Touring destruction and reconstruction in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

I’ve been sharing stories and pictures from my trip to Haiti to show a different side of the country – the best things about the country – a vain attempt to do my part and “help” Haiti, the way so many missionaries, voluntourists, and NGO workers do every day. I made a choice to avoid putting damaged buildings and obvious signs of poverty on display for the same reason.

The truth is, I didn’t seen much earthquake damage. I saw way more that was beautiful and interesting and deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. But, in some parts of Haiti, and particularly in central Port-au-Prince, the earthquake damage was significant and the rebuilding process is slow. Mired in the political and social challenges that preceded the earthquake, plus the more recent intervention of the international community and Republic of NGOs, Port-au-Prince today still shows many signs of damage and stalled progress, with brief, bright, and hopeful glimpses of what comes next. port au prince haiti market marche de fer

My last full day in Haiti was spent entirely in Port-au-Prince. Of the many things I saw that day, two stops in particular deepened my understanding of Haiti today: the ruins of Cathédrale Notre Dame de l’Assomption and the completely-rebuilt Marché de Fer (Iron Market).

Cathédrale Notre Dame de l’Assomption in ruins

port au prince haiti notre dame l'assomptionIt is very hard to look at the ruins of Notre Dame cathedral. Before 2010, it must have been magnificent. There is a street light with a solar panel at the corner, but not much else around it that shows progress. Small lean-tos that function as shops or housing, or both, line the perimeter of the cathedral, and it is still a centre of life in the city, just one tinged with sadness and frustration at the lack of improvement more than five years later.

port au prince haiti notre dame l'assomptionThis whole area of central Port-au-Prince is caught up in a lot of the usual sort of business that stalls progress anywhere in the world: politics, bureaucracy, and outside interests. Of course, since it’s Haiti, it’s further complicated by history, more politics, and more outsiders than your usual recovery. That said, it was encouraging to see one aspect of life continue on: the “bank,” a lottery booth.

Elsewhere in this area, new neighbourhoods have risen, though the people live in a temporary, uncertain situations that have become permanent-looking to an unsettling degree. This building, not far from a completely refurbished branch of Scotiabank (one of Canada’s largest banks) provides housing and shelter while obviously precarious and unstable.

port au prince haiti

But, life goes on. This was the extent of the serious earthquake damage I saw, but I know there has to be more of it, and in other places tourists like me won’t see. Still, I think of it as a testament to the resilience of the Haitian people, the determination to continue on with their lives instead of waiting for the government, or some NGO, or some group of voluntourists from North America to show up and “help.”  Life goes on.

The new-old Marché de Fer (Iron Market)

port au prince haiti market marche de ferOne year after the earthquake, Port-au-Prince’s central market, Marché de Fer, reopened to the public. Funded by the Irish CEO who owns Digicel, Haiti’s largest telecom company and one of the country’s biggest employers, the Marché de Fer is a relative success story, one that stands in stark contrast to stalled development elsewhere in the area. Whatever the motivation, you cannot deny the impact of the symbolism. The market, in need of refurbishment in the years leading up to the earthquake, was rebuilt in its original style, using a colour scheme based on the oldest paint chips they could find and other design factors taken from historic documents. Architectural Review has an interesting feature about the rebuilding process, including before-and-after photos and discusses both the design elements and rebuilding process.

Today’s iron market is busy – even on a Sunday – full of life, noise, and hustle. port au prince haiti market marche de fer chocolate Chokola AyisyenWe explored the aisles and took advantage of the lighter weekend crowds to learn what the vodou product sellers had on hand and chat with other sellers more casually than in a busier weekday market. Before leaving, some of my group stocked up on the ingredients to make Haitian hot chocolate, a rich, spiced, decadent drink that will forever change your relationship with hot chocolate. Starting with balls of soft cocoa, simmer slowly, adding condensed milk, a bit of salt and sugar, then star anise, vanilla, and cinnamon, all of which we could buy raw in the market. Our van quickly filled up with the scent of cocoa and spiced goodness that I won’t soon forget. [Full recipe]

For more about the effort to rebuild the market, check out these pieces in the New York Times and The Guardian written around the time of the opening.

And so, this remains the paradox of Haiti. When you see it, you can’t ignore the remaining damage and the obvious signs of poverty, but there are so many successes, mostly modest ones, that show progress is happening. There is reason to optimistic about Haiti.

All about my trip to Haiti

For more about my G Adventures trip to Haiti, check out my Haiti travel section:

Krista Spurr bitesized travel Haiti travel blog posts

If you’re extra curious, explore my detailed Google Map of everywhere I visited in Haiti:

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