By Candice Russell
the returnees are in a small, select group who are equally smitten by Haiti’s strange charms. They embrace its quirks and mysteries, like the remarkable telejiol, a fax-fast form of instant verbal communication that allows seemingly everyone to know that you arrived on the afternoon American Airlines flight and what you business is. They also forgive its myriad failings, like the increasingly pot-holed airport road. There is a rhythm here beyond music, a pasion beyond explanation. People who adore Haiti, or at least have a frustrating love-hate relationship with it, talk about this elusive force as if it can be universally seen or smelled or touched.
The first-time visitor isn’t likely to think Haiti is elusive, however. It is direct and confrontational, a sensual hit.
For better or worse, the introduction is through the nose. The pungent, inescapable smell of burning charcoal, the dust from the unpaved portion of the airport road, the sweat of people conducting a frenzied charade commerce at the Iron Market — it’s full-bore olfactory assault.
The eyes take in color, riotous, pervasive, all over the place. Despite rabid poverty, the smallest buses, known as tap-taps, bear coats of paint in stripes, designs, figures and sayings. Storefronts have handpainted images of food, hairstyles and clothing. The humblest shacks warrant dressing up, parrot-like, in lime green and deep turquoise, or pink and yellow.
Haitians themselves are the antithesis of drab in dress and personality. they are proud and volatile. They love drama and arguments for their own sake, which may be why bargaining with street vendors is the only way business is done.
Heated debate nearly leading to fisticuffs engages two men outside a shop on a Sunday morning. One is young, barefoot, raggedly dressed. The other could be his father in a straw hat and better clothes. The elder heckles the younger about the way he is loading a 50-=pound bag of rice in a wheelbarrow. When the older man tries to wrestle the device away from the younger man, the latter explodes, maneuvering it his own way as a group of onlookers laughs at his fury. Show over, the crowd disperses and older man just chuckles.
Haitians are also hopeful, patient, and maybe a bit mad. the persistence of commerce against all odds — much more supply than demand — is one example. Women who have carried fruit on their heads to get to work squat next to their sidewalk displays of mangoes, watermelons, pineapples and lemons. On certain corners they are elbow to elbow with each other, stocking the same goods. They live in small shacks without potable water or sewers or electricity, but they have all this fruit. They women gossip, laugh and wait all day for the infrequent customers on the major thoroughfares and winding back roads of Port-au-Prince.
What sustains the masses is Vodou, a syncretic blend of African tribal rites from their native land and Roman Catholicism from Haiti’s interlopers. Even non-Haitian residents are affected by Vodou. Though they don’t practice the religion or worship its pantheon of gods, they believe in its power to influence health, romance and willpower.
(to be continued)