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“Ordered Chaos” in Port-au-Prince

By Finnegan Schick, VI Form

Stepping into ninety-degree Caribbean sunshine from a cold, New York blizzard is not unlike diving headfirst into an enormous vat of hot chocolate. First the heat covers every inch of your skin, then it fills your lungs. Within seconds you are covered head to toe in sweat, and the only sound that comes to your lips is “Waahhugh.”

This was, roughly speaking, what I experienced upon exiting the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. There were people, lots of people. On the airport curb were people sitting on mopeds, people waiting in lines. By the side of the highway were people cooking chicken, people washing their clothes in a murky, brown stream of water. There were people with enormous loads on their heads, people pulling heavy wooden carts, people shouting, people exchanging goods, bodies moving, music blasting, and hot sunshine covering everything. My four travelling companions—Ms. McColloch, Mr. Kent, Desmond Goodwin, Ali Mills—and I had stepped off the airplane into another world.

We saw and did enough during our brief visit to fill whole volumes (indeed, Ali and Desmond took meticulous notes of the whole trip.) I wish I could write ten of these LEO articles, each on a different aspect of Haiti.

If you are interested in what Haitians have to offer you and what you have to offer Haitians, I will describe something which, to me, exemplified much of what I experienced in Haiti. It was during my first hour in the country; sometimes it is those initial moments when one sees and understands the most.

Shortly after stepping outside the airport, we were greeted by the smiling, healthy, sun-drenched face of Father Bowen, our guide for the entirety of the trip. He led us through a large chain-link fence to the airport parking lot. The lot itself was quite small, no bigger than half a soccer field. This one-story concrete lot was far from the multi-level airport garage complexes I am used to in the United States. Not only were there no tickets, there were not even painted white lines on the ground to demarcate individual parking spaces. The place was filled with cars, each parked at varying angles and distances from each other. If you wanted out, you had to find the owners of the four parked cars blocking your way. If you wanted in, you had to nudge—ever so slowly—through an elaborate maze of bumpers, headlights, and side-view mirrors before finding an empty region of tarmac to turn off the engine.

Looking back on that parking lot, I realize how miraculous it was that we made it out in only a few minutes. Father Bowen navigated that chaotic metal cesspool with perfect ease. A wave of his hand, a honk on the horn, a few Créole words spoken out the window; the parking lot opened up for us like the shell of a mussel in boiling water.

Long before I travelled to Haiti, I read a book called Farewell Fred Voodoo by an American journalist named Amy Wilentz. In one chapter she uses a phrase to describe an aspect of Haiti that is often misunderstood by visitors: ordered chaos. The idea is that, however disorganized, however chaotic life in Haiti might appear, beneath the surface an intricate matrix of rules and customs is at play.

What at a first glance is a crowed sidewalk full of street vendors is for Haitians a thriving marketplace with designated spaces. Just as each store at an American shopping mall has its own assigned spot, so does every Haitian woman have her own patch of sidewalk or street from which to sell her wares.

All I could think about as we exited that parking lot was ordered chaos. Had the Haitians chosen to make the parking lot a driving nightmare? Or had they simply adapted to already poor living conditions? Perhaps a mixture of the two. It had taken Father Bowen decades to crack the hidden code necessary to navigate that parking lot. Were the Haitians making things purposefully chaotic in order to scare foreigners away?

Before going to Haiti I was confident in my understanding of Haitian problems and secure in my opinions about what needs to be done to solve those problems. Now that I have been to Haiti, everything is different; I do not know what to think anymore and what I thought I knew has been thrown out the proverbial window. What I know for certain now is that Haiti is not what it seems. It takes years before one can truly understand how things work. What I urge people to remember is that although Haiti might appear chaotic, dirty, and discombobulated, there is undoubtedly more there than meets the eye.

Finnegan Schick is a VI Form day student from Southborough. His hobbies include reading dangerous literature, watching foreign films, and playing basketball with his younger brother Oscar.

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