Tuesday, June 15, 2004

June 11, 2004

From the start, it was clear that I wasn’t in Africa this time around. While the other passengers on the plane, almost all Haitian (well, who else is crazy enough to go there now?), were loaded up with all kinds of insane carry on items (shopping bags, radios, armfuls of whoknowswhat, food in coolers and bags, etc.), which made it look very much like a trip to Africa, the typical body odor of an African flight was absent, replaced with cloyingly sweet perfume. Upon landing, we were herded into the customs area. My experience of such places has been of major pushing and shoving, requests for bribes, unbearable heat, filth, and so on. Not in Haiti. The air conditioning seemed to be working quite well, everyone stood in neat lines without pushing to get their papers checked, and not one single person gave anyone else a hard time about anything. It was amazing. Now, that’s not to say that this airport is somehow a miracle of technology – it looks like there is some sort of rehabilitation going on in the baggage claim area, where the walls are patched and the ceiling is open, and it would be as easy as pie to import all kinds of illegal things, due to the completely lack of a customs search or bag check. But, all in all, it was so easy I kept expecting someone to come running after me with some story about why he needed $5 or for someone to try to mug me. Instead, I was picked up by a cheerful driver and taken to the air conditioned office to meet with the friendly staff. 

From all reports, this place is in complete anarchy, chaos reigning over political and natural disaster. As yet, I haven’t seen any sign of either. It is very poor, much poorer than almost any place I’ve ever been, probably on par with Kinshasa (Congo). Port-au-Prince and the neighboring city of Petionville are stacks of dubious concrete-block buildings; they are bright blue, yellow, pink, and green boxes settled among sandy streets and walls, shaded with fantastically green trees. The hotel I’m staying at is lovely, especially the patio and pool areas. It has a panoramic view of Port-au-Prince and Petionville. In spite of all this seeming calm, however, thousands of people have died here over the past 3-4 months, due to political instability and disastrous floods. The latest situation report on the flooding, which hit the hardest in the southern portion of the country, states that at least 1,800 people are dead, and some 25,000 displaced. Haiti is a small country – these are astronomical figures here. 

Yesterday, when I arrived, my friend from grad school, Karl, who is working with CRS, took me to lunch at a restaurant/hotel owned by a friend of his father-in-law. We ate good food with the owner, Karl’s father-in-law, and their friend in the upstairs dining room of “El Cubano”, a hybrid Haitian-Cuban place with the most comfortable atmosphere. The three older men reminded me of characters in a Cuban film. They sat talking politics over whisky and cigarettes, grinning and joking with one another, their tight friendship obvious in their communicative glances and gestures. I can imagine them doing the same twenty years ago or twenty years from now, with little change but the color of their hair. They are old-style socialists, they are cafĂ© revolutionaries. 

One other thing that sets Haiti apart from the Congo is that during this crisis, Haitians have been helping out other Haitians. Such would be nearly unheard of in the Congo, where people regularly steal from one another and step on one another to get ahead. Haitian banks have donated money to the flood victims. Where else in the world would banks donate money? Haitian doctors have volunteered their time to work with the injured and sick in affected areas. The Haitian Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce have raised and donated money for rehabilitation and food relief. There is no way that these things would ever happen in the Congo. Anyone there with money keeps it to himself. The Haitians abroad are giving, too. Money is coming in. It isn’t much, but eventually it will be enough to get things back to normal (not that normal is good, but it certainly is better). If people in the Congo took a lesson from the Haitians, things there would turn around in a day. 

Sunday, June 13, 2004

So, on Friday afternoon, I went to the south coast to see a distribution of non-food item kits (similar to the ones we did in the Congo, but in this case made up by CRS, not UNICEF), as well as some Title II food aid, consisting of beans, rice, and wheat-soy blend (like flour, but protein-enriched), and also cooking oil and purified water. 

I was with the Logistics and Finance Manager (Dutch) and the Garage Manager (Haitian-American). They are both nice enough guys, and both speak fluent Creole, which helps. We ate dinner at a hotel in down-town Jacmel, an adorable beach city with French colonial architecture, rife with double balconies and gingerbreading and pastel paint. Then, we went to the wonderful above-mentioned Cyvadier. Saturday, we hit the road at about 7:30 for an adventurous and extremely bumpy ride to the distribution site. The distribution was held in the village closest to the place where the people hit by the flood in that area had fled. The site itself was really isolated, so I can only imagine what the place hit by the flood was like. We had four big tractor-trailers and about 30 staff. Compared to the Congo, it was slightly disorganized and it seemed like there were too many staff members around. They had few control systems, and I’m still not convinced as they are that there isn’t any fraud. 

Overall, the distribution went without incident. I interviewed 5 people about what they experienced for a report that I have to write. Standard story, you could probably make it up yourself, but sad nonetheless. They were farmers, they lost animals and all their crops mid-season, so they won’t have anything to eat (they grow what they eat) until the end of the next growing season, which doesn’t start for quite some time. Most lost their houses, too, and the village is completely submerged. While I think that the disaster has been exaggerated, there’s no doubt that these people needed the distribution and that what they lived through was horrible. They next step would be to get them cash to restart petty commerce and to provide for any other immediate needs with microfinance.

The road was really bad, but the ride was fun. Haiti is very mountainous, with insanely steep hillsides. The road winds up and down them, hairpin turn after hairpin turn, all rocky and narrow and rutted. There are no guard rails. The views are stupendous. Haiti really is a beautiful country. Tourists are missing out on these beaches and views and (except for at the Hotel Montana) legendary hospitality. Haitians are nice and friendly and down-to-earth.