About a year ago my boyfriend and I went backpacking in Haiti. We spent several nights in Port-au-Prince, down near the water. One night this happened. I’d say “based on a true story” but, actually, this is exactly how it went. I just cut out some of the longer hours. Do yourselves a favour and learn from our mistakes! That being said, it makes for a good story.
Note on the style: The italicised conversations are paraphrased and/or truncated. The direct speech is more-or-less quotes.
There were cats everywhere.
Sign number one.
She had also changed the price. The day before we’d gone in and asked how much for a night? She’d said 30$. Today she said 35$. We looked at each other and shrugged. It was still cheaper than our current room and you couldn’t really blame her for trying to milk the tourists for a little more.
Sign number two.
I followed her down a narrow hallway to inspect the now-35$-room. On my right were two rickety wooden doors. The first was closed. “30 mins” was scrawled on it in white chalk. The second was ajar and the darkness beyond it smelled like it was harbouring something that had shuffled off this mortal coil about a decade ago.
Sign number three.
But this was our first time travelling together and the need to prove our travelling chops to the other was strong. He wants to rough it? I can rough it, I thought. So the place is a little sketchy. It’s not the worst place I’ve slept in. And so I kept walking: left, out a door, briefly in an alley, then left again, up even narrower concrete stairs. At the top of the stairs was a wrought iron fence, about 6 foot tall, with a matching gate. Through the metal bars I could see a woman sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes on the hallway floor.
Sign number four.
We went through the open gate and left again, past the sleeping woman. She sighed and rolled over. Left again and suddenly the hallway, somehow, constricted even further. The walls were inches from my shoulders. This was not a country for claustrophobes. Around another corner, past empty rooms with dirty walls, small, square windows and mattresses I tried not to think about.
Sign number five – it’s amazing, really, what pride will make you do.
The room itself was clean. There was a double bed, a bare blue light bulb; there were windows with a view of a sewage-filled canal; there was even a flush toilet and a working tap that stuck out from the wall at head-height. I eyed the bed. I knew, I knew, that I should lift the mattress and check for bugs. But – and I don’t know if it’s because I’m Canadian, or just a wuss – I can never actually bring myself to do it. It feels so impolite with the proprietor standing next to you, watching your reactions.
“Ca va,” I said to the woman. She nodded, smiling.
I woke up around two in the morning to him sitting up violently.
“Whaz wrong?” I was still mostly asleep.
“A cockroach was crawling up my arm,” he said, turning the light on. “The biggest fucking cockroach I’ve ever see—shit, they’re all over the floor.”
I sat up.
“Look, there it goes under the door. It’s like three times the size of these other ones.”
I missed the mothership cockroach, but I saw its spawn scuttling back into the darker corners. I also saw little black marks on the sheets. Which, okay, fine, I wasn’t wearing my glasses, they could have been anything. Except they were moving. Jumping, even.
“Um, also, I’m pretty sure there are fleas in the bed.”
“Shit!” He stood up, brushing at his arms and legs. “Didn’t you check the mattress?”
Unsteadily, I joined him. “No! Have you ever actually checked a mattress? I mean, they’re always right there. It seems so rude!”
He swore again.
So there we were.
It was two in the morning in Port-au-Prince, and we were standing in the middle of our bed, hopping from foot to foot in our underwear, trying to touch as few surfaces as possible and still not brain ourselves on the ceiling; all while vigorously slathering every inch of our bare skin in military-grade insect repellent. Not that it actually repelled fleas or cockroaches but it made us feel better.
Outside, we could hear dance music.
He bit the bullet. “I can’t stay in here,” he said.
“Well, where are we going to go?”
“Out? Out into downtown Port-au-Prince in the middle of the night? And what? Just wander the streets until the sun comes up?” All the horror stories I’d ever read or heard about the slums of Port-au-Prince came careening into my sleep-addled brain. I just wanted to lie down and go back to sleep.
“Oh God, you’re serious. But…but I’m so tired…”
“There’s no way I’m going to sleep here.”
“It’s just some cockroaches…” I was really tired. But, in the very back of my mind, I was also vaguely proud that it wasn’t me who was too grossed out by bugs to sleep.
“And fleas. Cockroaches and fleas.”
On the other hand, it was me who was too desperate to look tough to just go back to sleep.
The decision made, we pulled on our clothes. We took his bag with us. We would head for the bar at our last hotel. It was three blocks up and we were pretty sure it was open 24 hours.
We headed back down the hall. The walls brushed against his arms as he walked. Past the rooms with the unthinkable mattresses, past the sleeping woman in the hall, past the wrought-iron gate with the—They’d locked the gate.
“You have got to be kidding me,” he whispered.
“At least this isn’t a fire?” I offered.
Like zombies, we stared at the locked gate as if we’d never seen a padlock before.
“Maybe we should just go back to bed?” I tried.
I sagged against the metal.
“Do you think you could climb through the bars?” he asked.
I eyed the gaps. “Yeah, probably. But you couldn’t.”
“I’ll go over.”
This seemed unlikely to me, but I dutifully wiggled through bars, determined not to be outdone. He passed me his bag and, true to his word, climbed over the fence. Me of little faith.
We went down the stairs and took the alley out to the main road. Our hostess was sitting guard at the end of it, her girls arrayed on the sidewalk beside her. She jumped and, I kid you not, clutched her heart when we appeared beside her.
“Les blancs!” she said, dumbfounded, to the girl next to her. Yes, the whites had escaped.
We headed down the street towards our last hotel. He was a few feet ahead of me and one of the prostitutes grabbed his arm, tugging at his jacket, talking in rapid-fire Creole. He didn’t need to understand what she was saying to understand what she was saying.
“Non, non,” he said, shrugging her off. She took the hint gracefully enough.
The pavement was cracked and, along the curb, water and trash mixed, stagnating in greasy smears. Most of the sewer grates were missing. Now there were just yawning squares of black leading to God-knew-what. In the dim light it was impossible to tell what lurked at the bottom of them.
The bar, as it turned out, was not open 24 hours. It had closed at midnight.
For the second time that night we found ourselves staring at a locked wrought iron gate.
“Maybe we should just go back?” I leaned against a nearby concrete wall to keep from keeling over.
“There was a sidewalk bar across from our hotel. We could sit there for a while.”
We turned and trudged back up the sidewalk.
Sidewalk bars are small portable trailers, kind of like an ice cream van’s little brother. This one sat on a wider section of sidewalk, with a semi-circle of wobbly wooden tables and beat up plastic chairs to one side of it. The light inside the trailer was a bright white and the young guy inside was so bored that not even two blancs buying beer at two thirty in the morning could pique his interest.
We put our beers down on the last empty table. He brushed my hair out of my face. I smiled. I was looking forward to sitting down. It was almost as good as lying down in my books.
But then, as if out of nowhere, the prostitute from earlier appeared in front of me. She was standing very close, talking quickly, clearly agitated. And the headlines will read: Canadian tourist dies in impromptu catfight with local prostitute in Port-au-Prince, I thought to myself. But, slowly, my brain translated what she was saying.
“I am so sorry! I didn’t realise!” She pressed a hand to her chest, speaking in rapidfire Creole-tinged French. “I thought you were brother and sister. I didn’t know he was with you! I would never have asked if I’d known. I am so, so sorry!” She reached out as if to take my hand but stopped just short. I was touched. Confused, but touched.
He watched, not understanding, clearly wondering if he should intervene.
I waved my hands, wanting to reassure her. “No, no. No, that’s totally fine. I don’t mind. It’s all good, no worries.”
She looked immensely relieved, apologised once more, and went back to her post. I don’t know if it was her personal moral code or Haitian social mores that made her come over and apologise but either way it was the most heartfelt apology I’ve ever received. Especially since, really, she’d just been doing her job.
“She was apologising for propositioning you,” I told him. “She didn’t realise we were together.”
He looked as baffled as I felt.
The light coming from the sidewalk bar was comforting and we sat in it for some time. At the other tables, a group of young guys, and one girl, lounged around drinking and chatting. We followed their example. I started to relax.
Eventually another man joined us. He was already half lit. “I love whites!” he told us in surprisingly decent English. “I used to live in America!”
He was a builder by trade and had come back to Haiti after the earthquake. It was in shambles, the government was corrupt, lazy, but still, “I had to come back,” he told us, leaning in close over the tiny table.
Time passed. The girl and the guys rearranged themselves around their tables; some left; some left and came back.
Our new friend told us about his family, his business, his life in North America. But more than anything he told us how proud he was of Haiti. How proud he was to be Haitian. “I love my country. I want my children to love their country,” he said.
Slowly, all the young guys wandered off into the night.
Sure, it had its problems, he acknowledged, waving his beer around, but his country was beautiful, the people were beautiful, the land was beautiful. “I won’t leave again,” he said. “I belong in my country.”
It was more than just the booze talking.
Eventually, the bored bartender got bored of being bored and closed up shop. It was long past three so we really couldn’t blame him. After much convincing, our new friend staggered around to the driver’s side of his truck – pausing momentarily to piss on it – clambered in and drove away.
And then we were on our own again.
We headed up the street to the large intersection where food stalls clustered on every corner. One corner had a particularly high concentration of vendors selling Port-au-Prince’s ubiquitous fried chicken plate. Stall after stall jostled for space, all stacked head-high with delicately balanced walls of pre-cooked drumsticks and platters of beet-and-potato salad, macaroni, and deep-fried plantain chips. We ate most of our meals there, referring to it, unimaginatively, as Chicken Corner. While we waited for our meals, we often wondered why they only had drumsticks on offer. Where the rest of the chickens go? Were chickens in Haiti made up entirely of legs? The result of some GMO experiment gone horribly awry and shipped off to a country no one listened to?
Luckily for us, Chicken Corner was a late night affair. They knew us by sight and we were quickly taken by the arm and lead into the comforting oily warmth of the stalls while a fried chicken plate was prepared for us. When we went to sit on the curb to eat, one of the vendors brought us her stool, saying it was no good to sit on the ground.
In front of us the intersection was lit by the hazy orange glow of the streetlights and, behind, the bare bulbs of the stalls wiped greasy smears of yellow light across the sidewalk. In the daytime this was a sun-baked main thoroughfare, bullet-proof private SUVs, over-crowded vans, loaded pick-up trucks, and motorcycles careened across it, tyres screeching, horns blaring, drivers hollering. At four in the morning it was quiet and warm, its oily orange half-light almost cozy. As we ate we listened as the vendors prepped, frying plantains, chopping beets, packing away the chicken legs in clear garbage bags to sell tomorrow; the murmur of their talking was comforting.
A stray dog came sniffing around, looking up at us with big watery eyes. We threw him bits of plantain. He snuffled the food but apparently life isn’t so tough for the strays of Port-au-Prince because he left it where it lay and turned his mournful eyes back to us. We were unmoved.
We didn’t want to leave but, inevitably, no matter how slowly we ate, our food ran out and the vendors were closing their stalls. Plus we were hogging the stools.
We wandered across the intersection to the fancy air-conditioned supermarket kitty corner to Chicken Corner. It had a well-lit and well-swept three-space parking lot which already had several people sleeping in it.
We sat down on the pavement, our backs against the building. Across from us was the Parc National, its benches and play ground equipment full of sleeping people much more homeless than we would ever be.
The peace didn’t last long. An old man, his tightly curled hair and beard bright white against the dark of his skin, staggered up to us. The bag we’d brought with us, his bag, had a tripod strapped to its side. The man had noticed it.
“Journaliste? Photographe?” the old man asked him, pointing at the bag. Foreign journalists were common in a country with such an intimate knowledge of catastrophe. Yes, journalist, photographer.
The man nodded and began questioning him. I translated both the questions and the answers, but the man never looked at me. His eyes – and his ranting – were focussed on the journaliste-photographe.
His voice was loud and his gestures wild. All journalists should speak all languages, he said. Or how will you ask questions? He was very clearly not in working order. His mind had gotten lost in itself somewhere along the line. Still, he made some valid points.
Translating became harder and harder as the man became more and more excited. When, eventually his French gave way to Creole, I gave up. I was too tired for this shit.
Sooner rather than later, the old man’s wild gesticulations attracted a crowd. Finally, we both agreed it was time to go. I mumbled some sort of excuse to the man and we walked back to Chicken Corner, trying not to look like we were rushing.
There was still an hour or so before the sun rose but, out of options, we wandered back towards our hotel. Halfway up the street we were stopped by a small, wiry man in a too-big Hawaiian print shirt, beige slacks cut into shorts, and flip flops.
“Americans?” he asked in English. No? Canadian? I love Canada! I love white people! His name was George. Apparently he’d spent some time as a child in Montreal, adopted by a family there. He was eternally grateful, he said.
That’s great. It was great to meet you, we said and tried to keep walking. Talking took too much energy.
You need anything, you just find me! Everybody knows George, he called after us. We smiled in thanks and kept walking, past our hotel’s madam sitting guard at the mouth of her alley, back along the alley and up to the top of the stairs. The gate was still locked. The sleeping woman was still sleeping. It was quiet and dark. We sat down on the top step. The stairs had fewer fleas than our room did.
We sat there, leaning on each other. If we talked it was in whispers .The last thing we wanted was for someone to notice us and let us in. Below us, girls and their johns passed the half-open door, heading further down the alley. There must be more rooms down there, we agreed.
“Thank you for coming with me tonight. I don’t know anyone else who would have,” he told me at one point.
“I was shit fucking scared,” I said.
“Yeah,” he agreed. I put my hand in his.
Once, a drunk john saw us and started calling that the blancs were sitting at the top the stairs. We held very still and someone told him to shut the hell up already. Luckily, he was too drunk to be believed.
In the end, our cover was blown by a well-dressed man with a small suitcase in one hand. He’d been making use of one of the rooms behind the gate and, having finished whatever or whoever he’d been doing, wanted to be let out. He was soft spoken and clearly sober and, like most people that night, surprised to see us. When it was established that we had no keys, the sleeping woman was roused. Apparently she’d had the keys this whole time. She unlocked the gate and the man left. She waited for us to come in. We looked at each other and shook our heads. We mumbled some excuse and headed back down to the street.
The sun was beginning to rise. Thank fucking Christ, I thought.
We turned. There was George. He was crossing the street towards us. Conversation would be inescapable. At least, I thought, I won’t have to translate.
He fell into step with us. “You staying there?” he asked, gesturing to our hotel.
We said yes. He shook his head. “No good,” he said.
No kidding, I thought.
My journaliste-photographe explained the situation. He’s much more polite than I am when tired.
George shook his head some more. No good, no good. But I can help. I can find you a good hotel. I know everybody and everybody knows George.
“Before, when things had been better in Haiti, I was a tourist guide. I took tourists everywhere. I know all the places they want to see. I know the hotels they like. Cheap and good. I’ll show you.”
And, true to his word, his did.
There is an intersection in Port-au-Prince, a few blocks from the ocean, where men spend all day sitting in the smoggy heat fixing tires and broken-down cars amidst the rubble of destroyed cinderblock houses. On one corner, there is a tall building painted white with green trim.
George took us into that building, up two flights of stairs – be careful not to hit your head! – past a grumpy girl filing her nails at the front desk, down a hallway covered in colourful murals of flowering plants, and into a bright, clean room. It had a bathroom, a fan, a table with a vase of fake poinsettias on it, and more murals. Most importantly, it had a bed.
We looked down at the bed. George and a cleaning lady stood in the doorway, watching us.
Wordlessly, we looked at each other. “We’ll take it,” he said.
And then we were alone with the bed. All I wanted was to collapse on it and never move again.
Instead, we each took a corner.
“You’re right. It’s just seems so rude to do it when they’re standing right there,” he said as, cringing, we raised the mattress. Nothing scuttled, jumped, or otherwise interrupted its off-white expanse.
We lay down. The mattress was broken on one side and sank in the middle. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever experienced.
We spent the next twenty four hours in that bed. We didn’t see a single bug the entire time.