Saturday, April 21, 2012

After the Earthquake, but Before the Flood

By Ben Fountain
Originally published here, in the Wall Street Journal

I arrived in Port-au-Prince last December to find my friends coughing, sniffling, hacking and struggling for breath amid the orange smog that hung over the city like a cloud of Cheetos dust. Soon Haiti would mark the second anniversary of the earthquake, and I was back to do more of what I usually do there: try to figure out why things are the way they are.

"N'ap boukiné dlo," my friend Faubert said when he picked me up at the airport. We're grilling water. In other words, amid the matrix of Haiti's macro-catastrophes, your own daily striving often seemed futile.

Faubert took me up the hill to the house of my friend Gary, an expat American who had married a Haitian woman 20 years before. The smog didn't bother Gary, his theory being that a two-packs-a-day habit had immunized him against airborne crud. Mornings we'd sit out on what was left of his small patio, drinking coffee and watching the bucket brigades in the ravine below, hauling away the rubble one pail at a time. "They're probably making about 10 bucks a day," he said of the laborers. Not starvation wages; not quite.

For regular folks it seemed hand-to-mouth as usual, but soon I became aware of something new stirring: a tidal wave of foreign capital was bearing down on Haiti's shores. The TV news was full of announcements for new beach resorts, industrial parks, luxury hotels for visiting businessmen. The song "Billionaire" by Travie McCoy was getting heavy play ("I wanna be a billionaire so [expletive] bad/Buy all of the things I never had…"). A glossy lifestyle magazine had recently launched, its sexy ads and features aimed squarely at the local One Percent.

Meanwhile, there was the problem of the 600,000 people—or was it 700,000?—still living in tents. Authorities had recently cut services to the camps in hopes that people would move out. One day at the sprawling camp across from the National Palace, a neatly dressed man with piercing hazel eyes grabbed my hand. He had something urgent to tell me, urgent! Something about the camps and Ogoun, voodoo god of iron, fire and war. Did I know? Had I heard? I listened as politely as I could while wriggling free, but not before he leaned close and vigorously rubbed his head against mine.

"I think it was voodoo," said my friend the ophthalmologist. "I think he was trying to put Ogoun in your head." Disappointingly, I didn't feel any different. The ophthalmologist and his family were still living in tents, although they did, thanks to extension cords running from their half-destroyed house, have electricity now. These days his practice consisted largely of street clinics, where he charged about $2.20 for a diagnosis.

He was skeptical about all the foreign investment. "A few people will make millions," he predicted. "Everyone else, maybe their income will go from $500 a year to $800, but their misery will increase from being surrounded by all this wealth they can never have."

 I went up into the mountains, to the farm of a beautiful woman whose work with native plants and sustainable methods showed the kind of decent life that was possible. At a gallery opening in Jacmel I met an artist who'd spent the '60s tending bar at jazz clubs in New York. He'd seen all the greats, and a lot of them—Blakey, Mingus, Roach—had made the pilgrimage to Haiti, whose music has some of the world's most complex rhythms. Back in Port-au-Prince, Gary and I resumed our morning sessions on his broken patio. The sounds of the city roiled around us. Crowing roosters, barking dogs, the scrape of shovels and saws, music blaring, traffic. We watched the bucket brigades, drank coffee and talked about our kids. Shortly after the quake Gary had sent his son and daughter to live with family in the U.S. He could barely say their names without tearing up.

One night I sat on the patio contemplating the honeycomb of cinder block houses that filled the ravine. The power went out, and a collective groan rose up. Pinpricks of flashlights appeared, then someone started a fire on an open patch of ground. By the time power was restored, a roaring bonfire was going.

Word came that lots of men in dark suits had taken up residence at the fancy Karibe Hotel. Soon the other shoe dropped: Oprah! Her visit was part of a celebrity invasion—Louis Farrakhan, Ben Stiller, one of the Kardashians. Oprah did a tour of Sean Penn's refugee camp. An evening reception feting the Ghetto Biennale artists coincided with Mr. Farrakhan's visit to a nearby mosque, creating a traffic jam that paralyzed downtown for hours.

I left one morning at 6 o'clock. Gary and I waited on his patio for my ride. Nearby, someone was hammering a piece of metal with maniacal industriousness. Gary laughed. "It doesn't matter what time it is," he said. "Wherever you are in Haiti, there's always some guy hammering on something."

Somehow Ben Fountain always manages to capture what it is about Haiti. Ben, who we met shortly after the earthquake through our neighbor Gary, has become a dear friend. His book of short stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, is a favorite and his next book, Billy's Long Halftime Walk, will be published in May. 

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