The first thing you notice when you wake up in Port-au-Prince is the smoke. Your eyes sting, and it feels as though you’ve had a smoky cloth held over your mouth all night from the Haitians’ cooking fires. I half expect to wake up next to a campfire in my tent, not in a major city.
The streets of Port-au-Prince are a zigzagging labyrinth that all look the same to me, and I can’t understand how everyone isn’t permanently lost. The streets are steep like San Francisco, and so potholed that you practically have to have a truck or SUV to buck up and down and over the broken cobblestones.
Women in tank tops carry baskets of fruit on their heads, while others squat roadside frying plantains for passers-by.
Tap taps, the main transportation through the city, spill over with thin men in suits on their way to work. The tap taps are a chaos of color, pickup trucks painted in fuchsia and purple and green with pictures of famous singers and Jesus on them.
As our truck sits in traffic, a woman with blank eyes taps on the window with her hand held out.
We arrive in front of the white-barred gate of a Compassion-assisted child development center, that opens up to a wide courtyard filled with children playing basketball and running about.
The children spot my camera right away and timidly tap me on the shoulder, hoping to have their picture taken so they can see their faces on the screen. They smile and giggle until I raise the camera, when they suddenly stand up straight and compose themselves seriously for their photo shoot.
The courtyard is ringed by classes, and we smell cookies baking in the cooking class filled with teenage girls. They give us a plate to take home with us.
We poke our heads in various classes where some are learning sewing, some painting, and some are studying the Bible.
In the class of 3- to 5-year-olds, we greet the class, “Como ca va?” And 30 little voices shout back in unison: “Ca va bien, merci! Et vous?!”
I speak to the teacher of the painting class, who learned to paint in that very project. Now he makes occasional money selling his paintings on the street. He is meek and quiet and asks that I’ll pray he can afford Bible school so he can become a pastor.
I talk to the project accountant, a tall, well-spoken man who asks for the prayer of the sponsors as he and the other project workers serve the children.
After disrupting several classes and giving an impromptu geography lesson, we leave with our plate of cookies. We bump back up and down the Port-au-Prince streets, and I’m frankly relieved to pull safely up to our clean hotel away from the noise and smells of the streets.
We have dinner at the hotel, looking down over the pool and tennis courts, surrounded by lush green overgrowth. I ask my Haitian friend if he likes it here, in Port-au-Prince, where he has grown up. He shakes his head no. Although it is home, he would rather be elsewhere, like the millions of the Haitian diaspora.
And yet, he stays. I’ve grown to admire these people who believe in and love their country, even when it would seem so tempting to desert in a situation so hard. Yet each day, they get up and choose to try to be a part of changing their country by serving the children and giving them hope for a different future.