There's much more to Haiti than coups and earthquakes. Some of the most prolific artists in the region have called Haiti home. Like the unique culture, Haitian art reflects a mixture of African, Caribbean, French, and Catholic influences. Here's a two-part series on the art and life I saw there in 2003.
We cross the island of Hispaniola from the Dominican Republic to Haiti inside a rattling bus. I'm happy to have left my mother behind in Santo Domingo. My luggage is full of hope and art supplies to donate and demonstrate to artists, but I've no idea how or where I'll meet them. None of the organizations or embassies I've contacted have returned any messages, so I've come to the country to see what I can do on my own for a few days. As we reach the border, the landscape changes from scrubby Dominican bush to a desert: it's dry, dusty and bare.
Immigration. We pass quickly through pink-barred turnstiles. A local bus drives through with us, painted with carnival colors. These mini-trucks are called tap-taps; they reflect the hopes and dreams of the people who drive them. This one says "Merci Maman!" underneath an American flag – as with other Caribbean nations, the American presence looms large in Haiti. Flames rise over the words, an eye smolders from the center. "Stop" painted on all the tail-lights.
A sculptor I meet in Cite Soleil, Port-au-Prince's biggest slum; he made all these voodoo sculptures including the original for my blueprint. If you have his name or email, please contact me
This country was once the richest and most fertile of the West Indies. Contrast that with the barrenness now, its topsoil washed away by clear-cutting hurricanes and poverty. Goats run about in circles. A black pig snorts at the gutter. A brief respite of green, and now it's dry again.
"Espoir Fait Vivre" Hope gives life, says another tap-tap. "La Femme Creole – Belle Dresse" sings the praises of The Well-Dressed Creole Dame and another says "La Jalousie Rend un homme Mechant" Jealousy turns a Man into an Arsehole
We jolt across the highway. "They call this a road?!" I wonder [this is before my Cambodia days]. It has more rocks than dirt. Even the cacti are half-brown. Layers of mountains like cut-out silhouettes fade into a pale gold sun. Children sit under trees at the roadside with bowls of mangoes for sale. Goats nibble at patches of green, guarded by an 18-year-old with a gun. Goats, horses, pigs, roosters – all have their heads to the stony ground, pecking for food in the dust.
"Vous Parlez Je Travail" You Talk while I Work. "The Best Coiffeur Merci Bon Dieu" advertises the Unbeatable Thank God Hairstylists
Boys gesture at me for money through the window, for a shoe shine, for anything. They carry battered boxes of shoeshine supplies, the refuge of a society which – like Cambodia – has few options for most of its kids; school's too expensive for most.
A man sits in the shade of a shrine to a female saint. Crosses, flowers, votives.
Faith proclaimed from the side of more tap-taps: "Jesus Answer", "Dieu Devant" shows that God rides in the front seat. "L'amour du Prochain" Love Your Neighbor – or Love What's Next
Many of them are painted with Haitian women writhing in bright colors, their limbs twisted to embrace the metal curves. Real Haitian women are mesmerizing. They walk with heads held steady on strong necks under bundles to and from the market, their hair wrapped in colorful scarves. Proud. Very African. Remember the Haitian women I worked with in New York. Their dignity. I see that in these women too.
"Sauve Ma Soeur" says a rainbow-colored truck, Save My Sister. Another promises "La Force Tranquille" The Quiet Force
We drive past the end of a market – rows of bottles of rum, Aim toothpaste, soap – all brought in directly from america. It looks eerily like home but in a different context – as though supermarkets have been transformed into bare wooden boxes. The Dominican radio station blasts saccharine marimbas. Vendors with wares on their heads, in their hands, between their calves. Young man hands another cash for a huge plastic bag the size of his torso, filled with pink pills. Woman with basket on her head of eggplants, bananas, oranges.
Tap-taps promise "Providence Variees" or Guardian Angels, "Immaculee" and "Grace Divine", reassurance that the divine exists somewhere. But not here.
An overturned car, its wheels gone, undersides exposed.
"St. Joseph-Nouvelle Generation" like an epithet, "Refuge Varites" a prayer of hope, and "Let's Make Love -> Loving You" a prayer of thanks.
Shattered tires, iron crumbling back into red earth. "Jesus Is My Pilot" Not in this case, apparently.
Dominican radio fades and Haitian music with its African beats takes over. We enter Port-au-Prince. "Le Paradis" is written on a gutter, "St. Innocent" on a bar. A sign says "Dreams Club" and crumbles off a cement block. Near a gate: "Pa Vivre La" serves as a warning or a farewell. Trash fires flicker on street corners. Evening's coming soon.
"Vamos con Dios" God is inescapable in any language. "Mesi Bon Die", "Acsepted Christ" [sic], "Dieu Avant Tout Studio Photo" "Beni Soit L'eternel" "Patience", or simply, "Oh my God!"
So is the political, in a country as fractious as this one: "Aristide Pour 5 Ans" and "V. Aristide" Long Live Aristide
A driver overcharges me in a friendly fashion because I'm staying in the posh part of town, the swanky suburbs of Petionville. He runs out of gas on the treacherous ride uphill, and strangers help us push our cab up to the station. I'm happy that mom decided, last-minute, not to come; she wanted to relax on her week off work, and Haiti's not quite a holiday destination anymore. I only see two other tourists while there.
Dinner's at the bistrot next to my guesthouse. Cats weave their way between our feet and chairs. The waitress's name is Edelyne, she leaves me her number in case I have any problems in Haiti.
"We try to improve things here," she says. "We have our problems, but Haiti's Haiti. It changes slowly."
Walking at night is treacherous: open manholes and crumbling pavement could break your ankle – or worse. Girls in light blue uniforms with matching ribbons in their hair carry piles of schoolbooks into the street after sunset. Students of all ages crowd the benches and study under the streetlamps' emergency lights because they have no electricity at home.
I get to bed early because I've a lot of doors to knock on the next day. Including one that belongs to a voodoo priest.
Part 2 is here.