We (Georgia and I are together) wake around 4.45am and read or play Sudoku. We shower, as this may be the last time we get a chance to do so, and get dressed for breakfast at 8am. The phone alarm rings at 7.50am, which is the time we had set it for the night before, to wake us. Coffee is served along with toast and succulent fruit – mango, watermelon and pineapple. Jade, Michelle W and Lisa arrive to help us through our orientation. We are ready at 8.30am to begin but Michelle M has yet to surface and have her breakfast. Orientation starts slowly and we still feel unsure of the organizational skills which are presented to us. We break for lunch and I tell myself that if I must roll my eyes for the remainder of the afternoon orientation, then I must at least try to do it more discretely. Before the bus arrives at 3pm to take us to our new camp, we ask if we can be taken to the market (where we have been told is the place that you can change $s to Haitian Gourds). Of course, we all struggled over the past week to obtain small denominations of dollar notes as per our instructions from GVN – at no point were Gourds ever mentioned.
We change into our walking shoes and begin our trek with the 2 Michelles leading the way. This is our first time outside our gates and we try to absorb as much of the ambience, smells, crowded, unfamiliar sights and sounds without drawing too much attention to ourselves. This is complete naivety on our part as our ‘Blanco’ figures are quite visible, walking confidently along the side of the rubbled road. All of a sudden, Michelle W motions for us to jump on the passing Tap-Tap. This not only adds to the excitement of our first outside encounter but gets us to our destination more quickly.
Once again, we attempt poorly to blend in, but the 8 ‘Blanco’s’ are quite obvious in our new surroundings. No sanitation, waste or healthcare poses a huge issue in these parts. All around are innate, unnecessary mini mountains of discarded rubbish. Metal, plastic, food and many other items that are difficult to make out, are stacked on top of one another at short intervals along the rocky, rubble road. The market is a crush of hot, sticky bodies and merchants pushing baskets of produce at potential buyers. It could be intimidating but we are viewed more as an amusement than as a threat. Polite but aggressive, this one guy keeps pace with me through the pulsating street. He takes my arm and tries to direct me to a particular basket of wares, the owner of which will slip him a few Gourds if I buy something. I shake my head and he walks away.
We form a tight group instinctively and a man on a wooden high-chair is pointed out to us as the bank of foreign exchange. The thick wad of multiple inches of filthy bank notes would make anyone do a double-take. The kind of look that one can identify with the cast of Looney Tunes cartoons. You know the look when their eyeballs pop out of the sockets as if on springs and quickly shoot back in again? The Wylie Coyote is the character that springs to mind the most when I think of this comical moment. The nonchalant attitude the ‘wad’ man possesses is quite difficult to comprehend. Surely in an area so poverty stricken this man is an easy target? He does nothing to hide the vast sum of notes and strums his thumb through the piles like a dealer shuffling a deck of cards before a game of Black-Jack.
We each approach him with our $10 or $20 which we need to change into Gourds – the local Haitian currency. The Haitian dollar is another thing that confuses us in our currency transaction; it appears that the Haitian dollar is not a tangible piece of paper but rather a counting currency. You will be told how much something is in Haitian dollars (which don’t exist) which you then multiply by 5 to work out how many Gourds you will get in exchange. For $20, I get 870 Gourds, which I am told is what to expect, even from a ‘top-notch’ exchange bureau. We shove the tiny paper bundles into our secret pockets and begin our trek back. The sun beats down on this airless space and quickens the decomposing of produce. A group of school girls pass by in their gingham school uniforms; many are too small or too big, revealing that they once belonged to another owner. Inches of skin can been seen on the girls’ backs where there isn’t enough material to hide their little bodies. Our transport waits to take us to our new home for the next few weeks, so we hurriedly pack and throw our bags in the back of the truck.