bell tower remind me of New Orleans, where I live. So does the four-man brass band, sweating stoically in dark suits out- side, awaiting the procession bearing the body. Inside, the archbishop of Port-au-Prince stands at the altar, dressed in purple robes.

I did not know the deceased. I was invited here by the mother of his first child, whom I had met the previous afternoon, moments after dropping my bags on the porch of the legendary Hotel Oloffson. When I protested that I didn’t want to intrude, my new acquaintance, a woman from the United States who has spent decades working in and for Haiti, put her hand on my arm and repeated wisdom she had been given long ago. “In Haiti, you don’t go to funerals to mourn. You go to meet people.”

The same can be said about the porch at the rambling Oloffson, which is like something out of Epcot’s little-visited Romantic Post-Colonial Decay Pavilion. Graham Greene stayed here and made it the setting of his novel The Comedians. The porch, staffed by sullen girls ferrying cold glasses of rum punch and Prestige beer, still looks more or less the way Greene described it, except for a proliferation of Apple laptops.

The hotel’s current owner is the tall, enigmatic Richard Morse—half Haitian and half American, former punk rocker, voodoo priest, leader of the band RAM (named for his initials), and sometime politician. RAM’s Thursday night shows in the hotel draw hordes of young international aid workers and entrepreneurs but also journalists, government officials, and, it’s whispered, former members of the much-feared enforcers of the François Duvalier regime, the Tonton Macoute.

Some who visit Port-au-Prince rarely leave the haven of the Hotel Oloffson’s porch. Haiti represents the outer edge of an appropriate destination for this column; some I met there suggested it is way over that edge. Haiti is a broken country: desperately poor, riven by corruption, still in the earliest stages of recovery from the devastating 2010 earthquake, and seemingly lacking even the most basic infrastructure of a functioning state, let alone a tourist destination. A person showing up in Port-au-Prince without a clear purpose is looked on, rightly, with some puzzlement, even suspicion.

“I’m not here to write about politics,” I assured my new American friend. She smiled indulgently in reply: “Everything here is about politics.”

I learn just how true that is after the funeral, when Richard Morse takes me to the sprawling Marché en Fer, the recently restored 19th-century market made of iron. We pass tables stacked with gnarled fists of cassava, crabs bound with ragged twine, hard black balls of unsweetened cocoa, buckets of leeches, and baskets of djon djon, the funky, earthy mushroom used in many Haitian rice dishes. There are also massive piles of garbage, alive with flies. The garbage is intentionally allowed to pile up, believes Morse, who resigned at the end of 2012 from the government of his cousin, President Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly: When storms come, trash blocks the drains and the market floods. And when the market floods, Morse asserts, international aid pours in.

Over the next several days, I see constant reflections of New Orleans, the city that shared so much tragic and creative DNA with Haiti before their histories fatefully diverged two centuries ago. These are both comforting and dislocating. At a restaurant across from the cathedral on Pétionville’s square, I eat a “gumbo” thickened with djon djon, and a rich conch gratin that would not be out of place on the menu at Galatoire’s in the French Quarter. At the Nader Gallery, which lost some 1,000 artworks in the quake, I see the primitivist faces that make up so much of Southern “folk art.” There are the gingerbread Creole houses in the hills and the flocks of do-gooding church groups in matching T-shirts.

It’s Holy Week, which means that I can go in search of another point of connection: Rara, the traditional musical procession and revelry that forms one root of Second Line street parades in New Orleans. The center for Rara is the village of Léogâne, west of Port-au-Prince. My driver, Charles, is 48 years old and drives a tan 1996 Land Rover. After the earthquake he spent some time driving for a relief agency called Clowns Without Borders, which I figure was good practice for driving for me.

After three days in the capital, it’s a relief to suddenly be surrounded by green. In the air, there’s the sour, fecal smell of burning bagasse, the fibrous remains of the sugarcane extraction process, another echo of southern Louisiana. We hear the Rara before we see it, the droning bleat of the long trumpets known as vaksin and the insistent beat of maracas. The procession is sweaty and worn out from days of parading but still charged with rhythm. Watching a woman dance in a lazy, low-slung shuffle, eyes shut, I could be on St. Claude Avenue. “During Rara,” Charles tells me, quoting a local aphorism, “no man has a wife.”

The hills are beautiful: Tuscany with palms. They grow mountainous as we leave Léogâne and head south to the seaside city of Jacmel. We pass buses luridly painted with a mix of religious images and pop-culture icons like LeBron James and Michael Jackson. One has a casket precariously tied to its roof; across the front is painted PATIENCE.

Jacmel was hit hard by the earthquake too, but it is less frantic than Port-au-Prince, sleepier and more tropical. At a hotel just up the coast, Charles and I take a plastic table facing the Caribbean and order poisson gros sel—freshly caught snapper in a broth
of onions, lime, and chilies.

We sit with our feet in the sand, sip Prestige beers, and watch three Haitian boys play in the surf with a half-deflated raft. Our dinners are not forthcoming. In Haiti, I’ve learned, it is best to order dinner immediately upon waking up, tomorrow’s breakfast at about 1 p.m., that next day’s lunch before bed, and so on. Night falls over the sea. The palms sway. “Must be a very big fish,” Charles says, drily.

The next day, I go a little nuts buying crafts in Jacmel: a papier-mâché mobile of delicate blue and yellow hummingbirds; a bowl carved from local mahogany; wooden place mats covered with handpainted fruit and fish; hammered wall hangings made from old oil drums. Again like New Orleans—or, for that matter, like Bali, 11,000 miles away—Haiti is a cultural dot surrounded by Others, a French- speaking nation amid former British and Spanish colonies, with its own unique religion and history of slavery and suffering. And like New Orleans and Bali, Haiti manifests its identity with a disproportionate profusion of culinary, performing, and decorative arts.

Back on the porch of the Hotel Oloffson, the crowd is gathering for the weekly RAM concert. Photojournalist Daniel Morel sits with Frantz Large, an eccentric ophthalmolo- gist and art collector, and Bernard Diederich, the legendary New Zealand–born journalist. Diederich and Large are in a heated argu- ment about obscure details of a 1950 Haitian election. A group of newcomers arrives with backpacks and glazed looks. Already, absurdly, I feel like an old hand here—a powerful, seductive illusion we take from these oases in the Third World.

Early the next morning, Good Friday and my last day in Haiti, I follow Morel into the back of a Médecins du Monde ambulance to go swaying and jouncing northeast to the city of Croix-des-Bouquets. From a distance, we can see a thin line of white-clad pilgrims making their way up a tall hill, following the Stations of the Cross. Hopelessly mired in traffic, we get out and walk. A group of women is beginning the trek holding heavy stones pressed down on their heads. “The Lord helps me carry this weight,” they chant in Creole. At the first station a man with long braids and a yellow shirt stands with arms akimbo, murmuring. Morel leans in and translates: “He says, ‘I want somebody to see me.’ ”

It’s hot and dusty and steep. The crowd grows thicker and more intense the farther we climb toward the shrine at the top of the hill. Once there, I find myself pressed up against an iron fence as the man next to me, eyes closed, holds a live chicken high above
his head, facing the statue of Jesus on the other side. I know nothing about this place; I feel like I’ve been here forever. I’m frightened and confused; I already want to come back. Later, I get an email from a friend who misread my destination: “Hawaii! You lucky dog!” He was only half wrong.