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.
"When the earthquakes came, the rocks rubbed together," he begins as casually as if he's identifying a song on the radio. "The friction created all these small fires, so everything's a mess, everyone's hurt and then there's fire on top of it."
Another time we're at the offices of Tortug Air, a small airline company that offers trips from Port-au-Prince to Haiti's provinces and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Owner Oliver Jean describes how he lost friends, business associates and even family in the earthquake, but those aches have become a part of him.
He thinks about that day mostly when he sees a person with a missing limb and wonders if the earthquake is the cause. Or he'll glimpse the distant mountains and remember when they were higher. "The mountains are how I knew just how bad the earthquake was," he says. "I knew it was bad, but I thought it was centralized near here; then I saw the mountains had fallen."
But the 2010 tragedy isn't what Jean, or anyone else I met in Haiti, wants to focus on. In general, Haitians are incredibly sensitive about the perception of the country. They fear that's what is keeping some investors — much needed to rebuild Haiti — at bay.
When our cameras are rolling for the documentary, no one wants to throw the country under the bus by mentioning its infrastructure shortcomings, common complaints in casual conversation. In Port-au-Prince, a city of more than 1 million, there are daily rolling blackouts, lagging waste management and traffic made worse by the poor road conditions.
If Haiti is known for anything, Jean wants it to be the strength and resilience of its people. That strength is evident everywhere once you arrive on the island. Take a drive down almost any of the bustling main roads and you'll find the bourettes, or cart pullers, transporting heavy loads of sugarcane and other goods. You'll see the vendors hawking everything from art to loaves of bread, from Air Jordan sneakers and Timberland construction boots to fresh fruit and mobile phones.
The proceeds likely aren't enough to get by, but it's enough to show that as a collective, Haitians aren't looking for a handout. What they want is help to assist them rebuild their country.
Anedie Azael, the reigning Miss Universe Haiti, couldn't hold in a frustrated sigh when I recounted, unnecessarily, what outsiders think of her country. Changing the perception of Haiti has been her daily mission since winning the crown in July 2011.
"I wish Haiti was known for its very proud people," said Azael, who founded Peace Love International, an organization with the mission of building a therapeutic center for children and women in Cap-Haitien, Haiti. "We have a lot of dignity. If people knew that, it could change the perception of the world toward Haiti."
Thoughts of "What to do about Haiti?" have become more frequent with the second anniversary of the earthquake approaching. At Hang, a Port-au-Prince bar where young professionals gather after work for a drink and to unwind, there's talk of the $45 million hotel that Marriott will open in Port-au-Prince in 2014 and guesses as to whether people are finally getting that Haiti has something to offer. Maybe so. I arrive in Haiti the week after Kim Kardashian and Oprah Winfrey leave. The week I'm in town, so are Minister Louis Farrakhan, Ne-Yo and Fat Joe.
This conversation segues to a quip that Haiti has become "the Republic of NGOs." The comment launches a litany of complaints about nongovernmental organizations that are blamed for the skyrocketing prices of renting an apartment — $2,000 for a two-bedroom in some places — and the newly pricey rates at a favorite local bistro like Pizza Garden, which now charges almost as much as a Miami venue.
But then the liquor takes hold and the conversation turns to topics familiar to any 20- or 30-something in America on a Friday night: Where are we going next, who are we going with and what is coming up soon?
There are two massive weddings on Saturday, events that everyone who's anyone will be attending. Tonight seems light, except for the Digicel holiday party farther up in the hills, but no one here has an invite. Maybe drinks at the five-star Hotel Karibe? Ne-Yo's performing at the Ritz Kinam soon, a must-see event with a $50 price tag because he's performing with Haitian kompa artist T-Vice.
Fast-forward to plans for New Year's Eve, less than two weeks away. Who's throwing the yacht party this year? And which beach is best to see the fireworks at midnight?
Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor to The Root .