I'm back in Haiti. Five weeks, almost six, feels like a long time to have been gone and there are cosmetic changes everywhere. The retaining wall on Bourdon has been completed. The paint is dry on the 5-star Oasis hotel. Access to the ravine (ie. neighborhood dump) on our street has been closed off with high walls of corrugated tin, on which someone has scrawled in fancy lettering with blue and red flowers, "Let's make Nerettes more beautiful." Place Canape Vert has been cleared of the few straggling tents that were left and gussied up with a paint job and grass. Posters with the schedule for the 2014 World Cup qualifying games, and another for a bikini contest next weekend at the public beach, are everywhere.
Perhaps the most obvious change: Champs de Mars -- the downtown series of parks, memorials to revolutionary heros and plazas that are supposed to make up the largest public space in the Caribbean -- is empty. Gone are the tents, the hobbled together tin and wooden shacks, the makeshift restaurants and vendors stalls of thousands of the families displaced by the earthquake. Gone are the overflowing port-a-potties. What those families will do with only temporary lodging (provided mostly in the form of a year-long rental subsidy) while there is still a dire shortage of housing in Port-au-Prince - and even less affordable housing - seems to be beside the point. I've heard it said, "They'll do what they've always done." Make do.
Today, Champs de Mars is boasting the $1.6 million Carnival of Flowers. Intended in part to help boost Haiti's appeal on the Caribbean tourism circuit (and in part to draw attention to the "progress" of relocating Haiti's destitute and homeless out of sight), it's a full-on three days of parades, raras, crowds and shows by Haiti's most popular bands. Monday and today were declared national holidays just for the party.
Yesterday as I waited to meet someone two blocks above Champs de Mars and two hours before the parade was slated to start, I found myself surrounded by a drunken group of men in colorful drag, blowing whistles, shaking a tambourine and clamoring for money in exchange for a song. Speakers nearby were blaring the top hits from February's carnival. Thirty police officers in neon yellow jackets zoomed down the street, in formation, on motorcycles and four-wheelers. A man in a tall hat decorated with crêpe paper flowers walked by pushing a wheelbarrow of trash. Where was I?
A kind of van I've never seen before, with tinted windows and labeled 'Public Security,' careened to the curb with the siren trumpeting. Six men in 'Public Security' vests jumped out and wrestled an unkempt and dazed street beggar, that not five minutes earlier had asked me for money, into the back.
After my meeting the street was a crush of emergency vehicles, cars looking for parking, midriff tops and glitter, street merchants selling plastic flowers, and advertising.
O, the advertising. In less than two minutes, I counted more than 10
brands walking by on new t-shirts: Exxon Mobile, Haiti Equipment &
Demolition, Digicel (the phone company), Natcom (the other phone
company), Chaka Rice, Bongú, Sprite, SECOSA construction, Hertz, the
Ministry of Tourism... The wooden parade viewing stands that line Champs de Mars are similarly painted. Prestige, the
national beer company that was just bought out by Heineken, has an
entire marching band.
I watched a bit of the parade - beautiful costumed men and women dancing choreographed dances, but it was hot and getting crowded, and I was self-conscious of the coating of dust I acquired on my motorcycle taxi across across the city and of my distinctly uncarnival-like attire.
On my way home, the city streets were empty and sleepy. The frenzy of this unexpected carnival aside, Port-au-Prince feels lethargic. Everyone has been complaining about the heat and lack of rain.
The bizarre contrasts of this place never cease to make my head spin.
Here are photos of the Carnival of Flowers from the Guardian. (No pictures of my own to share. I left my camera in Dominica with Ben,
who is still touring the Eastern Caribbean by ferry and bicycle. More on
that adventure one of these days).