By Darvence Chery
Nearly 40 years have passed since my parents immigrated from Haiti to the United States. When my parents lived in Haiti, it was a privilege to have lights in our house and to be able to take a shower inside. There were no alarm clocks, only the sound of the roosters crowing or the sight of a star to notify workers when to start their overnight shift. Forty years later, we shower comfortably, and we have working lights.
But some traditions never changed – the drying of laundry on a clothes pins; nurturing animals, only to feast on them for dinner. I was fortunate to get the best of both worlds during my short time in Haiti recently.
The heat felt like whiplash as I was getting off the plane. The Toussaint Louverture International Airport was awkwardly humid, filled with masked and maskless strangers. As my mother and I were heading into the parking lot, we noticed man after man, stranger after stranger, attempt to help us with our bags until one lucky stranger, who turned out to be our valet, assumed that responsibility. The parking lot was festive – music blaring, men shouting, women laughing, all with airport officials attempting to organize the ebb and flow of valets taking in their passengers.
While in Haiti, I stayed in a two-story house that resembles a fortress out of a Sean Connery/James Bond film, 12-feet tall walls, topped with barbed wire rings, and a giant red sliding gate allowing entry onto the property. My dad had spent the past few years developing this house, using the holiday season to get a close-up look and sending anything we do not use in America to Haiti. Within the property, there is a slew of animals – a rooster that crows at all hours of the night, chickens close enough to see but always elusive enough to not be caught, a malnourished cat purring at the sight of leftovers, and a grizzled dog chained to the fence. Like a freshly mixed salad is my backyard – lots of greens with fluorescent colors of mangoes, cherries, and avocadoes.
Driving in Haiti is worse than any parking ban in Hull. “First come, first serve,” as my cousin describes it. The streets resemble a monster truck show. Honking horns ring through the night, with SUVs rumbling over the rocky roads. Either side of the street is fair game, especially to motorcyclists. Cars are filled to the brim with passengers. There is not much signage on the streets of Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti, which explains the staccato pace we drove at, stopping for other cars and motorcycles driving in between us. In America, excessive honking is rude and a sign of road rage. In Haiti, excessive honking lets other vehicles know you have taken the right of way and warns the pedestrians not to get too close. One time, as we were driving through the city of Delmas, I could see a trio of girls, holding hands as if they were praying before they crossed the street. At night, I can see people of all ages walking the streets, some in groups, some in pairs, some carrying baskets on their heads. I wonder how long the police log is in Port-au-Prince.
On Saturday, we visited our cousin O’Connell (pronounced o-koe-nel) at his house, also masquerading as his shop for tattoo, piercing, and braces installation. As my family and I drove through the city of Pétion-Ville, my father instructed us to keep our windows closed. That day we also visited the Hotel Haiti El Rancho, a five-star hotel located in Pétion-Ville. The hotel was the most diverse I had seen in Haiti. People of all colors and ages congregating like one big party. All at the same time there was a first communion ending, a pool party in full flux, and a wedding beginning, all within walking distance.
Additionally, there was a dining space for patrons, including us. From there, we went to visit one of my other cousins named O’Connell (pronounced oh-koe-nel). He lives in a housing complex within a dense mix of outdoor markets, stores, and homes. There are not many grocery stores or superstores such as Shaw’s or Walmart. Almost everything is sold under a tent on the street.
Finding my cousin’s house was an adventure. Tailing him on his motorcycle felt like watching an elephant try to keep up with a tiger. Due to how dense Haiti is, motorcycles are popular because riders can weave in and out of traffic at their leisure. Maneuvering our Ford Ranger up and down hills felt like riding a broken roller coaster. After walking through a maze of tunnels and stairways, I was surprised to see his living room was also a tattoo and piercings parlor. Shockingly, he also installed braces.
I think the media do a lot to portray the danger of Haiti, and rightfully so. When my sisters had arrived later in the week from Boston, there were protests taking place opposing the national government’s leadership. But to say that Haiti is beyond the point of visiting and living in would be an exaggeration. An American’s money is worth a lot more in Haiti than it is in America due to the currency.
If you ever want to escape the New England chill and snow, Haiti is perfect in the winter months – cool enough for comfort but hot enough to make you want to stay. My first trip to Haiti was a culture shock. Pending COVID-19, I am hoping it will not be my last.