A few hours later and our plane had flown over the sugar cane and mangrove swamps of Cuba and was descending fast as we approached Hispaniola. The dramatic relief was so evident along with the scarred landscape of overexploitation – only the occasional woodland in amongst miles and miles of exposed hilltops. We passed out over the sea before swinging eastwards and I got my first sight of the sprawling urban mass hemmed in by two steep mountain ranges. The plane eased down between all this, heading first inland up the north side of the valley then circling into the centre to land at the airport slap bang in the middle of the valley amongst the urban sprawl – and then we slowly taxied from the far end of the runway back to the terminal.
Airports still have an ability to tense me up; but this one more than most. I always feel the ease to which you reach your final destination from the point of deplaning sets the tone for the whole trip. In Haiti I was determined to get it right, but the instructions were, as usual, open to misinterpretation by several parties. I was to meet a Haitian driver and he was to drive me up to either our hotel or to wherever my colleagues (who had both arrived a couple of days beforehand) were currently having meetings. Sounds simple. But because of security issues at Port au Prince Airport, there is no arrivals area where you can be met and gret, or is it meeted and greeted. Instead you have to head out on to the street and if you want a driver or taxi man to meet you, you must head down a covered walkway. Although I had left the UK summer behind me (albeit a wet and coolish one) the heat of Haiti was heavy. Several taxi drivers tried to persuade me to go with them; I could not see the guy I wanted. I tried to turn on my mobile phone – with roaming charges it would be an expensive phone call but worth it. I scrabbled to enter the number I had for the driver – it did not work. I tried my team leader, Jean Pierre; a deep gravelly voice started talking at me in French. I said my name and I was passed on to our colleague to be, Christophe, who talked in English. Had I seen my driver? Where is he? You need to come to the EU’s office. We shall ring your driver. Moments later I got a phone call from this driver – he was coming. I realised he was the guy in a loose white shirt talking on his mobile – less than ten spaces away. No sign with my name, the name of the taxi firm, the name of the project on; I was just supposed to guess he was the guy I needed.
He hurried me towards his vehicle but despite the best of my intentions I had picked up a porter who was wheeling my bag along. I had to drop him a few dollars. It was then I remembered another problem. A few days before I had been getting money from a travel agent; they had no small notes so I was left with 100 dollar bills and apart from a couple of quarters and nickels no other change. The quick turn around in New York had left me with no change whatsoever. So I had nothing small enough to hand over to my porter. I asked him if he had change – he had none, of course. He told me to give him the 100 dollar bill and he would walk over to the manager of the taxi rank – a few paces away and get the change. Well, I am dumb, was already fatigued by two days of travel, and I often make mistakes on my trips, but no way was I handing over a crisp 100 dollar bill to this guy in the middle of the car park. Reluctantly he went over to the big cheese and you could see the long explanation. He came back …. with about 70 dollars. 30 dollars seemed a lot to carry a bag a couple of hundred metres, but I could see he now had overheads to deal with (loaning money is not cheap in Haiti I realise).
It’s a common rule of thumb these days that I shall spend more on taxis and tips on the first day of a trip than for the rest of the trip combined.