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Riding Through A Haiti Slum Exposed Our Society's Casual Greed

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While my family passed through the slums of Port-au-Prince the other day after visiting my wife's ancestral village in Haiti's countryside, something else was happening 1,500 miles away: the annual Met Gala, the Super Bowl of the fashion industry.

Some of the most fashion-forward looks of the night, held at Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art and hosted by Vogue's Anna Wintour: Zayn Malik's Robocop-reminiscent metallic arms, Taylor Swift's silver fembot, Kanye West's coloured contacts and Lady Gaga's fishnet stockings and 10-inch heels.

The theme: future glam.

After walking the red carpet, attendees dined on baby white asparagus with sturgeon caviar, wild striped bass with California dill sauce and green apple sorbet on a spun-sugar nest with rhubarb compote.

From the vantage point of the poorest country in the hemisphere, the analogy wasn't hard to arrive at: we are the Capitol.

In that fictional high-tech city described in the Hunger Games trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins, the ruling class of the nation of Panem dine on luxurious meals, exhibit outrageous style and undergo plastic surgery -- all while the rest of the land starves for bread.

The Capitol is a stew of extravagant excess, extreme inequality and stylish insouciance. Its residents aren't necessarily evil -- just deeply ignorant of the level of suffering outside their borders and insulated by lives of ease and abundance.

We rolled on through Port-au-Prince, encountering pockets of garbage and smoke and poverty so extreme it seemed to punch you right in the face. Our SUV's tinted windows were rolled up tight, since my children might "look like money" to those in the encampments, our driver advised.

At that moment, tweets about the Met Gala were rolling in.

"I'm really excited to get our first best-dressed at the Met... This Gala is like the Grammys of style!" tweeted Kanye West. "Unapologetic fun," tweeted Madonna. "Me I'm back in the NY GROOVE," tweeted Lady Gaga.

Unlike Panem, though, in our world there is not just one Capitol, but multiple cities of excess. A few days earlier at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, D.C., tuxedoed diners began their meals with diver scallops, topped with sweet potato mousseline, caramelized corn and espelette cream.

They followed that with steak au poivre, joined with honey- and orange-infused shrimp. To finish up, desserts like strawberry shortcake, dolce de leche and chocolate mousse, along with miniature French pastries. The cost: $3,000 a table.

Deep in the mountains of Haiti's southwest where I had stayed for a week, the menu was -- shall we say -- more limited. In tourist areas, young orphans and stooped grandmothers sidled up to visitors, hoping to strike up conversations and share in our meals.

Most North Americans would hardly think of ourselves as existing in luxury, as we live paycheck-to-paycheck ourselves, struggling to get by.

But luxury is a relative thing, and probably not what you imagine it to be.

To be sure, these are broad-stroke generalizations. There are rich and poor within the borders of Haiti, just as in any other nation. In Port-au-Prince, tin-shack shanties sit a stone's throw from leafy neighbourhoods dotted with gated mansions and Land Rovers.

And most North Americans would hardly think of ourselves as existing in luxury, as we live paycheck-to-paycheck ourselves, struggling to get by.

But luxury is a relative thing, and probably not what you imagine it to be. In my wife's village, luxury might mean continuous electricity. In that town, it comes on for a few hours a day -- or not. It's usually cut off by late afternoon, when most people could really use it. No one seemed to know why.

Luxury might mean a paved road, or drinkable water coming out of taps, or a hot shower, or a WiFi signal. Or a supermarket packed floor-to-ceiling with an astonishing array of food -- like, say, any random Safeway.

Many Haitians have economic problems that are not just theoretical, but existential -- getting enough food and water to survive the day. Meanwhile, the economic problem identified by the likely Republican presidential nominee? Deport the least advantaged and most vulnerable elements of society -- and build a wall to keep them out.

A very Capitol-like solution, no?

It should be stressed that Haiti is much more than a tragic fable. It is a place of stunning natural beauty, of remarkable human resilience and a showcase for creative survival. Impressive strides were made under previous president Michel Martelly -- patching infrastructure, improving safety, developing tourist-friendly resorts.

And yet: As I left Haiti, new friends came up to me in whispers, asking me to bring just a few dollars the next time we visited, for the school fees they couldn't afford for themselves or their children.

For my own society, it all made me not a little embarrassed. How would you even begin to explain something like the Met Gala and all the boldface names dripping with couture and diamonds?

As readers of The Hunger Games, we were all appalled by the Capitol's casual greed, and the unforgivable ignorance of the privation all around it.

By that same logic: What opinion should we have of ourselves?

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It Is No Wonder Haitians Are Anxious
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