Friends, we are back to Haiti and our normal routine! You must think that it was an easy transition but it was and it wasn't at the same time. As you might have noticed, my blog has had a long summer break just as we did. We spent two months travelling France and a bit of my home region in Germany as well. We did all the things that used to be normal and taken for granted by us: going for a walk, riding our bike, hopping on a train, enjoying the summer sales, cooking with different ingredients, and so on. Antonia discovered the joys of riding a scooter and loved the ropes course high in the trees close to my sister-in-law's house. Next year, she'd like to do it all again :-). Here are some impressions from our summer:
As you can see we ate a lot of good stuff and really had a good time. But now imagine, at the end of August you take your planes (for us it is three in total with 2 layovers) and you arrive in Port-au-Prince. You fly over all those slums, see several spots where smoke is rising, no skyscrapers, several bare hills surrounding the capital in the valley...
Then you get out of the plane and the strongly humid, hot air is welcoming you, making it difficult to breathe. You stumble into an air-conditioned hall where you have to get through immigration. All foreigners have to pay a welcome amount of 10 USD to enter the country. If you are "lucky", your plane has arrived with several other planes from the US and it takes you at least an hour to stand in line.
Now we are getting our suitcases and are politely waving off all the Haitians that would like to help us with our luggage. This time, we are really lucky as some of our friends surprised us by stopping by at the airport and driving us to our car.
Sitting in our friends' car we are looking the familiar and again unfamiliar environment. And these are the first things that we take in, once again:
1. The smell
Being in Port-au-Prince you will notice this very quickly: The Haitian capital has its own smell. The rising smoke you can see not only from the planes but also everywhere in the city is a result of Haitians burning their trash. There are no trash cans in the public area and no real waste collection. Well, I have seen trucks picking up trash at our hotel and the school but I am confident that this is not an affordable service for the Haitian citizen.
They burn everything everywhere, next to the street, in their backyard, in the gutter. Evidently, most Haitians doing this are certainly not aware of the toxic smoke they inhale and create for others.
Paired with the toxic exhaust gases coming out of these old, overloaded tap-taps, regularly you can see a general smoke all over which gives Port-au-Prince its burned toxic smell.
2. The poverty
The people's poverty is a very striking feature, even when you arrive for the second, third or fourth time. The airport's taxi drivers competing for you to get you in their cab. Small and skinny boys at the first (and only) traffic light asking you for money, hanging on to your car, desperately. All these young and old women sitting at the side of the street, inhaling the toxic dust all day just to sell an avocado or two. You can see it everywhere and it makes you uncomfortable at times.
3. The traffic
I have already written about this Haitian phenomenon before but nothing has changed since then. Coming back from Europe to Haiti was traffic-wise a shock again. Compared to the civilized traffic rules and driver behavior in Germany and France, it needs a change in your driver's mind to get back on the Haitian routes. There is no real "priority to the right" rule, or a "never make a u-turn in the middle of the road", or "wait your turn instead of tailgating". This happens here all the time! You better be prepared for a chaotic, traffic jam-filled driving life, especially in the crowded city of Port-au-Prince. And if you'd like to reach your goal at some point, you better start pushing and honking as well ;-).
4. The Haitian service orientation, or better the lack of
During our first days, we met up with some friends and colleagues and naturally went out to the restaurants. Another pill to swallow, literally. After a nice and service-oriented summer in Europe, we had almost totally forgotten about the lack of the service-oriented mind in Haiti. It is bitter to say but the service in Haitian restaurants, sights, and other touristy spots is non-existing. Especially, if you are coming from the States, where everyone asks you at least thrice if everything is okay, this is a big shock.
In the past, we have experienced several examples of this, even outside of the capital. When we stayed at a mountain hotel in Vallue which was pretty much over-priced and was lacking a certain care for the inventory and its guest, as well as the touristy sight called Saut d'Eau which is very expensive for tourists compared to locals (250 HTG instead of 50 HTG) and they are even not cleaning up their sacred pilgrimage site!
Some hotels and restaurants start to teach their personnel better service-oriented behavior and rules but it is only changing slowly. And even if they are more polite, the service usually is still pretty slow. Be prepared to wait and see for yourself!
5. The shopping experience
It works both ways actually. When we arrived in France and did our first grocery shopping, we filled our cart for 50 Euros. This was such a cool moment! My husband and I looked at each other and were like "What? Only 50 Euros? You must be kidding me?".
But coming back to Haiti and doing our first grocery shopping to fill our fridge was exactly the contrary. We were like "What 160 USD? Is this for real?" A totally despairing moment which shows you that the costs of living (especially if you want to continue your Western lifestyle and buy the products you are used to) are so much higher in Haiti.
Going to the local markets is not really an option either due to safety reasons (hold on to your purse) and also because you have to negotiate all the prices and still lose money in the end. Negotiating can be very tiring, especially because the Haitians don't really have a commercial sense. If you offer to buy more and pay less, they will look at you strangely and will even raise the price!
To avoid such surprises, most expats prefer to go to the local big supermarkets such as Caribbean Supermarket, Giant, Big Star, etc. But of course, most products are imported from the US and France and hence, have elevated prices.
6. The political instability
Since we arrived last year in August, the whole country has been talking about the elections but it is just not happening. They organized the first round at the end of last year and the second round at the beginning of this year but these were cancelled last minute as the electoral council resigned. Since then a provisional president, Jocelerme Privert, has been "elected" and at the beginning of March, in order to demonstrate his power, he decided to not change to Daylight Saving Time for the summer. That is, by they way, why we have a 7-hour time difference between Haiti and France/Germany right now (which will go back to 6 hours in October).
The new first round of elections is currently planned for October but since the last events, we are in doubt if it will actually happen. Although the election posters are hanging everywhere and the candidates and their supporters are mobilizing their voters, I believe the Haitian are doubting, too. We'll see...
7. The climate, the heat
Reading my first paragraphs of this post, you might guess that the acclimatization is not always that easy and that the heat can be pretty oppressing at the beginning. When we arrived a year ago, we had a really hard time to get used to the Haitian climate. We had no AC, were constantly surrounded by mosquitos and ants, had to manage the power generator when the Haitian electricity worked only a couple of hours a day and had to switch the water source regularly, too.
This year, it was a lot better. The first days felt pretty hot and we sweated a lot, too. But after a week or two, we were fine. Moreover, our present apartment with AC and mosquito screens helps a lot, too. Funnily enough, coming back from France, Antonia asked me if she could drink the water out of the tap but unfortunately, no, this again is not possible here...
All these 7 things came to my mind and eye after having arrived from 2 busy months in Europe. Smell, poverty, garbage, the Haitian mentality, the heat, the prices, and the political chaos - what would you do if you were a Haitian? I am asking myself this question a lot and I am really glad that I was not born here. But I am thankful to experience their country, their nature, and their people and look forward to every excursion we undertake, either a good hike, either a lazy afternoon at the beach, or a stop at one of Haiti's islands. You just have to be patient leaving the capital - traffic jams and smokes heading your way :-).
Have you ever been to Haiti? If so, what have you noticed is different from your usual environment? Or have you been in a similar situation in a different country? I look forward to your comments below :-).
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