Senior spring break, in Haiti

Allison Lazarus

By Micaela Mullee ’10, Contributor

Two months after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, on March 15, Olivia Eichenseer, ’10, and I stepped onto Haitan soil—not as aid workers, but as tourists.  In fact, as seniors on Spring Break.

As most everyone knows, tragically, on January 12, a magnitude-7 earthquake hit the Haitian side of the island of Hispaniola, decimating the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and radiating damage for 50 or more miles in every direction.  Death toll estimates have reached over 100,000, and damage to the already poor nation carries a price tag in the tens of billions of dollars.

Olivia and I had arrived in the private port of Labadee, Haiti, with a cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas, and but for a brief announcement when we’d departed from Miami, there had been no mention of the earthquake that had devastated our destination country two months earlier.  We had bought our tickets for the cruise well before the earthquake struck in January, and decided to continue with our plans.

On the Haitian coast

The cruise’s TV station had run a brief special on the quake and what Royal Caribbean was doing to help—they had donated $1,000,000; were ferrying supplies; and would continue service to Labadee, which, they claimed, funneled tourists’ money into the Haitian economy, which would otherwise go to other Caribbean nations, given Haiti’s instability and general unsuitability as a commercial tourist destination. Instructions were given on how to donate relief money. After that, there was no mention of the quake at all.

Labadee is located on the North Coast of Haiti, an area largely unaffected by the quake. Royal Caribbean owns the entire port, and operates it as a cruise destination on many of its Caribbean itineraries. There are artisan booths, long stretches of beach, a hair-braiding stand, multiple cafes, and various other diversions (including a roller coaster and zipline), all stuccoed in charming tropical colors. It all gave the impression of an ideal, laid-back, picturesque Caribbean beach town with smiling inhabitants, crystal-clear water, and all the virgin mango daiquiris one could consume.

We could have been anywhere in the Caribbean. Even the word “Haiti” was avoided—welcome signs read “Welcome to Labadee!” with no mention of the country we were actually in. Even the spelling—Labadee—has been changed from La’Badie to make it easier for English-speakers to pronounce. No locals are allowed on the premises except pre-approved vendors and lounge assistants, and the port is located on an isolated peninsula, far-removed from the actual nation. Passengers are not allowed to leave Royal Caribbean property. You could step onto the island and, in theory, never even know you were in Haiti.

It was more than a little surreal. Isolated from the rest of the world, it was easy to forget that 25 miles away—about the distance from Newport on the Levee to West Chester—there were still corpses buried under collapsed buildings. The children who had gone missing and would never be found, the more than 1,000,000 left homeless, and the insufficient health care were directly at odds with the relaxed atmosphere of leisure that Royal Caribbean was trying to convey, and so they were ignored. I don’t think I even heard the word “earthquake” from anyone but Olivia and her parents the entire time we were there. The weird part was that the other passengers seemed to play along.

Royal Caribbean, I realized, didn’t want us to think about the earthquake. They make their money providing an escape from the real world, and an earthquake ruins the illusion of the perfect island vacation. In addition, most people don’t want to think about earthquakes anyway when they’re trying to enjoy themselves, and I’m just as guilty as the rest of the passengers. Other than the initial guilt, and an unwillingness to barter with memorabilia vendors when the money was clearly needed, I sunbathed on the beach and swam in the ocean without thinking about the natural disaster that had occurred. My guilt came later, when I realized that I had bought into the illusion, just like everyone else, and just like Royal Caribbean wanted me to.

Photos courtesy of Micaela Mullee.