I’m just now getting to some writing I had started, but couldn’t quite finish, on a trip I took to the Dominican Republic and Haiti earlier this year…
On an beautiful, uncharacteristically quiet Friday morning in Petionville – the neighborhood in a post-Independence Day/New Year’s Day hangover – I met a guy the way a lot of travelers meet a guy (and it is usually a guy): he stops you on the street and starts a conversation.
His name was Frank, or France – he introduced himself a few times and his name flip-flopped – and he spoke “American English, not British English,” as he proudly said more than once. He wanted to know how I was doing.
If you have spent any time traveling in any part of the world, this routine is, well, routine for you. Someone is selling something – a painting, a tour, some currency – and you’re a potential buyer.
Frank, an older-but-not-elderly man in linen pants and an oversized button-down, had drawings he claimed were “special” and “unlike anything you’ve ever seen!”
His secret: “Ball. Point. Pen.”
“You’ve never seen anything like it,” he repeated, and not for the last time.
I demurred, saying I wasn’t interested in them, and mentioned I was looking for some of the ironwork art that I’d heard about: old oil drums that artisans cut into sculptures and then sell to tourists, middle-class Haitians, hotels, and the like. When done poorly, they’re chintzy and the definition of knick-knack; when done well they are simple and beautiful.
Fortunately, Frank knew a guy “two blocks away” who sold sculptures like that. This struck me as… unlikely, but as I was just wandering around anyway and had nothing better to do, figured I may as well see where this would lead. It was a bright, beautiful day, the sun bearing down on the neighborhood, and adventure abounds on such days. So away we went.
Ever the pesky erstwhile journalist, I pestered Frank about his life on the considerably-longer-than-two-blocks walk. He said he was 52 and, without my prompting, mentioned that the 2010 earthquake took his home in nearby Jacmel, his wife, and his three children. The earthquake came up in a lot of my conversations with Haitians, not dissimilar from how I’d talk about the cold weather with colleagues.
He said this in the seemingly-affectless, matter-of-fact way that other survivors I’ve interviewed or spoken to – whether of natural catastrophe, disease or premature death, sexual assault or war – describe near-unspeakable tragedy: as speakabale, commonplace. Normalized.
The earthquake took more than a home and a Home from Frank; it took his health and peace of mind. “I was sick from losing my family,” he said simply.
The earthquake eventually took his job, too. Frank told me that he was once a translator for NGOs and that he could still speak six languages. He ticked off a few for my benefit: English, Haitian Kreyol, Spanish, German. I believed him but must have looked more incredulous than I was, so he spent the next few minutes asking me questions in languages I recognized but mostly didn’t understand. And then he asked why Americans only speak English.
We walked down one street, then another, passing by dozens of storefronts – including a Domino’s. Every time I’d ask how much further, Frank would say “close, close” and continue on. We were perpetually “two blocks away”.
Walking over some rubble on the side of the road, I asked Frank a few questions about the cleanup and reconstruction efforts, and he angrily decried the government’s inability to make the city different; to, as Bill Clinton would say more than once, “Build Back Better.” He said that, even five years later, his country was “much worse than it should be” and that corruption was the proximate cause of this failure. I didn’t have a whole lot to go on, but anecdotally downtown Port-au-Prince was still in shambles, the ghostly hollowed-out husks of buildings still standing on many blocks, so I took his word for it.
“We don’t have a government,” he added, and he didn’t expect the impending dissolution of Parliament to change anything.
“Why do Americans like Haiti?” he asked me a few minutes later. I gave a few anodyne reasons and asked why he was curious.
“It’s dirty, and there’s trash all around. Why would someone want to come here?” Trying to find coming ground, I mentioned that a lot of places have trash all around – New York City, for example – but people still enjoyed visiting them.
Eventually, we arrived to his seller of choice, right off of the main road. The items were actually pretty nice and, after a lot of bargaining, I bought a few small things.
It was at this point that Frank’s words slurred together a bit more, and I realized he’d been slurring them for a while. He didn’t smell like alcohol, but the combination of slurred words and a suddenly-hostile disposition was a pretty clear indication that things had taken a turn for the worse.
Playing it cool, I gave him some money as a token of appreciation for bringing me to the ironworks shop; when he said “this is nothing, this is shit!” I gave him a bit more and made my way back to the part of the neighborhood I knew.
After that mini-encounter, Frank’s story made a bit more sense. The earthquake took his home, is family, and – likely – his sobriety. It took his peace of mind and his mental health, and there were too many physical problems for NGOs and governments to attend to already.
Some part of me is tempted to turn this into a Friedman-esque tale of how mental health problems, left to rot, impede economic growth and opportunity for future generations. How a small investment in counseling could have helped bring Frank and others back from the brink.
But this is not that story; it’s just a story about a man and the things he lost in an earthquake.
 I had seen something like it, actually – in Kigali a while back – and, to my great discredit, the fourth of fifth time he said this to me I said as much (I. Know.)
 Yes, you’re right: walking off with a stranger in an unfamiliar direction in an unfamiliar neighborhood of an unfamiliar country can be almost poetically stupid.
But really, most of the time it’s not: no matter where you live or travel, people are, on average, pretty great; anyone who has spent a bit of time traveling, and has been in a situation where help was needed, knows this – the young kid who steps in to translate your awful Kinyarwandan for the moto driver; the kind woman who offers you a blanket on an overnight bus from Nairobi to Uganda; the man who, for no reason other than human kindness, drives you from one city to the next, late at night in southern Malawi – and refused to accept any money for gas. If traveling has crystalized only one thing for me, it’s that people are wonderful.
NB: This is not to say you should be willingly naïve or unnecessarily risk-seeking – testing your luck is a great way to run out of it – merely to point out that there are times to be over-vigilant and times to be calm.