Sunday afternoon we head back to the hotel in Gonaives for a quick lunch. We’ve brought a lot of the food we will eat for breakfast and lunch to Haiti, since there are no stores and few restaurants. We eat canned chicken and ham salad, crackers, Pop Tarts, nuts and granola. We drink only bottled or purified water, or buy sixteen ounce Cokes or Sprites in glass bottles–something not seen in the States for twenty years–from the hotel desk. Lisa has packed six Diet Cokes in her luggage, since they can’t be found in the country, and she savors one per day. She reminds me to brush my teeth with bottled water; otherwise the organisms in the Haitian tap water would leave us immobilized for most of our stay. Haitians prepare their food fresh daily. On special days it includes a chicken or a goat killed that day. Most days it’s rice and beans plus a few other staples. Later in the week one of the students will point out that there’s no variety to the Haitian diet. “They eat the same stuff every day,” she says. The Haitian veterans nod and let that fact sink in to the first-trippers.
Our hotel is very nice. The year before Lisa and another nurse found the desiccated body of a dead rat in their air conditioning unit. The rooms are clean and many appear to be freshly constructed. Workers are laying the block for a third floor on our building. We are assigned to a room with heavy wooden beds, an armoire, brightly tiled floors, a bathtub big enough to swim in, and a thirteen inch television bolted to the wall which gets three English language movie channels. During the week I’ll watch fragments of Forrest Gump, Big Love (an HBO series focusing on a polygamous Mormon and his three wives in contemporary Utah), and Love in the Time of Cholera, based on Columbian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magic realism. Watching pay channels in Haiti, where the electricity the hotel runs on is provided by a diesel generator that drowns out conversation on the large gazebo in the courtyard, only makes the Haitian experience more surreal than it would be otherwise.
The hotel is built around a courtyard where we park the vehicles and the high walls of the hotel keep the city, and the people of the city, at a distance. There’s only one entrance into the courtyard, and it is guarded by a uniformed guard with a twelve gauge pump shotgun slung over his shoulder. I smile at him and try to make eye contact whenever we drive in or when I walk out onto the alley that leads to the street, but he doesn’t give anything away. His presence makes me feel more secure, but when I think about it very long, I wonder what life must be like on the streets and neighborhoods at night, where there’s only the limited light of an occasional street lamp and abject poverty lighting the lives of the people of Haiti.
Other people share the hotel with us, and in the evenings they come back to the hotel and take their suppers in the restaurant. UN employees from around the globe, contractors, Catholic nuns working as missionaries, and one guy, a middle aged French man with slicked back hair and a pot belly treating a beautiful young Haitian woman to breakfast every morning. She wolfs down omelet and toast like it is the first, and last, meal she may eat for quite some time, while he chatters away and sips coffee. It is just impossible to imagine the two of them sharing a room for even a night.