"I'M BLACK, and Haitian, and I wouldn't go where you're going right now, in the dark," Marc says when we're on our way to the Petionville golf course on the eastern edge of Port-au-Prince. Well, it used to be a golf course. Now it's packed with 55,000 homeless people and is known as "Sean Penn's camp," because the actor's aid group, J/P HRO (Jenkins/Penn Haitian Relief Organization), runs it. We've had this plan for Marc to drop me off here to meet someone all day. So his sudden concern about my getting out of the car is a little unsettling.
Brunache Senexant takes an improvised bath."I'm sayin', there's a reason all the aid organizations get their people outta there by like six," Marc explains. But when I resist blowing off the meeting, he allows that this camp might be a little safer than others.
Daniel, my new friend who lives here and invited me over, says the same reassuring thing when I meet him on a busy side street, across from the Planet Creole radio station, and we start walking into camp, which unlike most of the others is lit by a few floodlights on impossibly high poles. I squint into the glare as Daniel leads me toward his house. "Did I call it a house? I'm sorry, should I say tent?" he says, and laughs. He leads me past row after row of stick-supported plastic until we arrive at our destination. "And here we are," he says in near-perfect English. He spent some time in the States, before getting deported. "My piece of Tent City."
But "tent" isn't accurate, either. Daniel's shelter, like the rest, is several sheets of sturdy plastic cobbled together. The ceiling is uneven, low, and leaky. The shelter is built on a steep dirt slope. Daniel says water gets in from all directions when it rains. And oh, how it rains: hard monsoon-season buckets pouring in through gaps in the roof and the sides, the earth floor liquefying, a mud flood forming under the higher-up rows of lean-tos until it collapses under its own weight and slides fast downhill into the tents pitched below. That's the kind of water the displaced have got too much of: the kind that keeps people standing all night, so as not to wake up drowning.
Inside Daniel's place, the only source of light is a flashlight aimed at the gray tarp overhead. The dim beam illuminates the USAID decal printed on it—which announces the gift as FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE—but little else. While I wait for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, a child materializes at my left thigh.
Makeshift encampments like this one are home to 1.2 million people and terrorized by gangs of rapists. "This is my daughter, Melissa," Daniel says. "She's 10."
"Est-ce que je peux te donner un bisou?" she asks barely audibly. I sense the outline of braids in her silhouette, but can't be sure.
"Bien sûr," I tell her, she is welcome to give me a kiss, and I bend down to accept it, supersoft and tiny against my cheek. Daniel turns a bucket upside-down to offer me a seat. Everyone else gets on the floor, where Daniel has laid down some ceramic tiles he got from a religious charity he used to work for. There is just enough room for us four to sit; my shoulder touches Daniel's fiancée's; my feet touch his feet. Melissa lies across Daniel's lap.
"Fortunately," he says, "it's not that hot in here right now."
I nod. All our arms are slick and our faces are running with sweat. But "that hot" means as hot as it is during the day, when being under the plastic is like being in an oven, when I become so woozy and oppressed in the tents that I find myself either forgetting or reluctant to suck more hot air into my lungs.
Daniel is starting an organization called Redeem for Handicap. He talks about how when US soldiers set up in this camp after the quake, he helped run errands for them. He helped deliver babies. He did whatever he could to aid the aiders. But the Army is gone, and though Penn assures me that J/P HRO is in it for the long haul, Daniel's friends who work in the camp have heard that most of the other aid organizations will leave soon. "Already, it's been five months since we've gotten any food," he says. But they do have water in the camp now; you can fill up buckets at pumps. It used to make him really sick, and sometimes the bleach taste is quite strong.
Why? Daniel asks me. Am I thirsty? There's water that's better for drinking, but that's only for sale.
I'm thirsty, but I hesitate to drink anything. It's only eight o'clock, but it's dark, and plenty of gals before me have been assaulted on the trip to the communal portable toilets.
I am thirsty, but I hesitate to drink anything because Daniel doesn't want me to use the communal portable toilets. It's only eight o'clock, but it's dark, and plenty of gals before me have been assaulted on that trip to the bathroom. Also, "The toilets aren't used properly, and you might get a disease you aren't interested in catching," Daniel laughs.
That's why everything smells like urine. To avoid the communal toilets, Daniel's family uses a bucket in a corner. The three of them keep their plastic-walled hovel fantastically neat, and empty the bucket often, but at some point I inhale sharply and breathe in too much of its stink. I puke into my mouth, and pretend I didn't. I suggest that we go for a walk.
Outside, it's clear that plenty of other residents are improvising bathroom facilities, too. The air is still, and within seconds my nose and throat are coated with the reek of hot rotting shit. "People have a lot of needs here," Daniel tells me while I repeatedly spit as inconspicuously as possible.
"There's a lot of amputees because of the earthquake, right?" I ask, looking for my footing on the steep muddy trail. "How do they get around here?"
"Yeah, that's a problem," he says.This camp, run by Sean Penn's charity, has some drainage ditches and lights, a rare bid for safety.
But he points out that the amputees are hardly the only ones struggling. There's a lady who lives right over here who lost her husband, Daniel gestures. She's got kids, and she's too sick to work, and she hasn't eaten in a week. And this tall smiley fellow now shaking my hand is difficult to understand because he's deaf from rubble that fell on his head. He needs a hearing aid. But Redeem for Handicap, or any other organization, can't raise money from the international community without a website...
The camp buzzes: people gathering in the wider paths, vendors cooking hot dogs and selling water, people who have run long electrical cords to steal power to play an awful remake of "We Are the World" over the steady, chattery thrum. It's early on a Friday night, but the noise is starting to die down, Daniel points out. People have to wake up early, lest they roast to death in their plastic ovens once the sun rises.
Suddenly, a skinny guy comes tearing up the path. He's asking Daniel, he's asking some guy behind Daniel, he's asking everyone nearby frantically: What should he do? Some thugs are threatening his family because they want the space and piece of tarp his family occupies. The thugs say they will set it all on fire if he doesn't move his family out. Is there anyone to talk to? Can he find a cop around here or what?