I’m the only white guy
People are staring at me
Little kids washing windows
Everyone is arguing
First impressions are everything right? Well, if I went by first impressions like we do in everyday life; checking another person out by the way they look with a quick one-over, labeling a city crime ridden because of graffiti, foods that look weird taste bad, my first impressions of Haiti would have been pretty damn bad.
Bad like those words listed above which were some of the first to fill my eyes.
Bad to the point that if I chose only to see that, I probably would have had a miserable time. And this article would take have taken a turn towards ignorant, because first impressions tell nothing of a person, place, or thing. And we must choose to look past that.
First impressions are a funny thing.
It seems that we make so many judgements in our daily lives based on this aspect of human nature, yet it is such a false representation of everything.
Those descriptions above can resemble many places, and surely some of the towns I drove through in the mid-west of the United States give or take a few things. Remember, these “impressions” can be taken in all over the world because those are the images that first shoot through our retina and into our brains.
Luckily, us humans are given the gift of thought process (some at least) and can decide to look a little deeper. Observe a little better.
And so I tried to observe a little better.
I’ve already written about how Haiti rocked my preconceived notions about the country within 72hrs. I guess you could say my first impressions were already programmed into me via the media, so you could expect one to only notice the things the media cares to share about a country like Haiti.
But I revealed just how drastically different the once Pearl of the Caribbean was after my visit, and why you shouldn’t judge a place like the book of a cover.
So let us delve into those first few hours after I had arrived after I arrived from the glitz and glamour of Miami to the capital city Port Au Prince.
The Damn Good Music
If I was being literal, my first impressions of Haiti would have been the copious amounts of Rhum Barbancourt advertisements plastered on the causeway from the airplane (though I do love it!) but my first real impression, and a lasting one, is the music.
When we first exited the airplane we heard upbeat island music playing down the hall. We were greeted by these gents, playing all sorts of odd instruments that created quite a marvelous island tune, and probably helped soften up a few of my fears as we entered the country.
There was always music everywhere we went. People singing, listening to music, or playing instruments.
After what seemed like an impromptu music video, with all of the musicians attempting to get in front of the camera, we left them a 5er and went in to grab our bags.
Skip past the flare that all island countries have when you land and let’s get to the real first impressions.
Shotgun Gentleman (hospitality)
My stomach slammed to the floor.
I had glanced over my shoulder while in the air-conditioned waiting area of the airport, already on the lookout for danger, when my worst fear had come true. I suddenly spotted a tall uniformed Haitian staring me down.
Dark, stone-chiseled expression on his face which was half hidden by aviators just staring blankly at me…
…with a big-ass shotgun in his hands!
There I was…anxious little white boy in a country coated with stories of marauding thieves robbing travelers at the airport.
And then he pointed at me. I did the ‘look-behind-who-me?’ action and he began to wave me over to him. When I paused, he called out with his low, thick accented voice something I couldn’t understand.
I may have peed myself a little at that point.
So I tapped my buddy David who was with me (if I was going down, so was he) and we walked cautiously over. When we reached about five feet before the Haitian Terminator, he stepped aside, seemingly told the other two guards on a bench to get up, and offered us a seat.
“Oh! Mèci!” I said in my terrible broken Creole.
My mind was blown.
I think it is quite normal to be intimidated by a badass shotgun, but my first impression was shattered when he offered some weary travelers his seat on the bench.
And a quality I was shocked by constantly. While traveling, it became very obvious that Haitians were willing to help out a stranger for now reason; be it a seat, food or drink, or stopping to help someone broken down.
Something which RARELY happens in the United States.
It would be an understatement if I said Haitian’s are laid back. After the Shotgun Gentleman, it was time to leave the airport. Upon exiting, David says to Viky, “Are those people waiting for a bus or something?”
Viky responded with a, “No they are just chillin’.”
“Wait just chillin’? Don’t they have something to do?”
Viky thought this was hilarious. “No, we just like to chill a lot.”
Apparently it is quite common for Haitians to just chill out somewhere. Kick back and have a conversation in the shade.
A quality I know most Americans don’t have, and this is awesome.
In a country so wrought with destruction and political nonsense, is was spectacular to see Haitians so adamant about taking time to relax during the day. Though this quality was sometimes frustrating when we showed up for a meeting and had to wait 3 hours because they were on “Haitian Time”, the ability to appreciate the small things like relaxing is another quality that opened my eyes.
Which leads me to the next observation…
I literally can’t remember one instance where I saw a Haitian sitting alone. And in those first few hours in Port Au Prince I saw just how connected Haitians were with each other, whether they knew the person or not.
Always crowds of people talking everywhere, and no matter what time of the day or night.
Wait…people talking to each other?
Strangers talking to each other?
Coming from a country where people are so connected with electronics than actual people and socialites aren’t actually social in the real world, it was wild (and refreshing) to see people having genuine conversations and not on a single cell phone.
And for the entire trip I wouldn’t have access to the internet or a cell phone. And that felt amazing.
Always on the Move
Yes, Haitians are super chill, but that doesn’t mean they are lazy by any means. Maybe that is why they take time to relax, because they are ALWAYS moving. The motorbikes, cars, and crowds (don’t forget the Tap Taps!) make up the ebb and flow of the country’s cities.
As we drove through Port Au Prince after leaving the airport it seemed as if nothing stood still. People walking up and down the streets selling merchandise, motorbikes sped past. And through all of the commotion, I rarely saw anyone stressed out.
They just were going.
Most of the time you see people in a big city in the United States on a work day, they are stressed out to the point of bursting a vein.
Pro Rally Car Drivers
“Hey white boy, you alive?” followed by a loud cackle as our driver made fun of me.
My face was flushed whiter than white boy white, I was glued to the seat, and I was biting off all of my nails. And holding my breath. And cringing in fear.
The rickety manual hatchback we were in bobbed and weeved through the chaos that is Haitian traffic. Traffic lights mean nothing at all, and whipping into on coming traffic to pass a car and nearly colliding with another is the way to traverse town.
And something I never got used to.
But I will admit, damn these Haitians can drive! With the walled cobblestone streets and winding roads, I’m surprised the Rally Car circuit hasn’t recruited Haitians to race for them.
All I can say is that Jason Stathom in Transporter has nothing on Haitian Drivers.
Perfect Balance and Posture
“Damn, Haitians have perfect posture” I noted as we drove through the streets. And it’s freakin’ true!
All of the women and men walking through the streets balancing baskets, clothing racks, and various other crazy things blew my mind. They would sometimes have things balanced on their heads I wouldn’t be able to carry in my arms!
And lets not forget Haitians are pro at balancing acts. Ask them to transport a car on the back of a motorbike and I am sure they could find a way. Immediately it dawned on me that Haitians live by the aged old saying, “if there is a will, there is a way”
Like seriously. A refrigerator?
I’d come to find out that while I thought Haitians were always arguing about something when I first arrived, that is just how they speak to each other.
On the streets and everywhere we went there was always finger-pointing and raised voices, and even our two Haitian friends always seemed to be fighting.
I’d always be asking, “is everything cool?” when our Haitian friends would be talking to each other, or when they were buying/bartering. It always sound like they were pissed off, or right on the verge of a fight.
“Don’t sound like a little white boy when you speak Haitian. You must sound like a MAN! Haitians, we are hard people” Mike, one of our Haitian friends said to me, as he slammed his fist against his chest.
Haitians are proud and strong in their beliefs, and it translates in the tone the speak in. And he never referred to it as Creole, but Haitian.
Usually when I say thank you in the States, it’s with a smile and a higher pitched tone to express my gratitude.
In Haiti, you sound like a girl like that. Great, I was sounding like a girl for days! I learned you have to say it with a stern look and serious tone!
You would think after seeing so much destruction on the media that Haiti would just be a grey, crumbling, dusty place. Sure, it is quite dusty and most structures are concrete, which is the kind of impression you might get if you just look at that.
But look a bit more around and there are colors EVERYWHERE.
It seems like Haitians have a fancy for bright things, and it shows in the clothing, the cars, and especially in the paintings. I couldn’t believe how amazingly bright, colorful, and detailed the artwork was. As we drove through Port Au Prince the roads were lined with clothing, paintings, and metal work which was some of the best I had seen in my life.
And I kept saying to myself, “how are they not making a killing off of this!“
All I wanted to do when I saw the paintings was to tell everyone about them, so they would come buy the local artwork.
Probably my favorite first impression ever. There is a lot of hoopla about staying away from Haitian food, especially the street food. I will tell you, majority of the trip I ate off the streets, and it was unbelievably delicious.
If I would have only taken my first impression into account, I probably would have only seen the fact that it is cooked outside somebody’s home, in an alleyway with tables set up, or at a stand on the side of the road. And I probably would have never tried it.
Yes, it isn’t sanitary to the standards people are used to in other countries, but if you make sure to scope out the food before you buy and make sure meats and foods aren’t sitting out uncovered with flies around them, you should be fine. And if you have eaten food in Southeast Asia, you’ll be used to it.
Succulent fried pork, roasted chicken, rice with fresh crab meat, and PLANTAINS topped off with spicy vegetable pikliz. It is all delicious, all homemade, and always in large portions.
Haitian hospitality is famous, and it shows in their food and the way they treat you while eating it. I think the reason I got a little sick from the food is because I normally don’t eat a lot of fried foods, and for 10 days that is all I ate. But it was delicious nonetheless.
First impressions can be deceitful, and my trip to Haiti showed me just how much I need to open my eyes everywhere I go.
A Shotgun Gentleman exposed me to my first taste of Haitian Hospitality. The bad traffic became a lively city with a people always on the move. A people who can also take the time to relax, and have conversations. Actual conversations with actual people. That a busy dusty city it covered in colorful artwork and a colorful people. And a home-cooked meal is good anywhere you get it.
First impressions can be made about many different places, and can stain the rest of the city whether it offers marvelous things or not. So you must choose to start opening your eyes after your first impressions and begin making observations.
It’ll blow your mind how a perspective can change about a country.
And I hope I showed you a different perspective of Haiti.
Have you had a similar eye-opening experience like this in another country?