I woke up on the plane to the dude next to me handing me the customs forms I needed to fill out. A few days prior, DJ told me that these customs forms would be handed out within the last hour of the flight, so I knew we were close. Originally I thought I would have been moPere nervous knowing that I was about to land in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, but I think I got all the butterflies out the night before when I said goodbye to my family and eventually my dad at JFK. I waited for the dude to finish up with his pen so I could borrow it. As he handed it to me, I looked out the window at the Atlantic and saw two small islands with white sand perfectly outlined by some of the brightest blue water I’ve ever seen. Haiti was close.
By the time I finished the customs’ forms, the pilot had already begun lowering altitude. A few minutes later I got my first glimpse of the Haitian coast. Small settlements lined different parts of the bright blue beaches. My eyes followed the dirt roads away from the ocean and toward the mountains where more settlements could be found scattered around the mountains’ peaks and bases. Haiti has some of the most mountainous terrain in the Caribbean. The mountains don’t really remind me of the ones back home in Happy Valley or the Coal Region. They’re more like the ones I saw in Los Angeles: brushy, tall, and a bit rocky.
Finally we came in over Port-au-Prince. The city is jammed between a wide bay and a few tall mountains. Before this trip, I read on several websites that this placement creates an amphitheater-type layout for the city as many houses crawl halfway up the mountains that surround it. Now, I’d say that that’s a fair comparison. From this bird’s-eye view, I was able to see everything in the city. The streets are tight. The tin roofs were most noticeable. A river that flows through the city was lined with some tents. I could see people walking through the streets, many on bikes. Cars kicked up dust from the dirt roads. A few people were running around on a very dry soccer field. The airport’s runway was just a few miles off in the distance.
The plane dipped lower and I got a closer view of where I was about to be. The plane’s tires touched down, we came to a halt, and I grabbed my bags. DJ told me the first thing I would notice was the heat. I’d say it was hot, but it wasn’t overbearing. I liked it. I walked down from the plane, across the Tarmac, and into the airport. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised when I walked into the airport. It was very nice inside. I don’t even remember what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. I passed the band DJ told me I’d see and I tossed them a buck, found my bags at baggage claim, and continued through customs. This was the first time the language barrier became an issue. For some reason it took me by surprise, but then I smiled because I realized that it was all part of the experience that I had been waiting on for months. Luckily I was able to get by copying what everyone ahead of me would do. It worked for the most part, and when it didn’t, the airport workers helped themselves to my stacks of documents and tags to find what they needed.
My last stop in the airport was Digicel, where I would buy a cheap phone, add minutes, and call Ernso to tell him I had arrived. The lady in Digicel spoke broken English, but it worked. Somehow I ended up going from paying $25 to $86 to $53. All I know is that I had a phone with 200 minutes of international and local calling, and that’s what I needed. I called Ernso right away. This was also the first time I would be talking to him. Ernso is the man who runs HPCD (Haitian Partners for Christian Development), the office I’m working at, owns the house I am living in, and who I needed to pick me up at the airport. The phone worked and he said he would be there in 15 minutes. On my way out of the airport I managed to dodge most of the bag men who ask all travelers if they need help with their luggage or with finding a taxi. I just kept saying “No, merci” and continued walking. However, one guy reeled me in. He led me to the place where I would wait for Ernso. He then asked for $20. I told him I’d give him $2. He said “but I provide the excellent service.” I told him I can’t give him $20. That $20 turned into $3, which he was cool with. If anyone deserved $20, it was the next dude that helped me; he was great. At first I didn’t want him to help, but he did it anyway. He picked up my bags from the ground and put them on a cart. We spoke for a bit and I asked him if he could teach me a few phrases in Creole. He taught me “kouman ou ye?” which means “how are you?” along with “mwen byen” which means “I’m good.” He also taught me “kouman ou rele?” which asks for your name. My response was “mwen rele Andrew.” After this brief lesson, he spoke to Ernso on my phone to let him know where I was exactly. Then he hauled my bags down the sidewalk to where Ernso said he was at. I gave the man my last two singles and greeted Ernso.
I’ve seen pictures and videos of Ernso online, so I knew what to expect to a point. He speaks fine English. He is charismatic and we began good conversation immediately. Ernso is a man on a mission. He is a pastor for a non-denominational parish and holds mass twice every Sunday. He also runs HPCD, a business incubator for Haitian entrepreneurs who wish to learn basic business skills and need access to essential tools and resources for starting a business. You can read more about it here www.HPCD.org
, though I’m sure I’ll be writing more about the office and its mission over the next few days as I become more acquainted.
As Ernso drove through the streets of Port-au-Prince I got to see a little bit of what the city looked like as he explained to me what I was seeing. The streets themselves are rough. There aren’t any road rules. Drivers just kind of go where they please, passing each other as needed and avoiding head-on traffic when necessary. But it works well for them. The drivers often beep at each other to signal moves they are making in traffic. This is different than beeping in America, where people usually beep to show displeasure with fellow drivers. Along the sides of the street were buildings in all types of conditions. I’ll get into more detail about the city as I explore more in the next few days. Right now I can tell you that my first impressions were of amazement. See, before I arrived in Haiti I had anticipated all types of emotions, good and bad. However, while driving through the streets, none of my first impressions were bad. I was in awe from everything around me. At home in Pennsylvania, people who know me best can tell you that it doesn’t take much to draw my curiosity. I’m able to find the magic in any environment. In these streets of Port-au-Prince, it was not hard to locate.
Ernso made a few turns and he told me we were on the last road to his house. We were only minutes from the airport, so it had not been a long drive at all. The road leading up to his property was very rough. Like most roads in Haiti, this one had not been paved. Because of this, most vehicles in the country are trucks or motorbikes. We passed out a few bulls, goats, and chickens. Ernso told me that while these animals look wild, they all belong to someone. At night, the animals will all make their way back to their respective owners. Years ago he knew of some people who traveled to Haiti for a lengthy stay. To eat, these people had been killing local animals for food. The people of the town began to call them thieves. Until someone explained to them that all of the animals belong to someone, somewhere, they didn’t understand why the people around them had gotten so angry. Ernso said that these people are lucky they weren’t killed. We laughed.
Finally we pulled up to the gate of the house. Like many places in Haiti, Ernso built a gate around his house to protect it from intruders. He owns six acres at this property and all of it is gated in. The gates are concrete walls instead of iron fences. Some of the walls I saw on the drive in from the airport had upside-down glass bottles with the bottoms smashed off sticking out of the top of the concrete. The sharp glass sticks up out of the concrete and serves as a type of defense to keep intruders from scaling the wall. I think it’s pretty clever and actually looks a bit cooler than barbed wire. Ernso doesn’t use this method for his walls though. His walls are just very high.
Ernso laid on his horn for a second and we waited for the gate to be opened. Within a minute the gate was pulled open by Bobby, a man who works for Ernso and the Jean-Louis family. Ernso briefly introduced us and Bobby gave a smile and a wave. We pulled inside and I caught my first glimpse of the house. My eyes widened and I think I actually gave an audible ‘wow’. The house was beautiful. Everything about it from the architecture to the landscaping was just awesome. Surrounding the house were lush, green, tropical trees and bushes. Two dogs, Sasha and Rocky, ran alongside the car. Ernso and I stopped in front of the house and stepped out. We walked up to the double doors at the front and stepped inside. He immediately began showing me the ins and outs of the property. The inside is even nicer than the outside of the house. White marble tiles line the floor, Haitian artisan crafts cover the mantles and walls, and small plans and bushes fill the corners of the rooms. The few pictures I’ll post of the inside of the house probably don’t even do it justice.
After showing me around the house, where I’ll sleep, and a few other places, he took me to the back porch to meet a few more people. Gina is a tall, thin woman who does some cleaning for the Jean-Louis family and their guests. I don’t think she speaks much English. Christina is Ernso’s daughter. She graduated from Penn State a few years ago and I’ll be doing much of my work at the office alongside her. With Christina were Myrla, Crystal and little Akim, a very content and curious one-and-a-half year old who made it very hard not to smile around. These three were members of Ernso’s parish and came to hang out for the day. I spent a few minutes talking to Myrla (or Crystal, can’t remember who was who). She looked at me the whole time smiling and kind of shaking her head. After two or three minutes, she laughed and said “I don’t speak English.” We both busted out in laughter.
Ernso showed me the rear of the house. The entire rear is covered by a green, iron, barred fence that arches toward the house, connecting at the top. The fence is covered by all sorts of vines and vegetation and creates a magnificent ambiance in the backyard. When you slide the gate open, you walk forward and see the pool and the rest of the back yard. The pool looks very appealing. To the right of the pool is a completed guest house with a few Penn State stickers on the windows. I liked seeing that. In the rear of the yard is another guest house that is being built. Ernso says that during the week, several youth that trained at HPCD come to work on this structure. This is just another example of Haitian jobs he has created through HPCD.
The rest of the backyard is complete with a tennis court and a few open fields that Ernso plans to build more houses on next year. The trees in the backyard include eucalyptus, mango, coconut palms, cacti, basil, and many others.
I really like this place. The scenery is beautiful, the people are nice, and the food is great, which I realized later in the day when we met on the back porch for dinner. The main dish was goat. As many of you know, I eat everything and anything. Goat was no exception. In fact, I thought it was very good. There was also Haitian rice, a bean sauce to pour over the rice, coconut water, Citronella tea, and a few other dishes. Everything tasted great, which was something I suspected after doing a lot of research online about the food. Also at dinner I met Carmen, a Haitian woman who has been living in the US for over 40 years. Carmen said she tries to come back about once a year to check on a few things such as her property. She moved to Chicago when she was young but quickly relocated to Los Angeles where she has lived for most of her life. Carmen doesn’t look a day over 40 but told us she is 60. I told her I don’t believe her and we laughed.
If today was any testament to how the rest of my trip in Haiti will go, I’m confident it’s going to be a good thirty days. As far as this blog goes, I plan to write a few times a week. I’ll post pictures, write about my experiences with the entrepreneurs, and try to give you guys a good sense of how I’m living.