The Guest House. (checkpoint Charlie)
June 7th 2012
We arrived pulling through an all steel gate with an attendant standing by ensuring no one wonders onto the property unexpected. The compound is filled with trees lining a dirt/cobblestone drive leading to a retaining wall some 30 feet high. To the right a new project is being built consisting of concrete and cinder block. (shocker)
To the left the guest house. A two-story building that in its day (around the 80’s I am guessing) was a top rate place to stay. My first impression walking down a pathway into a covered porch area was that of disappointment. (this would change later) It was not what I had expected after looking it up online. But hey we aren’t here to lounge and relax, our group came to work and work was all we talked about for the last month.
We immediately banded together unloading the trucks, and introducing ourselves to the guest house hosts. Tom and Sara. The two of them quickly gave us a run down of the facility, showing us to our rooms. Men in room 3, women in room 5. A bathroom/douche at either end of the hall with two toilet/water closets nestled in a narrow hallway around the corner. A table with community computer and wi-fi at the top of the stairs. (our last link to the world for 8 days). The men walked into room three and all of us quickly obtained a bunk bed best suited for ourselves. There were two other teams expected that afternoon and I was looking forward to meeting them, hoping to glean some information about the area and what to expect. I am not one to let too much bother me but I was nervous in this strange land so far from home. Feeling a little like a cornered animal, no place to go, run or hide. Any information that might calm my nerves would be more than welcome. Being as though I was worried and nervous I couldn’t help but wonder how my son was doing, but to my surprise he was strangely calm and relaxed. Excited for what the next 8 days lay in store.
We met with Sara again who had arranged for us to go sight-seeing that afternoon. We talked about going to the Baptist mission, or off to some of the more challenging neighborhoods taking in the sights and sounds, possibly seeing more tent cities. In the end we opted for lunch and a swim at hotel Ibo-LeLe in the province of Petionville, Port-au-Prince. Located around 1400 feet up the side of a mountain this hotel boasted some of the best views of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area. Sara and Tom decided they would go with us as lunch and a swim away from the compound sounded enticing. It was also a nice way for them to understand and learn a little about this feisty 10 person team from California.
We loaded into our 10 person Toyota and headed off up the mountain. Strange thing about climbing and winding through the narrow and sometimes steep roadways. Conditions seemed to improve. Living conditions, housing, stores, streets, everything seemed a little neater, a little nicer, a little more affluent for a devastated country with no means. HMMMM???
At one point while turning a street corner the stores seemed nicer, painted, organized, and then we rolled up on a two-story, freshly painted grocery store surrounded by a giant stucco/plaster wall. Both entrances were guarded by men with shotguns. Presumably to keep residents out without the means to pay for items. The method or mode of transportation seemed to change as well the higher we climbed. Gone were the 300,000 mile abused Tap-Taps. In their place was still late 90’s early 2000’s Honda’s, Toyota’s and Nissan’s, but also a mix of Mercedes, Land Cruisers, Range Rovers and even a few Porsches were spotted!
Could this be the actual visual translation of the rich live on the hill and the poor suffer the plains? Before I had time to ponder these visual cues we had arrived at Ibo-LeLe. Walking down the entry way it was very reminiscent of 1960’s Cuba portrayed by Hollywood. Very open, and inviting, straight from a James Bond movie. We all made our way out back to the pool area where we found a shaded area to sit and enjoy our lunch. There were three levels to choose from, one in the open sun on top, one completely shaded in the middle and the lower pool level area. Before we could settle into a few chairs we were told the middle level where we were was closed. Looking around I noticed some men in black suits eyeing our presence. They were sharp and wore ear phones connected to radios. Behind us sat a table of roughly ten people who had been enjoying lunch. All talking had stopped and they to were staring directly at us. My alarm bells began ringing, and we all quickly moved to the upper level. I said good day to one of the “suits” who gave me a casual smile in return. While enjoying our lunch we learned the ten person table was in fact a private party for the Minister of Agriculture. Sweet in country less than 6 hours and I had already crashed a political party! HA!
Lunch took around 2 1/2 hours and all of us quickly learned the meaning of Haiti time. My wife warned me that; Haiti time meant I needed to move slower, take my time because nothing in done in a hurry. Well except driving of course.
We never went swimming as lunch took the better part of our afternoon. The views were spectacular, and all of us took the opportunity to grab some pictures from the upper deck of the hotel. If you squinted your eyes and pretended you could almost believe nothing had ever happened and it was the way the country was supposed to look. Yet as we stood there I was finding it shameful to be treated so well when so many had nothing.
Cody and the crew were settling into all they had seen and experienced when we weaved our way through Port-au-Prince earlier. We laughed and joked, shaking off the nerves associated with sensory overload, but nothing could prepare us for the moment our eyes would gaze upon the National Palace.
After lunch we made our way down the hill leaving upper class behind, winding through narrow streets filled with garbage, street venders, people and cars, eventually making our way to the bottom where organized chaos reigned king once again. Rounding one final corner we came upon the National Palace grounds. It was pure devastation. We had all seen pictures, we had talked a good game, but I personally was not prepared for what I saw. It was destroyed beyond belief. A symbol of the country’s strength, prosperity and security, leveled beyond repair. It massive domes laying sideways like a drunk man trying to stand under his own power. Walls sheared off, floors collapsed, sections flattened. This once mighty building left in ruins for all to see.
In that moment for me personally I understood why the country was struggling to survive. Imagine if the White House had been flattened. This symbol of America unites millions each year who come to see it, gaze upon its historic and valued walls. How can a country move forward without one of its main symbols of recognition?
Designed in 1912 by architect Georges H. Baussan its design took second place in an architects national competition. It was awarded the winning nod because the first place building was deemed to costly. The budget for the new palace was set at $350,000 and construction began in 1914. In 1915 the under construction palace was set ablaze by a mob that ousted then murdered President Vilbun Guillaume Sam. This assassination led to the United States of America occupying Haiti which opened the door for the U.S. Navy engineers to oversee the Palaces completion in 1920.
There have been several attempts to start work on the palace since the earthquake with the latest taking place in 2010. Only the middle rotunda has been cleared and all construction has been halted.
In my opinion a country needs to start somewhere. Mobilizing your people through strength and pride can be done with a symbol such as the National Palace. A place for its government to unify and build solidarity. It gives a country hope; hope that progress on that level can trickle down to its people. People who I would soon find out have immense pride for their country. Band that passion, that love and a stronger country cannot help but emerge.
It was a long hot trip back up the hills through the streets to the guest house. We were all tired from our long flights and a few of us were looking forward to a swim in the guest house pool before dinner. We all knew tomorrow the group would ship out to our assignment. We all had no idea what we were in for and the thought of a simple swim, some dinner and one last night in a bed seemed to be the order of the evening.
God bless this country, because from what we had seen so far its people are amazingly resilient.
To be continued…..