Haiti: Life Beyond the Tent Cities

Two years after the quake, a writer talks to professionals whose lives are almost back to normal.

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I'm standing on the balcony of Hotel Ibo Lele, enjoying an outdoor club in the hills of Haiti. It's dark and my camera isn't properly capturing the view of Port-au-Prince below, one that reminds me of the way Los Angeles looks from the poolside at the Mondrian on Sunset. Still, I keep snapping. I want evidence to take back to the States, to show that Haiti is not just what Americans see on TV.

It's the week before Christmas, and my friends Fabrice Armand and Mackenten Petion, both Haitian American, and I are visiting from Brooklyn, N.Y., to shoot Haiti Is Me. The aim of the film, a documentary about the "other" side of Haiti, is to show the country in a different light from what are commonly held views off its shores: corruption, hurricanes and misfortune and, more recently, earthquakes, tent camps and cholera.

The aim for me, a first-time visitor to the country, is to see for myself what Haiti is and isn't, despite the U.S. State Department travel warning that says the equivalent of "enter at your own risk."

When I'm sufficiently awed by the view, I join my friends and the new friends we've picked up in our travels. They're at the bar, where they are all watching a ritual as old as time itself -- men watching women who pretend they don't know they're being watched.

As I order a drink, a woman nearby compliments me on my top, a fancy sequined thing that I almost left at home, guessing it was too much for Haiti. I'm happy to keep this to myself, but Fabrice, raised in Haiti until he was 15 before moving to Queens, N.Y., completely embarrasses me by adding that he had to tell me to bring nice clothes for my visit. This quip evokes laughter from everyone in hearing distance, an inside joke that initially goes over my head. 

Each of them has a story about a friend they've begged to come visit Haiti. "The hardest part is getting people here; once they arrive, they don't want to leave," the woman says. When that friend finally shows up, it's with a suitcase of medical scrubs and what appear to be hand-me-downs to blend in. "All people see on TV is tent camps," she adds. "They don't know any better."

I agree with her. "Haiti needs better PR," I say to the group, not for the first or last time during my eight-day trip. Everyone nods in agreement.

Two years after a 7.0 earthquake literally shook the capital of Haiti to its core, the events of Jan. 12, 2010, remain a marking point in the lives of residents. Without intention, life has become divided into pre- and post-earthquake. As in New Orleans two years after Katrina, the citywide remnants of catastrophe remain everywhere, seemingly constant reminders of what went wrong.

As an outsider, I pick up on the obvious -- the piles of rubble not removed but pushed to the side of the road, the dilapidated movie theater that collapsed on itself and hasn't been razed, the tent camps dispersed throughout the city where an estimated half million people still live.

For residents whose homes weren't destroyed or who had the ability to rebuild, it's the little things that trigger memories. Fabrice and I are headed back to the apartment where we're staying with friends when our driver points to a slab of mountain off the side of the road.

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