Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010

Amid So Much Loss, Port-au-Prince's Streets Still Teem With Life

Saturday is laundry day and today, the 11th day after the earthquake, the Haitians are doing the laundry. Buckets of soapy water line the streets of Port-au-Prince — made of plastic and almost radiant in the sunshine, translucent reds and blue, pinks and greens; their sizes depend on how many people you're washing for. Women of similarly differing sizes, their legs akimbo, are scrubbing and beating and sudsing as if their lives depended on it. There's always a big push to clean yourself up in Haiti on a Saturday; clean yourself up for Sunday, and then the days that follow.

A friend of mine answers his cell phone with his standard hello; it's a cousin calling from Brooklyn. She finally got through. "Hi, yah. Oh, we're fine. I'm not dead. I didn't die." I hear him use this line several times during the morning. Behind the laundry women are their former houses. The roofs were too heavy, obviously. The edges of the collapsed roofs are licking at the sidewalk where the laundry women sit in this particular neighborhood, Bel-Air, a tough quartier populaire. Another tremor and everyone on this sidewalks risks being crushed.

It concentrates the mind to see so much destruction. You see how a tin roof twists and rips through things; how concrete deflates and collapses in on itself; how cement blocks look when they are no longer piled in an orderly way to make walls but instead have been hurled down onto the street, creating a ramshackle pyramid of rubble, pebble and dust. People are looking hard at where they're standing from moment to moment. Under a second-floor that's lurching in a threatening way? Under a brick archway put up in the late 1800s? Near a half collapsed building that is leaning precariously? Don't stay there too long.

There are so many dead — and yet, so many living. And the living, too afraid — rightly — to go back inside, are all staying out on the street. As a friend of mine wrote recently on Twitter, "The street has become the living room of the people." But I'm not just talking about the new tent cities, interior refugee camps that have sprung up in so many of the capital's available empty lots and public spaces. I'm also talking about plain old life on the streets. The cards players, the clothes washers, the charcoal sellers, the water men, and the thousands of quotidian passersby. With so many dead, Port-au-Prince seems, if anything, more crowded than ever.

The banks opened today for the first time since the ... I almost wrote "attack." Crowds and lines formed outside the banks that are still standing. The process was orderly except that at least by noon, it wasn't much of a process. People held their ID documents in their hands. They were there to pick up remittances from relatives in the U.S. and Canada and elsewhere. But the lines were not moving, possibly because the Internet is sporadic at best. Even during Haiti's best moments a disproportionate part of its GNP comes from these kado, or presents, from abroad. It means a kind of individual dependency that has often been reflected in attitudes toward foreign aid over the years.

And right now, dependency is the watchword. No one was happy when the US landed a huge helicopter on the grounds of the collapsed presidential palace. The symbolism was unfortunate. But still, when you look at the level of the wreckage and architectural mayhem, you can see that Haiti — and indeed, no Third World country — is up to the task of rebuilding.

"We need the outside world, are you kidding?" said the same Haitian who was telling everyone he wasn't dead. "Come in and help. Send in troops to rebuild. I wanna be dependent!"

This morning I went to the funeral of Archbishop Joseph-Serge Miot, a much appreciated, low-key figure in the church here. He was in his house across the street from the Cathedral downtown when the quake struck. They pulled him from the wreckage, and now this. The combination of the archbishop's death and the destruction of the cathedral has stunned Haitians who've grown up in the church, and older people who rely on it for sustenance in a world where sustenance is always insufficient.

The sunlight was pouring through the rose window this morning before they opened the archbishop's coffin for viewing. But the light was coming from the wrong side of the window — from what, less than two weeks ago, had been the inside of the church. A small grey-haired man in a grey suit looked up at the half disappeared building on his way to the funeral, and he twirled his glasses absently between two fingers. Already the cathedral was fading in his memory. Another small grey-haired man got out of an SUV and began walking over the damp drive toward a seat at the service. This was Rene Preval, President of Haiti. He seemed dazed, affectless. He barely spoke. His face was flat and his eyes seemed empty. He looked like a victim of shell-shock. It was his first formal public appearance since the quake. He sat through the service and did not address the congregation. He pretty much summed up the opposite of rising to the occasion. The priests and nuns looked out through the wrought iron bars of the cathedral courtyard at the ruined city below.

I wish that I could explain what it's like to see so many places gone — places where my memory of Haiti used to reside. Not just buildings like the cathedral and the presidential palace, but also the little popular restaurant near the old Holiday Inn where I used to go eat the skinniest pieces of chicken with hopeful political candidates. The house where a friend of mine recovered from her appendectomy. The bank where I used to receive my own personal remittances when I lived here. It was already hard to orient myself in the new, overcrowded, hyperactive Port-au-Prince the last time I was here a year ago. Now it's impossible. It's a world without landmarks.

Wilentz is the author of The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier and other books. She teaches journalism at the University of California, Irvine.

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