My 4 Days In Haiti
For almost three years, Ibraheem Al Mahdy, a Christian convert to Shia Islam some six years ago, has been pleading for me to visit his lot in Haiti. He says he reads my worldwide travel blogs, claims I will find lots to do for his pitiful country, painful people, please come. I finally find some time this month and decide to visit for a few days. Here are my travel notes, perhaps of some interest to you?
American Airlines (AA) flight 1593 departing from Orlando to Miami is delayed 30 minutes and then another 20 minutes; gloom sets in, I know I will miss connecting flight from Miami to Port Au Prince (POP); I pray that one is delayed as well. High hopes. The (ancient) AA counter clerk bares false teeth in an insincere smile and shrugs her creaking shoulders Ask the people meeting this flight in Miami, they’ll assist ya. Sure enough, the POP bound flight is pulling off as we park next gate. Nobody is there to assist me; I walk a great distance to AA customer service counter. Another uncaring clerk, grinding on chewing gum as if there is no tomorrow, says next flight is tomorrow, at 6:20 AM. Because this was a technical delay, AA will put you up in a hotel, and give you food vouchers. 10 years earlier, I would have blown a fuse, but with age, (wisdom?) and patience catching up on me, I take it all in stride. I go to the hotel, call Ibraheem with the bad news, try to work on my book, see if I can squeeze few dollars from trading the FX market, eat fish for dinner and retire by 9.
AA flight to POP is delayed yet again! An aircraft bathroom will not flush so a 30 minutes wait while a technician fumbles in there, whiffing up the unholy scent before we take off. We deplane to eardrum splitting music from a band, looking for money; some put change into a gaping hat. Immigration / customs is painless; I met a happy Ibraheem waiting outside. POP is very depressing, grimy, undisciplined and scary. A short taxi trip of less than 5 minutes to the domestic airport burns a $10 pocket hole. In Haiti, you see, one is either super rich or super, super poor; no middle class, virtually. I could have risked my life and walked the distance, but if I want a taxi, I pay; I could eat at a decent restaurant and dish out an average of $25, or risk my health and eat at a dhabba replica for $3…get my point? Ibraheem and I get to know each other, talk a lot, waiting for a 30-minute 11:45 flight to CAP-Haitian (CH), Ibraheem’s hometown. Ibraheem is 29, single. His grandma brought him up as dad went AWOL after he was born and mum, well, she lost it. His is intense with his religion and talks nonstop about Shia Islam and how positively it has impacted his life.
Tortug Air is a 17 seat Czech manufactured LET410 dual propeller aircraft; we board it to furnace-like heat inside; all of us begin to sweat profusely and robust body odor quickly mixes in with the heat and humidity. When the pilot does show up, he is furious with ground operations. How can you board the aircraft without the captain? He yells; there is not a peep out from any apprehensive of us. The co-pilot eventually comes, strolling leisurely from the decaying terminal building; without another word, the aircraft door is shut, engines started and we have a bumpy takeoff. Even at 27,000 feet, the aircraft remains hot and sticky. It takes a mere 27 minutes from takeoff to touchdown at CH.
Another 5-minute ride in a private taxi outside sets me back $10, airport taxi wanted double. If POP is grimy, CH is shoddier, my temperament gets progressively gloomier; I have to spend the next 2 days in this dump. The hotel is definitely not worth US$150 for a room; TV does not work, Internet WIFI does not work, fan does not work. The skies suddenly go very dark, like it is already night at 4PM and it starts raining. Lo, I thought rains in Mumbai, India were awful, this is evil; for 3 hours it pours, there is blinding nonstop lightning, heart thumping thunder and our room floods. We are moved to a better room, where the air conditioner actually works, TV works, 3 stations, all running American movies. Ibraheem says there is halal food readily available all over Haiti; I am intrigued. His perception of halal food turns out meat that is not from swine family, so poultry, lamb, beef is all okay to consume; he gets an earful from me, a 30 minute lecture on what he can or cannot eat as a Muslim. Poor guy, he looks clearly crestfallen, laments over and over about the sins he is committing; we eat fish.
The alternative to pricy taxis is using your legs or a motorbike taxi. I could have walked but it is super hot and humid; just stepping out in the sun saps my strength and I feel immediately lethargic. Ibraheem flags a motorbike taxi and we are off to meet Ibraheems congregation. I am sandwiched between the sweat soaked rider and Ibraheem at the rear. OMG, I have never before prayed so intensely; the guy zips off as if possessed by some voodoo spirit, shrill horn blaring nonstop, cussing everybody along the way; I hold on to the sides of seat for dear life. CH roads are narrow with the entire sewer system running underneath it. Negligence, shoddy work, the earthquake, combination of all these perhaps has opened up huge gapping holes, one wrong move and you plunge into one for a rendezvous with human waste, all kinds; it takes 10 minutes of eternity to reach our destination.
The community worships in an open space up a slippery slope of a mountain, a tricky trek up, what with rains from yesterday mudding up the surface, strong stench of feces and urine creeping up my nose as I exert up. Children greet Ibraheem with Sallam Aleykum, some shout Allah Akber in a tune, probably mimicking the call to prayer that is cried out 5 times a day from the mountain top. I meet a ragtag group of about 20 Muslims, new converts to Shia Islam in various stages of salaat. Of them, Ibraheem, Bilaal, Abudhar and Luqmaan are veterans, Muslims for 6 plus years. They are all absolutely thrilled to meet me, wide, very white toothy grins testament of their happiness. After a 2-hour question and answers session on rules and laws of Islam, I am exhausted. I am not an aalim, all I say has to be translated to French / Creole, back again to English if there are further questions or clarifications. Although Ibraheem speaks reasonable English, it is very heavily accented and that causes frustrations both sides.
To say these people are poor is an understatement, yet they pool little recourses to surf the Internet, reading up on write-ups about Shia Islam. Over 3 years, they have struggled to build a mosque and a sorry looking foundation is taking shape. But they are now elated, I am here, first person to have visited them ever; one even calls me a prophet! Naturally, this is extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing. After promising to find them a donor for completing the mosque, we return to the hotel and wait out the day for our return to POP tomorrow. We eat more fish. But we also eat a wonderful dessert – a tiny green fruit they call Mamonsillo, very juicy and blissfully sweet. I have not seen this fruit anywhere else in the world; for those that know me, do so as a fruit maniac. We get a big bunch for free; a man goes up a tree and brings us some! I wolf down at least 50; Ibraheem watches me in amused astonishment.
We stay at a POP hotel that is slightly better, eat more fish (I better not be fed fish for the next 20 years at home), visit an area that critically needs clean drinking water and take in rows and rows of tent homes, people still living in them since the devastating earthquake, pathetic and resigned, a depressing and heart wrenching sight. I am so blessed, have so, so much to thank for, alhamd’Allah.
I return home to Sanford via Miami next day, both AA flights delayed.
Note: You will not see photographs of women in this report – for a reason. I found most women in Haiti provocatively dressed, everything on show; not appropriate for audience of this blog.