Yesterday afternoon, for whatever it’s worth

A hard knot formed in my chest at 4:40 PM. I felt like my lungs was being clasped and pressurized by strong hands. Sitting in a chair near the bar at the Plaza Hotel, I was remembering what had happened exactly a year ago.

The rumbling, shaking. Speakers falling onto my laptop. Running over to grab it, then dashing to the outside door in case I needed to jump to the next roof. Downstairs, outside. My friends are ok. Screaming, people pushing past each other, crying, bloody, dusty, hurt, dead.

But I’ve relived those moments many times before, along with the rest of that night and the following days, without feeling so disturbed.

I was surrounded by well-heeled foreign journalists sipping drinks and munching on hamburgers, just hundreds of yards away from the miserable tent camps of Chanmas.

The Canada’s largest media outlet had called earlier in the day, asking for a live interview from the hotel. I told them about Ericq Pierre’s op-ed and that I would find them an English-speaking Haitian, a professor, activist, or lawyer, to do the interview. The producer agreed, but called back later:

“Sorry, but we’re just more comfortable with you.”
“That’s really disappointing. Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sorry, I can’t go any higher to ask on this.”

Over a plate of diri sos pwa, I mulled it over and talked with friends. They agreed I should do the interview and point out the CBC’s mistake on camera.

So some of the stress in my chest was also, I think, because I was mentally preparing myself to speak out on camera at 4:50 PM, the exact time of the earthquake.

I can’t find the video anywhere, but I hope I did okay. They were live on Chanmas, the public plaza, for the moment of silence, then they came to me and gave me a minute or so to talk. I said something about the reconstruction failing because it’s not led by Haitians and how it’s not right that on CBC, now, you’re seeing the face of a foreigner instead of a Haitian one.

The anchor said, “Well, we’ll certainly take that into our editorial meeting.” The cameraman who unclipped my microphone told me quietly, “Thank you for saying that. Thank you. It’s stupid, journalists interviewing journalists.”

On the way down the stairs from the roof, my chest was aching even more. I walked fast, straight out the door and down to Chanmas. I wanted a release, a sense of letting go.

I saw Stefano, a friendly guy who usually eats lunch at the same machan’s place as me, at the palace fence. He said there’d been no moment of silence. But there were swarms of foreign journalists, filming, walking around, or passing by on motorcycles. A yellow school bus full of photo-snapping white missionaries chugged past. A word came to mind: “pollution,” of which I’m a part. The knot in my chest got tighter.

A 17-year-old named Jonathan came up to me. It started with “Yo, blan, give me one dollar.” He carried himself with a swagger, cocked head and arm hanging, that’s fairly common among young Haitian guys. I said I didn’t have small money on me and he scowled. Then we talked. He said I was one of only two foreign journalists in the whole day who could converse with him in his language, Creole.

I didn’t have my camera or audio recorder with me, which I regretted then decided I appreciated. I can’t do justice to the whole conversation here.

In short, on his side: Brother died when the quake destroyed his Bel-Air home. Showed me his family’s wooden shack in Chanmas. Shirtless uncle poked his head out of the neighboring shack, informed us that Messi had scored three goals. Barcelona and Argentina fan, just like me. Plays soccer, knows how to roller-blade too but has no skates.

He got political: Likes Aristide (look at the tower still standing!), thinks the CIA controls Preval. UN troops gave us cholera. The Brazilians are mean. Saw them commit abuses in 2004 and 2005, back when there were a lot of manifestations. Rapes in the camp? No no, he said, we have brigades and we’d shoot anyone who we saw doing that.

For 2011, wants peace and for him and his friends to be in school instead of on the streets all day.

I had to get my bike from the Plaza Hotel. The security didn’t want to let him inside, I had to insist. We went up to the roof where I’d done the CBC interview as darkness fell, overlooking the journalists lazing around the pool. He pointed out the mango and coconut trees. Wow, this is a nice hotel. I bet the journalists like it here. He paused. The state should tax them, the hotel, and aid groups, he said. Smart.

Exchanged phone numbers, then parted ways. Jonathan was smiling.

Chest felt better as I breathed in the night air on my way home.

6 thoughts on “Yesterday afternoon, for whatever it’s worth”

  1. Thank you for letting us hear the knowledge and wisdom of the young Haitian man, Jonathan. Here is hoping Haitians also help all of us see a different way of life, by small steps to rebuild Haiti in a caring, cooperative way.

  2. Enjoyed this piece. Just was googling some things and came across your blog. I am actually at le Plaza hotel in Haiti right now. My dad was here during the earthquake as well. Sitting in the restaurant at le Plaza with his brother when the quake hit. It is my first time in port Au prince. The people are amazing. So strong and resilient. My dad has been showing me around. I can’t believe this hotel is still standing! Everything around it is collapsed. Crazy!

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