decadent & awful beauty: haiti

exclusive feature
Nathalie Pierre
The Liberator Magazine 10.1 #25, 2011


Editors’ Note: What follows is a “time travel” memoir of the author’s separate written accounts of visits to Haiti in 2007 and 2010. Each ellipsis (...) denotes a temporal pivot.

Before boarding the plane, I thought terrible things of my destination. One vivid image kept nagging me: A kidnapper raping a woman whose ransom of 10,000 U.S. dollars had not yet arrived. If someone kidnapped me, where would my mother procure such monies? Nevertheless, I paraded around the waiting area with a pride and diffidence that mocked the other travelers. If not the unsure gait, it was my nose buried in a too-thick “vacation” book. None of my musings prepared me for the clusters of vegetation-run mountains exploding into the sky with a defiance declaring, “I am greater than you.” The soft green mountain mounds strove to reach the clouds, but the most they ever got was the never-ending kiss of the sun. This sun-kiss twirled about the slopes of the mountains, leaving no secrets untouched or unknown.

We had arrived to the island nation of my birth -- Ayiti: Land of mountains. I wondered how I could imagine such horrendous things. If the sun made love to the mountains, how could anything within the mountains be terrible? The exchange between the mountains and the sun set the stage. There is an intense, fiery, and defiant relationship forever brewing in Haiti. I was aware of this loving relationship long before the scalding heat enveloped my legs awnd reclaimed me after 20 years of absence. In one short week, I would become one of its captivated lovers for life. And this was back in 2007.

Porters scurried around us, like bees dart around nectar. The anxiety in their yellowed, red-speckled eyes made me look down at my sandals in shame. But staring down just made me more aware of the porters’ shabbiness and desperation. Four of them surrounded me, and Sister fended off three. Their demand was simple: Help us by paying us to help you. However, we could not help, or was it would not? Sister knew the routine and was not for a moment deterred by their probing gazes. Those gazes searched the innermost tunnels of my soul, which, somehow, they knew came attached to my purse. So, I kept staring down to avoid their accusatory eyes, which screamed: “You’ve let us down, Amerikan” ...

... On January 11, 2010, I went home for my first research trip. Ten days of rummaging through the archives for scraps on Haitian state formation was the plan. I was nervous, so my colleaguebrother Greg Childs came with me to show support and explore parts of his own Haitian heritage. We weren’t in Port-au-Prince for more than 24 hours when the first earthquake hit ...

... Fire-roasted sweet corn; tender chickens being moistened with marinade on open grills mingling with dust from frantic drivers; baked conch meat with lime and pepper; young girls swaying their newly formed hips in front of hormone-enraged boys; the loud, crass, rapid fire Creole cacophony soothed my mind into a place of surprising comfort. Sister complained about uneven, unpaved roads. I was awestruck by the colorful vans and street food vendors. It was my first time back, but I knew I was home. The murky brown water that splashed over my toes near garbage-filled ravines also had young children and pigs swimming in it.

Oh, God. The children ...

... Tanpri, Mami, the child kept moaning, please, Mommy. The first earthquake had hit hours earlier and we huddled on makeshift beds made of branches and leaves. No one slept. You’d eventually pass out from exhaustion and wake up terrified because of another earthquake, or the moaning of the little boy begging his mother for comfort. She remained silent because life escaped her hours ago.

At 4:53 p.m., I sat on a chair looking for my room keys. I didn’t realize danger until a bookcase/TV stand slid in my direction. Once I popped out of my seat, the floor began sloping in the downward slant of the mountain, making the bookcase crash where I formerly sat. The noise and sinking sensation paralyzed me. Fortunately, my hostess’ soldier, emergency training took over. She told me to drop down and crawl in her direction toward the kitchen doorway. The air was white, with cement dust preventing sight or speech, on my part. Once I got to the kitchen doorway, she implored me to pray, but all I could get out was a mental “Oh, God ...”

... Haiti is poor as hell. There is no infrastructure investment. Therefore, hospitals are hard to come by. Forget about ambulances or state personnel coming to your rescue. There is garbage everywhere because we lack an organized system of sanitation. This leads to more filth, as the citizenry has no place to depose of their trash. Once the stench of rotting food and waste becomes overwhelming, people organize a massive burn in the yard. I did not see one oven while I was there. Charcoal-powered grills cook everything. And yes, it’s the best food you’ll ever have. But, peep this: To get the charcoal, you must cut down trees. There is no “green energy” business and no massive efforts exist to reforest the land. Therefore, when the hurricane season hits, Haiti is devastated ...

... In that moment, I knew that I wasn’t going to die. Instantaneous communication with the oversoul, I guess. According to this message, I was only home to bear witness. The world stopped rumbling and we realized we were sitting in a pool of fuel -- whether it was from the stove or fridge, I don’t know. While the ground was rumbling beneath me, similar to the way water transitions from soft to hard boil, the term “earthquake” never came to mind. However, I do recognize fire before it starts, so I told my hostess we had to be out -- now. She ran toward the back of the house to get her passport (not that having it would’ve done any good. The Haitian airport was U.S.-controlled and they were only letting U.S. citizens out).

I went to the front of the building and standing in the courtyard -- quiet disheveled -- was my Greg. For once, his smoking habit saved his life. It kept him out of his bedroom, which no longer had walls and the bed was now hanging off the side of the building. The men helped the hostess climb down the building. When it came time to help me, another earthquake hit and everyone had fled. I panicked and proceeded to jump off what was once a three-story building. Thankfully, Greg caught me before my bare feet hit the floor, which was peppered with glass shards, rocks and nails.

I watched the purples and pinks of the sun setting on the mountain town of Nazon, Port-auPrince. I thought I was crazy to note the beauty of the sunset in a moment of such crisis; but alas, I’m still noticing the seemingly irrelevant. I stood next to Greg and though we both knew help wasn’t coming, we prayed the earthquake was another blip to the outside world that ignores Haiti. We thought our mothers would worry less that way. We made corny jokes about natural disasters not being part of the graduate student’s survival manual and argued about our favorite authors. It wasn’t until nightfall and the radio broadcast that we learned what happened ...

... Education is a human right. But, rights are costly and those who are the “haves” will not invest in their brethren. The majority of the population is illiterate and will have no significant opportunities at “upward mobility.” School is too expensive for most. Speaking French, learned primarily through schooling, would enable many Haitians the license to work in hotels or multi-national factories where they could make a living wage. A living wage is defined here as one U.S. dollar, which is roughly equivalent to seven Haitian dollars. For those who live in the major cities -- Port-auPrince, Cap-Haitien, and Leogane -- there is no work or land to take care of. So, they do what Africans have done in the past -- they create beauty from the meagerness of their daily existence: Breathtaking, vibrant, soulshattering (yes, shattering, not shaking, because after you see some of this stuff, you simply lose pieces of yourself in it and gain parts from it!) pieces of art, metal-work, wood carvings -- and let us not even talk about the music. You become different.

The art -- the cultural strivings of a people so economically impoverished -- feeds your spirit. It makes you long to renounce everything you have been trained to disdain (poverty, family, sacrifice) and own it. Not own up to it -- as in, “I can do my part to help” -- no, own it. The hands that created this tableau are mine. I am dabbing paint here and there to echo the pain and suffering that rumbles in the belly of “mine” every night. I/they do this to feed the spirit as the body may not get fed ...

... Physically, I am alright. I know I need counseling because January 12, 2010 in Haiti remains a constant part of my daily routine. However, after 30 minutes of chatting, the therapist concluded I was depressed and needed medication. I looked at her and said, “Lady, it’s our first date -- I don’t get down that fast.” She didn’t care for my humor. In any case, the last time I saw her, I told her a world collapsed beneath my feet. I spent days hearing people dying around me. I’m not supposed to be OK. My immediate family is alright because most of us emigrated to the United States in the ‘80s ...

... No, you cannot go to Haiti and not empathize with those you see suffering. But, what is more poignant and beautiful about Haiti is this: They live. There is no money to chase. No title to covet. No imposed ideal to aspire and eventually fail at achieving. It is pure, guttural living. Am I being a romantic? Perhaps. For now, I’d rather be romantic and hopeful.

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