No Place to Roost
Haiti is 90 minutes from Miami by plane and a lifetime by leaky wooden boat. People fleeing the country's dictatorships play Marco Polo with U.S. Coast Guard cutters in Caribbean waters. The Coast Guard attempts to keep the boats out of Biscayne Bay because they don't have tee times. Haiti is close enough to Cuba for inter-mural smuggling.
Travel advisories to Haiti read like the warning on a pack of cigarettes. On my first trip, in 1988, I walked out of the airport in the capital Port-au-Prince and my senses were assaulted. People pushing and yelling at the airport, horns honking on the congested roads, beautiful flowers, dented fenders, donkeys laden with torn gray bags of cement, women sitting on the ground selling mangoes, green shacks, blue shacks—what are those smells—Mercedes rushing by children with missing arms, begging, trash everywhere. Bright colors and bone-crushing poverty. Crayola in a garbage can.
After traveling for a day-and-a-half looking at hospitals and clinics, I learned there had been a coup d'etat. The army tossed the President out and then splintered into several groups. The airport shut down. I couldn't leave the country or walk on the streets. There was no phone service or electricity. We had no cells. The U.S. Embassy acted like a stern parent: you got yourself into this mess, you get yourself out.
I had to stay in the dorm of my home base, a school for handicapped children, along with other visitors. We wandered the interior halls and looked in at the children playing musical instruments. They beat the drums and blew the trumpets. We listened to gunfire and shouting from the other side of the school's wall for two days.
I looked out at the street through slats in our wall and saw a tank parked directly in front of the school. A local man said, dismissively, "There are only two in the country." Well, one of them is parked outside.
The airport opened a week later and I joined the crush of people trying to get out of the country. Typical for Haitians when they leave the country to visit, it seems they take all their household belongings. A box large enough to hold a refrigerator got stuck in the conveyor belt. Of course that passenger considered that box carry-on intended for the overhead compartment.
When I got back to LAX, reporters were standing at the gate. I was interviewed, "What did you do the first day of the coup?" "We pushed all the bunk beds together." "Because you wanted to barricade the door?" "No." "Because you were afraid and you wanted to hide under them?" "No. Because we wanted to sit on top of them to play Trivial Pursuit."
Before the first democratic elections in Haiti, in 1989, people began talking about one candidate for President, Jean Bertrand Aristide. The country of then seven million souls was energized by the candidacy of this man. He was charismatic, a defrocked Catholic priest, and his level of corruption was within acceptable limits.
A U.S. delegation oversaw the elections and, for its members, an escape route to the airport in the event of a coup. A large portion of the population was illiterate, making the job of newspaper editors easy. To accommodate those people, the election delegation designed a plan to allow people to vote. Each candidate would be identified by name and distinctive number and symbol. Aristide's symbol was a rooster.
Immediately, people painted roosters on T-shirts, on plastic top hats, and on tin roofs or cinder block walls of their shacks. I photographed walls surrounding motels, hospitals, and schools with large roosters, some of the roosters wearing glasses like Aristide, kicking caricatures of Haiti's gunslingers.
On this particular trip, I stayed at the Coconut Villa motel where in the past I had enjoyed the quaint amenities, eating poul sur charbon (barbeque chicken), watching lizards crawl randomly on the walls, and listening to a rooster crow at dawn each morning.
I found a local guide, the self-description of any male over the age of 7. I told him I wanted to photograph roosters and pointed at a homemade billboard with a cartoon rooster looking like Foghorn Leghorn sweeping away a bad guy. My guide said, "No problem," which translates into "I'll tell you anything you want to hear as long as you give me a big tip."
I grabbed a few cameras, hung them around my neck, and trotted off with him. We went through Bel Air, a slum I had walked through on a prior trip. He stopped in front of a wall with a rooster, kok. (If you want to call someone "you little rooster," it's kokot, or basically the sound that a rooster makes at 5:00 a.m.)
We walked through the slum, stopping at rooster paintings, and I photographed them all. Then he began walking between rows of shacks, through the tiny alleys that resemble mazes. Oily, filthy water ran in between the shacks, with so much garbage it looked like a herd of plastic bottles and cartons at a watering hole.
After 15 minutes, my guide stopped in front of a green door on a large shack. He asked me for $2 US. The Haitian dollar is based on the U.S. dollar, in theory. Two factors affect its rate: the economy and the black market rate on the streets.
I asked him why he needed the money, and he said to see the roosters. I didn't see a rooster painted on a wall or the roof of the shack. OK, I thought, interior paintings of roosters. I gave him the money. The green door opened out. It was black inside. Completely black. Someone I couldn't see grabbed my hand and moved me forward, saying something I couldn't understand. Why hadn't I mastered the Creole tapes? Why didn't they speak English?
I bumped my knee on a piece of wood and fumbled to step over it. Why hadn't I gone to a school for the blind? We walked across something squishy. Finally, the person stopped and several hands began groping me. Had I been sold as a sex slave? Then I realized that the hands weren't groping me. They were guiding me up to a place in the front row of wooden bleachers. There was a man on each side of me. We were packed in tightly. The lights came on. I blinked. My guide was gone.
Indeed, I had been brought to see interior roosters. I was at the cockfights. I was in the front row of a cockpit. I was sitting in a hot, closed-in space, sweaty shoulder to sweaty shoulder. This sounds like a sauna except I was missing a towel and constant talk about cellulite.
As with most groups of Haitians, there was arguing and yelling in Creole that sounded much like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Based on the enthusiasm of the men around me, there was serious wagering involved.
I smelled something sickly sweet. Rum. Rhum agricole. Made from sugar cane juice. Dark rum. Rum on your butt. Not with sissy names like Mojito and Daiquiri. This was rum made at home for social occasions, for pretending to be possessed during a voodoo ceremony, and for the pain of a toothache. (I once made a rum drink called the Painkiller).
The man sitting behind me pounded me on my back. His roosters were doing well, I guess. I couldn't understand what he was yelling. I nodded my head to show that I appreciated the stamina of the birds. Men who come to cockfights and bring home-made rum probably carry rusty machetes.
I didn't watch or photograph the roosters, so I had time to think, sitting alone in my sundress and sandals with cameras hanging from my neck. Why weren't there other Caucasians in the pit? Why weren't there any other women in the pit? Did another human being know where I was? Had I memorized my passport number?
In the end, my family traded a Fugees CD for my freedom. I can never look a skinless chicken breast in the face again.
Aristide won the election. Nine months later there was a palace coup, and he was overthrown. All of the roosters were painted over. I went into the country and walked through slums looking for them. Gone. Aristide was reinstated as President and tossed out again. This cycle went on with variations like a Bach fugue for 13 years. At some point, the staff at the Presidential Palace saved his monogram towels and left a key under the mat. People who saw no hope for the country patched their boats and vacationed at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center. By 2004, Haiti had been under a U.S. embargo for 10 years. At the same time, coincidentally, Aristide won a one-way all-inclusive vacation package to Central African Republic where he drank Mojitos.