One thing that I have learned by traveling is that security is far more subjective than I previously imagined. The question “is it safe here?” seems at first to be an easy one to answer, by simply looking at crime statistics and asking people that live in the area. Yet, I realize now that this question can be asked 100 times to people in the same neighborhood, and you can receive 100 different answers. Especially in a place that is as historically and culturally complex as Haiti, security becomes a deeply personal issue, with an answer that is constantly changing and evolving.
Haiti is the first place that I have lived that is considered by most to be highly insecure. In Tanzania, I walked around alone during the day, took public transportation, and even went jogging with my iPod. In Haiti, I am not supposed to go anywhere without a both a driver and a bodyguard, which are provided 24 hours by my employer. The other day, I walked across the street from my office to buy a Coke from a local stand. The walk took 30 seconds and at all times I was in sight of the men who guard my building with large rifles. And yet, when I walked back into the parking lot, an American construction worker looked at me and said “Don’t do that again!”
Don’t do what again? Act like an independent adult who speaks enough of the local language to support a street vendor by buying a 50 cent soda? His strong belief that my action was insecure is starkly contrasted by an American friend that lives here. She speaks Haitian Creole fluently, walks 20 minutes to work every day, and pays a moto-taxi to take her to Cite Soleil to watch the World Cup with her local friends. Cite-de-Soleil is the notorious slum of Haiti, considered by Haitians and internationals alike to be controlled by gangs, drugs, and violence of all kinds. And here is a small, twenty-something girl from New Jersey who does not think twice about spending her Sundays watching soccer in a neighborhood and working and farming with the local community.
I am not one to take risks, and my overriding goal is to ensure my own security, for the sake of my family and friends that had to live through knowing that I was in an earthquake in a foreign, underdeveloped country. And yet, you can see how the varying attitudes here can make it hard to assess how to ensure my security in a way that makes me feel comfortable in my current home. I do not want to live in Haiti and never see the country, spend time with the people here, or spend money at local businesses. When I am on the street, most people don’t look twice at me. In fact, the boys that play soccer in front of my hotel stop their game to let me pass when I go to visit my friends next door.
I also don’t want to be naïve. Haiti has a violent, unstable history, and the people here are possibly at the end of their rope, so to speak, with 1.5 million of them still living in tents 6 months after an earthquake that killed so many because of the failure of their government to provide basic infrastructure. Haitian friends tell me that they expect the country to experience violence if there is a hurricane, or if the election in November does not go well, or for any number of other reasons. These are people speaking about their own country, neighbors and friends.
What does this mean for my day to day actions? I will continue to take my driver and bodyguard when I want to go to dinner at night. But I will also continue to speak to people on the street and to walk down the block alone in the mornings to buy vegetables. I did not come back to Haiti to live in fear. I came here because the people have never been anything but wonderful to me as their guest, because they seem to always be singing and playing soccer, and because they have an entrepreneurial spirit to keep innovating and moving forward despite civil wars, hurricanes, and earthquakes that never seem to let them be. The reality of my decision to be here, at the same time, means that I have to think every day how to weigh the varying opinions and my own judgment in order to assess my personal, constantly evolving sense of security.