The air is opaque with dust and smog. Huge gouts of black soot spout for the unfiltered exhausts of vans that are covered in wooden construction and painted with Biblical passages in neon colors. Hands reach into our open windows asking for money. Words spoken to a stranger: “Mommy I’m hungry.” It’s that dangerous combination of performance with the promise of a truth – you know they’re just playing on your heart strings, but you’re convinced it’s still in earnest. Shantytowns lay up against newly constructed condos, still empty. Expanses of buildings push against each other like leaves in a yard casting shadows on undeveloped land, peppered by people like a park. No benches, no landscaping, stark wilderness next to a highway. Wild fires lick the streets, the smoke enriching the thick air. Rubble. There’s rubble everywhere. Whether it’s remnants of the earthquake three years ago, or waiting as stock to build something new is impossible to tell.
Haiti is a place in flux.
When you drive through it feels alive in a way that’s different from what we know. New York is alive because people are always on the go, trying to get from one place to the next, late for this meeting, on their way to that event – and the city acts as a board on which the population plays that game. In Haiti, it’s smaller, more intimate. There’s an immediacy, a closeness – it feels like it’s breathing on you. Every moment is about that and only that. A place where you have to walk for a half an hour through mountain roads to get to where you want to go – life is about life.
It’s easy to look at the kids pushing their dusty rags against your dusty van – calling it work for pay – and feel pity. It’s easy to drive without a main road and think about a lack of resources. It’s easy to miss the conveniences that we go to battle for and look down, or feel guilt for what you have. But it misses the point.
We can’t measure others wants and desires against our own. In the scenes I saw outside the window, through the smoke and exhaust, over the rubble and dust, between the trees and fire and jerry-rigged vans, I saw smiles. Lots of laughter, and no fear or worry. None of this I can know, of course. And certainly a large part of this is ascribed by me – but it’s easy to forget that people are happy in situations that would make you unhappy. Aid is important, and in many places is needed deeply. But always out of generosity and kindness. Out of a desire to support and uplift. Guilt is easy, but it’s false.
Unlike New York which allows it’s people to scramble upon it and live their torrential lives, Haiti holds the space for its people and tells them to take their time. The public clock that we have – a New England Patriots team clock – isn’t even plugged in.