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Haiti: A Haitian Sunday

Life is a necklace of experiences--a string of unique events. Mine has been shaped by a Foreign Service lifestyle. From the wind-swept dunes of West Africa to the subdued suburbs of Washington, DC, I have witnessed and experienced a great deal. During that time I've lived in Mauritania, Liberia, Maryland, Jamaica, Haiti and Virginia. My life has been thrilling and enlightening, but it also has been challenging. As I look back on the gems my life has produced thus far, one particular experience has etched itself in my mind forever.

In Haiti, scenes of abandonment and decay painted a tragic backdrop against a people so colorful and vibrant. It was a nation stuck in a 200-year-old rut of class hatred, racism, and abject poverty. The wealthy few that controlled all dominated the impoverished multitudes that had nothing. Dictators and demagogues were the only leaders Haitians had ever known, and tragedy was a way of life.

I can never forget how clear that became soon after we arrived. I was visiting my parents at their office in the middle of the capital city, Port au Prince. Off in the distance, the dusty street was blurred with fuzzy waves of heat. The road, one of the capital city's main avenues, ran right along the front of the American Embassy. It was covered with a layer of trash and decay--tin soup cans, beer bottles, discarded U.S. military rations, and skeletons of trucks flipped onto their side. Crusted, dry mud blanketed it all. The smell of fresh garbage and raw sewage stunned my senses. On either side of the street, open sewers trickled along in little canals, clogged by trash. The street was jammed with marketgoers and bathers. Wading up to their ankles, women vigorously scrubbed laundry in the waste-filled streams. Children giggled and splashed water on each other. Young girls carefully balanced water jugs on their heads with one hand, their eyes squinted against the bright sun. Others finished with their bathing leaned back against the concrete wall that surrounded the embassy, drying themselves in the heat of mid-afternoon.

Meanwhile, on the road, the occasional Land Rover whizzed by, swerving around Grand Canyon-sized potholes. Inside, men in designer clothes, comfortable in the air conditioning, averted their eyes. Inside, perceptive chauffeurs knew to hurry up. They rushed out of the city, escorting their employers to the surrounding hills where cool breezes blew through the open windows of their mansions. It was where the poverty of their countrymen in the slums below was but a faded mixture of color against the soft, blue waves of the tropical ocean lapping on the shore.

I was struck by a wave of sadness at the scene before me. Never had I seen such striking contrast and misunderstanding. Neither the bathers nor the wealthy tycoons seemed to truly see each other at all, for the latter feared to see the very picture of what they lacked, and the former feared to see the depressing decay they had allowed. These images return to me as reminders of how easy it is to neglect and avoid what is right in front of one's nose, and September 11 has proven that the ramifications of that attitude can be frightening.

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