First glimpses of Haiti – a lightly rippled sea gives way to jagged green hills littered with shanties; we circle once, then land at Toussaint L’Ouverture airport’s modest strip. There is a warehouse by the runway with a collapsed red roof, which I point out to Dorian. “Why is it broken?” he asks. “There is a lot of wind here,” I explain. “Is Haiti broken?” he asks. I had explained earlier that Mummy’s job was to help fix Haiti, but I slightly regret it now.
Descend onto the tarmac from the rear exit; stinking hot. I grab the double stroller, kick it into shape (a model recalled in the US only a week before, for amputating fingers), deposit and strap the children inside. A welcome band sponsored by Digicel plays a Caribbean jingle in the modest entrance. My immigration is trouble free; a Haitian family huffs and puffs as they are sent back to an undetermined side room for further checks.
$2 for a baggage cart and I claw my way through the crowd, double stroller in my left hand, children twisting and turning, dragging the cart with my right, which also twists and turns as I pile on five heavy pieces of luggage. Graceful, I am not.
Passengers are now pushing past each other to get a place in the snaking customs line, and a few small arguments break out. I am proclaimed a paragon of fortitude by one strident madame, who points at me and extolls my fatherly virtues to a middle aged queue jumper, who gibbers pompously and makes weak excuses before tutting, heading to the end of the line, and rolling his eyes in mock mutual sympathy with an unimpressed Arab.
It feels deeply familiar – I am back in Africa, except it’s in the Caribbean, and I am not on assignment. Porters compete to push my luggage but I decline, seeking Anna and a UN driver, upon which the porters grow a little stroppy and hurry me along. Anna appears, happy reunions.
In the car, I quickly remember why you should roll up the windows at junctions – beggars rush over and tap for alms. Dorian, inevitably, announces he needs the toilet – “pee pee! pee pee!” – so we draw up to UN Logistics base, where a Chinese guard looks worried until I hold Dorian aloft and also announce “pee pee!”, which does the job. Dorian gushes, the guard grins.
It’s a public holiday – the celebration of some glorious victory against the French, Anna vaguely recalls – so the traffic is mercifully light; a familiar picture of vendors and stalls of lining the roads, people everywhere, walking, trading, carrying, bargaining… all life’s rituals in public.
Heading up the hillside it grows cooler – this is why the rich live here, I assume – and we are soon into bougainvillea suburbs – pleasant houses and trees, although even in these middle class and elite heartlands one is never far from the shacks and the stalls.
A temporary house with white tiled floors (contrary to myth, there is no UN compound… one is entirely left to one’s own devices to find a home, no official help is offered). A long view down the hillside to the sea, hazy sky.
I am internet-parched; but the service is patchy (we ride on an unsecured but weak wireless from the Philipines embassy). I may have to wean myself somewhat off my online addiction. Yikes. Electricity is off, as usual; we are running on inverter power (generator only at night) which means no aircon. I drink my first prestige beer, which claims on the tin it won the World Beer Cup Gold Medal. I am skeptical.
Night falls; Jean, our guard arrives, with shotgun – mildly unnerving in the front drive, but he is friendly. Anna and I eat a steak that is turning rancid due to irregular refrigeration. Tepid shower. Bed.