CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti — I hadn’t looked over the left side of the balcony on my room at the Hotel du Roi Christophe.
The hotel itself, according to some descriptions that I had read online, is a throwback to better days in Haiti, when tourists would come to enjoy themselves. And it stands as an island of Western comfort in a city, Haiti’s second largest, teeming with people, trash and cratered streets.
The Roi Christophe made it easy to forget all that was outside — until I looked left and saw an alley with heaping piles of trash. Directly below me, pigs dug through the rubbish with their snouts, one wallowing in a muddy puddle. Down the alley, a man was digging through a drift of trash, part of which smoldered.
You don’t have to look far to find such scenes in Haiti.
Plenty of painfully accurate descriptions have been written about the nation on the western end of the island of Hispaniola. They still don’t prepare you for seeing it firsthand, as I did for two days earlier this month, when I took a quick trip to see a few projects that Nicholasville-based Alltech is working on.
As we flew in, Alltech global aquaculture director Jorge Arias said, “The earthquake did not happen in this part of the country. But when you see it, you’ll think it happened yesterday.”
January’s devastating earthquake was centered near Port-au-Prince, in the southern part of the country, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.
But in northern Haiti, what we saw were the cumulative effects of years of political, social, economic and ecological upheaval.
The Dominican Republic, on the other side of Hispaniola, was a prelude.
When our group helicoptered into Dajabón from Santiago, we were besieged by children shouting, “Dollar!” A few boys had shoe-shining kits and would go to work without asking, hoping to reap a payment. One boy tried to shine my canvas shoes.
A confluence of people and vehicles created a crazy scene at the border between Haiti and the Dominican, the entrance amounting to a small door.
As we passed through, we were greeted by a desolate, brown, trash-strewn land on either side of the Massacre River, so named because it was where mid-20th-century Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo had 20,000 to 30,000 Haitians killed. We drove into Ouanaminthe, past people bathing and washing clothes in the river, to a school where Alltech is setting up a music program with the University of Kentucky voice program.
There is nothing uniform about roads in Haiti. At best, they are relatively smooth dirt roads and highways. At worst, some appear to have once been paved but have fallen into disrepair that would make me long for something as simple as Lexington’s late-winter potholes.
In a few spots in Cap-Haiten, our drivers traveled on the sidewalks because the roads were too cratered.
On the highways, cars were well outnumbered by pedestrians and the frequent mule or ox, sometimes guided by a child. The late-model SUVs that we rode in had few peers, although there frequently were pickups with benches on either side of the bed transporting groups of people. We also saw trucks piled high with bananas, and people riding on top of them.
What was not in evidence was any sort of authority, save for occasional white transports carrying United Nations troops. If, for example, riding atop the banana trucks was against the law, there was no one there to call anyone on it. There also was little evidence of sanitation services: Trash, occasionally on fire, was piled on roadsides and sidewalks.
As we entered Cap-Haiten, a woman was sweeping trash off a sidewalk in front of her building into the gutter.
Along the road were miles of makeshift shelters and buildings in various states of disrepair. Stopping at one of the few gas stations we saw between Ouanaminthe and Cap-Haiten, we noticed that the attendant was carrying a shotgun.
Most services that we take for granted in the United States were not in evidence in Haiti; if they had been, how would people pay for them in a nation where the average daily wage is $2 — if you can get a job? Two of Haiti’s most glaring problems, even to a casual observer, are overpopulation and a dearth of businesses. There are a lot of people with nothing to do.
But there was joy, particularly in children, who would greet us with smiles and song, and not just at the school in Ouanaminthe.
When we visited the village of Dondon, where Alltech is working with a coffee cooperative, we were briefly detained by village officials who were unhappy with where our helicopters landed. As we waited for Alltech executives and local officials to iron out the issue, UK voice professor Everett McCorvey engaged children surrounding us in a chorus of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.
It was easy to wonder what the future would hold for these children, what kinds of chances they would have in a place where school ends at sixth grade. With half the 9.2 million people age 25 or younger, Haiti has potential in abundance but few avenues for realizing it.
Two days — really, less than 36 hours — is hardly enough time to get immersed in a culture. The real culture shock must come to people who spend weeks and months living side by side with Haitians or residents of other impoverished nations.
Still, it was strange to land back at Blue Grass Airport, get in my air-conditioned car and drive to my home, where I knew I had a refrigerator full of food and a faucet that dispenses water that I am not afraid to drink.
It was almost as strange as looking over the wall from my posh hotel and realizing that there were pigs wallowing in mud and trash on the other side.