There’s travel and then there’s travel.
There’s the occasional exposure to the well-rehearsed theatre of tourist destinations where foreigners seek some romantic connection with the old colonial days through simulated tours in the Sahara Desert while wearing kafayehs like Lawrence of Arabia. Then, there’s the type of travel where one goes to post-tsunami Thailand and becomes a human buffer in a land-rights movement waged between a female community leader of water gypsies against a land grab by a construction company that surreptitiously acquired land ownership contracts and has drawn up plans to constuct a golf course for Western tourists.
My Haiti experience fit in the grey area of the spectrum of previous experiences in the developing world.
When the earthquake struck Haiti, I was sipping a margarita in our gated community apartment on Isla Margarita, a tropical island off the coast of Venezuela. I took a vacation from my vacation and decided to spend several weeks in Port-au-Prince to help set up a new non-governmental organisation. Because COPA Airlines had not yet obtained landing permission from the US Military, the only available route to Haiti from Caracas was via bus across the border from Santo Domingo.
I ate my last full meal in Santo Domingo and arrived at the Capital Coach bus stop where Haitian families traveling to Port-au-Prince appeared to be preparing for war on the other side of the border. They packed water, toilet paper, duvet covers and canned food to provide their own form of aid to family and friends in Haiti.
A young Haitian man wearing Ray Ban knock-offs sat next to me reading Black Power while I (flipped my blonde hair and) silently suffered through the bus entertainment—a Christian-conversion movie hailing from the US Bible Belt about a Godless firefighter who underwent a forty day conversion exercise and (spoiler alert!) saved his failing marriage.
My previous self from several years ago would have sparked a conversation with this young man, trying to scope out the political, cultural and racial sensitivities of relief operations-it would have been the right thing to do. I did not take myself too seriously and my mission was anything but to save the Haitians. I was white and present and was not about to kid myself that I could change that historically-embedded, racial boundary.
Looking out the greasy bus window, I noticed the landscape gradually change from lush tropical plantations to small parceled properties on arid plains, we reached the naked baby line and women masterfully balancing large bowls of plantains on their heads, wearing bright pinks, blues, greens and yellows that contrasted their beautiful dark complexions. The landscape was deceptive; where poverty began and post-disaster landscape ended was unclear.
The Dominican border resembled a bustling ant colony in rush hour; hundreds of Haitians criss-crossed each others’ paths carrying crates of water, bags of toilet paper and subsidized American rice, and boxes of unidentifiable donations from 18 wheeler trucks. In the background, several flooded cement structures were surrounded by about a dozen trucks submerged in the Guayamouc River, revealing the first signs of destruction. Overlooking the border drama was an UNHRC compound precariously located atop an hollowed-out mountain of stark, white limestone.
A 50-yard long buffer market sat snugly between the Dominican and Haitian customs offices. Haitian border people on motorbikes drove freely between the borders, passing in and out of security check points guarded by armed young men. Female vendors sold white crackers, fried chicken legs, Chiclet gum, subsidized American rice and shiny kitchen appliances —relief donations were already being sold on the market.
At the Haitian customs entrance point, we outsiders huddled together while brushing off young Haitian men wearing Obama caps shouting and holding huge wads of Haitian Goudes and Dominican Pesos and shaking off ten-year-old shoeshiners pitifully forcing their service upon our feet. I normally would not find myself in the trusted company of middle-aged, smelly Brazilian men who wore camouflage wife beaters adorned with golden chains around their thick necks.
On the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, small tent cities mushroomed outside crumbled walls and pancaked cement buildings. Aid distribution was conspicuously lacking in tent cities constructed from bed-sheets and patches of cardboard boxes in contrast to the impressive, dome-like USAID tents camped along the same street. This uneven landscape of aid distribution begs the question of whether or not uneven distribrbution is a reflection of already existing inequalities within the Haitian communities or if it is generating post-earthquake inequalities by setting qualification requirements for receiving aid. Either way, three months after the earthquake, it was evident that Port-au-Prince was still in dire need of aid.
The bus abruptly stopped and all the passengers were told to get off the bus at a no-name gas station because the US Military had occupied the bus terminal. Port-au-Prince was a war zone. UN and US helicopters flying low to unknown destinations, French, American, Colombian, Venezuelan overdressed troops in full uniform riding in silence on military lorries, many white UN SUVs driving up and down the road, MINUSTAH tanks from which men wearing UN helmets pointed machine guns at the surrounding Haitians.
It seemed odd for the troops passing by in the midst of an official operation to notice me chatting up the Haitian taxi drivers at a gas station. I sensed that not only did they they envy my freedom to maneuver around the landscape without any prescribed rules of conduct but that my mere existence challenged the necessity for their official operation. Equipped for war, they looked silly and they knew it.
A head of dreadlocks on a white motorcycle rolled up to the gas-station. We embraced with smiles, I strapped my National Geographic duffle bag onto the back of the motorbike and drove off. We wove in and out of traffic, waving to truck-fulls of volunteers, driving past large tent cities, and taking in the smell of fried chicken, the non-stop soundtrack of horns and people shouting, and dirt accumulating on my smiling face. I was white and present in Port-au-Prince.