Around Port au Prince, Part Two
The Acra tent camp is a short walk from Brillant’s house and, unlike the others we visited, truly a city in itself. Coming around a bend in the road leading to the entrance, I spied the camp off to my right across the rubble of a collapsed building, filling a small valley with a checkerboard of blue and white tent roofs. At the camp entrance was a dozen or more women, some wearing hardhats, raking and shoveling a pile of dirt and rocks delivered by wheelbarrow into a flat, porous surface. Just beyond them, another group of women, and girls, collected water from a tap in five gallon white plastic buckets with blue lids.
Walking further into the camp on a wide path separated from the tents on either side by drainage ditches cut two feet deep and two to three feet wide, we passed a lunch stand consisting of a metal tray three feet wide by four feet long. It was filled with what appeared to be hot dogs and fried breads of various shapes and sizes, none of which I was tempted to sample. Just past this we came to a tailor shop.
The tailor, a shirtless man with a slight paunch, is probably between 50 and 55 years old. He was measuring beige cloth on a wooden table in an open fronted structure made of wood and tin sheeting. He worked behind a line of clothes that hung just above his head, confidently slashing the cloth with a piece of chalk. To the right of his measuring table sat a pedal driven sewing machine that must date from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. On seeing the tailor, Brillant, obviously excited, said: “This, this is what my father did.”
Moving along, we came to a shoeshine stand and Brillant decided he needed a shine. He was wearing black shoes with cloth tops, but he wanted them shined anyway. Personally, I didn’t really see the point, given the type of shoes and the terrain we were traversing, which seemed certain to ruin the shine in no time. But, I figured, he must just be really fastidious about the state of his shoes. Later, he told me that no, it wasn’t that. He just thought getting his shoes shined would make a good picture.
The shine man, for some reason wearing a blue and pink knit cap, was efficient, wielding his brushes and cloths with practiced insouciance, keeping up a patter the whole time. The entire operation took about five minutes. Brillant examined the result, found it acceptable and handed the man a small bill, probably the equivalent of about a quarter.
From the shoeshine stand I could see a large Unicef camp below us about a quarter mile away in the direction we were going. The area was cleared and uncluttered, with a number of large tents spread about, and even at this distance it was obvious that it was chock full of children. As we entered, we walked between a couple of tents each holding at least 50 or 60 children ranging in age from three or four up to 12 or 13 and two or three adult monitors wearing badges that said “ARC, American Refugee Committee”. I asked one of the monitors if this was a school and he replied, “No, it’s a child safe space.” Figuring I’d better get permission to take pictures, I asked where I could find someone in charge and he pointed me to another nearby tent.
A young American woman, who seemed to be engaged in training a group of Haitians, looked up and asked if she could help me. I told her what I needed and she called over a large Haitian man who introduced himself as Destin John Kelly, Junior, the assistant camp manager. After hearing me out, he wrote his name, title, phone number and email address on piece of yellow notepad paper, tore it off and handed it to me. “There, you are authorized. Go take pictures of whatever you like.”
Armed with my official authorization, Brillant and I set out for one of the tents full of kids, but were intercepted by half a dozen three and four year olds wanting their pictures taken. I obliged, but they kept pressing forward until they were too close to photograph and then a couple of them latched onto my legs and hung on with a grip tight as a tourniquet. The kid on my right leg was chewing on the cap of my water bottle while several others were trying to get a purchase on my real estate. Brillant was doing his best to pry them off, but he was no match for them, woefully outnumbered as he was. Eventually, a couple of the ARC adults came over and gently got me untangled, but it took all four of us to get the job done. I suppose these kids are just so starved for attention that any time they spot someone new who might give them some, they just go for them. And, of course, the camera’s a magnet as well.
Once free, I took some pictures of the mostly well behaved kids sitting on benches in one of the tents as a monitor wrote on a blackboard. Then I moved to another large tent where, when the children saw me, they approached, but didn’t rush me. When one of the monitors saw me, she started chanting in Creole and the children joined in, doing a call and response. Although they were listening and responding to the monitor, they were looking right at me.
In addition to the safe space tents, the camp contained a clinic, a soccer field where some of the kids were playing with one of the monitors, and a workshop where Haitian men were building benches. I shot a few pictures of the soccer match and the bench construction, but there didn’t seem to be much activity at the clinic. Feeling like I’d pretty much shot what there was to shoot, Brillant and I reversed course and started for the Acra camp exit. However, on the way we ran into the Mane Studio Beaute & Barber Shop.
The shop is in a large tent with an improvised door on which is painted the name and a highly styled woman and man. The proprietor, a young, full figured woman, saw me taking a picture and invited us in. It’s a two chair shop, replete with all the required hair care accoutrements, including a bubble hair dryer. All in all, and especially considering its location, it’s quite impressive. Feeling certain we couldn’t top this, we left Acra, bound for downtown and the Presidential Palace. This time, although we took a tap-tap, Brillant arranged for us to sit up front with the driver, which was obviously a huge improvement.
Downtown Port au Prince is bustling, hot and dirty. Normal commerce is ongoing among the collapsed buildings and tent camps. The Champs de Mars camp sits directly across the street from the Presidential Palace, which looks like a giant, ornate white cake that somebody dropped, and appears to be untouched since the earthquake. For some reason, maybe just destruction fatigue, I found this part of the city more depressing than anywhere else we’d been and wasn’t inclined to linger. So, as soon as Brillant could find one, we boarded a bus for Petionville.
Petionville sits on a mountain far above Port au Prince and is generally recognized as its best neighborhood, although technically, it may be its own ville. It contains restaurants and shops unlike any to be found elsewhere in the city, which is to say, decidedly upscale. It’s also the part of town where many embassies, major banks and businesses are located. I’d never been, and wanted to check it out, but I had no idea how far it was.
The bus ground up the mountain, Brillant and I standing and hanging on as a young hawker at the front peddled everything from Tylenol to snake oil. Finally, after an hour or more, the last 15 minutes creeping forward in a line of traffic stretching as far as the eye could see, we arrived and disembarked. Our first order of business was to get some lunch and Brillant’s first choice was a Domino’s Pizza. However, after reviewing the prices, he thought better of it. Instead, we went in search of a “snack bar”.
As we wandered the streets, I couldn’t help but notice that our surroundings were much improved over those we’d just left. For one thing, there was relatively little earthquake damage. And the general atmosphere was more prosperous. Within a few minutes we found a “snack bar”, an American style fast food restaurant with a variety of choices, including burgers and pizza. We followed the line to the counter and I ordered a slice of pizza and a Sprite and Brillant had a burger and the same. The pizza, with pepperoni and onions, was pretty good and Brillant liked the burger.
After lunch, having seen enough of Petionville, we set out to find a bus back, walking down the main street lined with people sitting, and even standing, selling all manner of things. It was a thicker market scene than even downtown. After inquiring of several people, Brillant found our bus and we headed for home