In April of 2009, I travel to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. At the time I know almost nothing about the place.

I don’t know anyone in the country, save for a few introductions by acquaintances of acquaintances. I don’t speak French or Creole. Before departing, I am advised to buy insurance against kidnapping.

In Port-au-Prince, I’m confronted by cold stare after cold stare. My Haitian traveling companion notices my unsettled look and tries to reassure me. “The thing with Haitians is that they’ve been through a lot over a lot of decades,” he explains. “It’s a hard life here and people wear it on their faces. But that’s not the true nature of Haitians. Make eye contact and say ‘bonjour’ and you’ll have a better sense of things.”

I start saying “bonjour” and receive some smiles in return. Sometimes just the hint of a smile and then back to a glare, but a softer glare. Sometimes a scowl, but a scowl that is accompanied by a grudging “bonjour.”

Even before the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January of 2010, Port-au-Prince is an unbelievable mess. Most of the capital lacks electricity; as night falls, entire swaths of it are deserted for lack of light and security. People who are out in the night cling to buildings and walls like gargoyles.

Those who range farther afield do so with great urgency, traversing a desolate landscape lit only by bonfires. They move from bonfire to bonfire, in short, focused bursts, to keep from getting lost in the dark. Some of the fires are tiny, small enough that they’d require only a little bit of fuel to ignite. Others are massive, and engulf the middles of large intersections. I never see any Haitians tending to them—the fires seem almost like sentient creatures coming alive of their own free will, and staying awake as long as they care to.

What was a lively marketplace in daylight is utterly apocalyptic after dusk. Shoddy wood structures that held wares an hour ago are now makeshift whorehouses, white sheets thrown over planks. Teenagers-turned-street-pharmacists hold up buckets filled to the rim with long-expired prescription drugs. I look at every shadow and say “bonjour.” No one says hello back. Over the course of the night, this happens a hundred times.

The farther we travel into darkness, the slower my interpreter’s pace behind me becomes.

“I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never come down here after dark,” he tells me.

“One more bonfire, then we’ll head back,” I keep repeating, long into the night.

—Jeff Antebi