Once upon a time you could tell from the moment you walked into the departures terminal in Miami or New York where the check-in counter was for the flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
It was usually the last one and the queue consisted only of Haitians. All kinds of Haitians — women wearing their excess luggage, diaspora families with neat little children, “rappeurs” (as my father would say with a guttural “r”) in their overly branded outfits, jean-and-T-shirt students like me on our annual visit home.
The waiting could be brutal. I read the better part of a “One Hundred Years of Solitude” one time waiting to check in. Occasionally you would spot a white face, probably a missionary, or an aid worker, or a diplomat, but it was rare. In those days we called the head of tourism of the country “Minister of the Tourist” because there never seemed to be more than one tourist at a time in Haiti.
All this was before January 2010 and the earthquake that ravaged the nation.
Today flights bound for Haiti have as many foreigners as those bound for Barbados. When I went to Port-au-Prince last month, I had to keep checking the screen at my gate to make sure this was the right flight. When I finally boarded, the first person I saw in first class was a Hollywood celebrity famous enough to be recognizable behind sunglasses and baseball cap.
I took my seat and looked across the aisle. Three young women were sitting together in the middle. I knew they were aid workers because they were wearing identical orange T-shirts announcing in English what they were going to do in — or rather for — Haiti. They talked with animation about how they’d been waiting forever to get to Haiti and work “on the ground.”
I remembered reading that since the earthquake, Haiti has had more nongovernmental organizations working on its shores than any nation in the world save India, a country a hundred times more populous than Haiti. None of the people on the plane would call themselves “tourists.” They all had a mission, a purpose for their trip.
I wondered if NGO workers and volunteers felt as comfortable flying to Kabul or to Baghdad. I, for one, was nervous about going back. Like all expatriates, I return with a mix of longing, guilt and, in light of what Port-au-Prince has become, shame. It has turned into an epic display of human wretchedness and filth.
We have become professional beggars, stretching out our hands and showing our wounds to these saviors from fortunate lands. And in exchange for your money and your help, Haiti offers immediate, terrorist-free access to a version of the human condition right near home. You can be digging a well in Leogane in the morning and be telling the tale in Manhattan in the evening.
A new form of tourism is emerging. Through hard work, compassion and — let’s say it — a bit of misery voyeurism, it offers redemption with a tan.
I swallowed my pride. No doubt it is a good thing that so many people are willing to go to Haiti to help. And help and relief is all outsiders can do. Only Haitians can save their country.
By Isabelle Dupuy, a Haitian writer who lives in London.